In this year of heightened political tensions in the U.S., the subject of unity has been weighing heavily on my mind. Unity sometimes seems like a pie-in-the-sky concept. Is it even attainable?
Differences of belief in political and religious matters are well known obstacles to unity. That fact is more obvious during any presidential election year, but I don’t remember a more contentious election environment than this one.
Speaking from the perspective of a Christian minister to people of varying political persuasions, I truly dislike the current political climate and all the rhetoric. I don’t like the fact that political issues often undermine unity within congregations. Perhaps it is no coincidence that churches are experiencing increased tension and disunity at this time, too. Having served in churches for the past 20 years as a staff member and having been involved in church life for 90% of my time on earth, I can say that congregational unity is incredibly difficult to achieve in any long-term way. But, imagine how difficult it would be for us to manage unity within, say, TWO congregations. Then, following that line of thinking to its end, imagine unity among all followers of Jesus everywhere. Sounds impossible, eh?
It may sound impossible to maintain such radical unity, but disunity was not Jesus’ desire for us, the Church.
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be [one in us], so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21, NRSV)
I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. (John 17:20-21, The Message)
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was extended beyond their time in history. He prayed also for those of us who would believe based on witnesses who have continued to carry the story and traditions of our faith throughout history. Beyond us, Jesus’ prayer for unity extends to all believers of all eras.
“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind.”
Any Church-lover will tell you that the Church (universal) is in a state of transition. It is my personal belief that the transition is not toward anything destructive, but is instead a transition toward unity. In the midst of all of our current denominationalism, “worship wars,” tensions between small churches and mega-congregations and other divisions based on personal preferences and interpretations, I believe that God is impressing upon the Church our goal toward unity.
If dividing ourselves into like-minded groups of people (by way of differing denominations of believers) was something believers did to achieve some measure of unity, then why hasn’t it worked? Why doesn’t unity automatically happen in a group of (supposedly) like-minded people? My opinion is that denominationalism hasn’t worked in attaining unity because it is not Jesus’ desire for the Church.
We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together toward a common goal.
A key word in this picture of unity is “respect.” This one very important virtue is sorely lacking in our society. Spending a very short time reading through online comments – related to just about ANYTHING – will demonstrate just how comfortable many of us have become with disrespecting others. Yet, we witness daily how quickly disrespect can escalate into something more violent. In order to understand what makes another person feel respected or disrespected, we must genuinely care about him or her. Once we are made aware of something we are doing that is considered disrespectful, then we have to stop doing it. Married couples learn to maintain unity this way … or they don’t remain married. Some families are able to maintain unity while respecting each other’s differences. It requires a commitment to stay together in peaceful times but also through conflict. Our commitment to unity rarely goes beyond the nuclear family, but we must extend that commitment into our church community. It’s a commitment based in love – love that unites God, others and self.
During this Holy Week, the faithful will reflect on the tensions Jesus holds together between love and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness, death and new life. May we also reflect on the prayer of Jesus for us and our calling toward oneness of heart and mind, even in the midst of our intense diversity.