What Is Unity?

Unity can elude us if we mistake it for its counterfeits.

supermacro_ropeWhen I read Psalm 133, I can feel my heart skip.

How very good and pleasant it is

            when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,

            running down upon the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

            running down over the collar of his robe.

It is like the dew of Hermon,

            which falls on the mountains of Zion.

For there the Lord ordained his blessing

            life forevermore.

Here is a noble vision of living. Men and women, brothers and sisters, all nations and tribes living in harmony.

But if we try to put flesh on the vision, we run up against a serious obstacle. Common ways of understanding what constitutes unity work against its realization, because there are a number of counterfeits.

One Common Counterfeit

One such counterfeit, in my opinion, is the common tendency to equate unity with uniformity. Let us become one by all of us conforming to a common standard, whether that be in practices, values, or beliefs. Sameness then becomes the key to harmony. Where there are no differences, there will be no conflict.

One tactic for achieving this sameness is a policy of elimination. We achieve uniformity by eliminating any non-conformists, the different others. Soft ways of doing that can involve shaming non-conformists into conformity with the majority. I saw this practiced often in the high schools I attended.

But there are much more pernicious ways of eliminating the differing others. We call them ethnic, religious, or social cleansing, or genocide. We have many frightening examples from the 20th century. I cite the Turkish genocide of Armenians, the Nazi genocide of Jews, the Soviet elimination of the “bourgeoisie,” the various forms of ethnic cleansing practiced in the Balkan wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, and finally in our day, the policies of terror practiced by ISIS against what they regard as unbelievers. All of these examples seek to unite their societies by eliminating the undesirable other.

Such policies establish no lasting unity. Rather they trigger war and civil strife, the opposite of the peace unity is expected to deliver.

Another way of achieving uniformity is to assimilate minorities into the culture of the dominant group in society. If you want to live in peace, you adopt and live by the standards and practices approved by that dominant group. One of my favorite examples is how Celtic Christianity in early medieval Europe was assimilated into the world of Roman Catholicism by unrelenting pressure on Celtic Christians to adopt Roman practices and attitudes.

Achieving unity by uniformity always involves some form of an imperialist spirit. The dominant social group sets the standards; all others are expected to conform to them. This was sometimes the complaint heard among some blacks during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. They complained that whites assumed integration meant blacks would assimilate to the standards of white society. That assumption involved an unconscious expectation that integration would erase a distinctly black culture and identity.

Such an imperialist approach to achieving unity always evokes resentment, bitterness, and defiance. Distinct identities are denied.

A Second Counterfeit

Another counterfeit way to achieve unity is by fusion. All the distinct identities within a society are brought together into some kind of social or psychological melting pot. From that pot emerges a new, common identity that includes all the distinct identities that existed before, but they have now each lost their distinctness as they have come to be absorbed into the one common identity.

Here the image that comes to mind is the process of making steel. The various ingredients that make up steel–iron ore, magnesium, nickel, chromium, carbon, or other elements–are melted down in the smelting furnace and fused together to make the new metal. The steel is strong as a result, but it no longer preserves the elements as distinct entities that make it up.

Fusion can achieve a strong unity but at the high price of erasing all individuality. The common myth in the early 20th century was that America was a melting pot in which all national identities would be fused into one, new American identity. To some degree that has been true. But Americans have still stubbornly retained their dual identities as Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans, Polish-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc. Individuality refuses to be erased.

A More Promising Image of Unity

If these ways of understanding unity are counterfeit, then how are we to understand unity? That question has long troubled my thinking.

What has emerged for me is that I think of a braided rope as the image that best helps me understand what constitutes true, or least truer, unity. A good strong rope can be made up of several strands of individual fiber that are braided together. Together they create one rope and a stronger rope than any individual strand can be by itself. Yet in the braiding each individual strand remains distinct. No strand loses its individual identity by erasure or fusion. One can say the rope is one, but it is also many.

In this kind of unity, individual identities-–whether of individual persons or social groups-–are preserved and respected. Yet through the interweaving interactions between persons and groups, a oneness is created that exceeds in strength anything one single person or group can achieve alone. This is the kind of unity that stands the best chance of creating an enduring peace. Individuality is preserved, but all individualities work together for the benefit and welfare of all.

We see this kind of unity exemplified in healthy, happy marriages. Both partners retain their individuality, but blend their lives together into something that feels like oneness. The Bible refers to this unity in marriage as “becoming one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

God as Triune–Paradigm of Unity

It may surprise many, but I find the great paradigm for this kind of unity in the Christian understanding of God as triune. The doctrine of the Trinity does not see God as a solitary monad living in sublime isolation. Rather the Godhead consists fundamentally of relationship, a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always existing in dynamic relationship to one another.

The unity of the Godhead is not a unity grounded in either uniformity or fusion. The three persons-–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–remain eternally distinct from one another. Yet they constitute one God, a God whose unity expresses itself in a constant, eternal giving and receiving of one’s self to the others. At its heart then, unity is grounded in love.

In the Trinitarian model of love, individuality is preserved and respected. Yet the three work with one purpose, one act, and one will. The process of eternal love results in a oneness in essence.

In an age of profound disunities and conflict, maybe it is fortuitous that we are also witnessing a deep re-appreciation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in many church circles. It is the model of unity that we have been desperately searching for.

A Note: One of the most profound re-appreciations of the doctrine of the Trinity in recent decades is Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, first published in 1991. The book is heavy slogging for someone without a theological education, but it is superb in discussing some of the practical implications of the doctrine for Christian living. It has influenced my thinking deeply.

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Compassion Turns into Defiance

Opposition to Pharaoh begins where he least expects it: in his own family.

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When we begin reading the book of Exodus, we encounter an Egyptian king who is determined to eradicate the Israelites. His method: the killing of all newborn Israelite boys.

He orders the Hebrew midwives to carry out this policy. They undermine it by practicing subterfuge on Pharaoh. We are not surprised; they are after all Israelites themselves. We do not expect them to be party to the destruction of their own people.

What we don’t expect is opposition to Pharaoh arising within his own royal court. But that is what we find when we read on.

As chapter 2 begins, an Israelite couple gives birth to a son. (He will grow up to be Moses.) The mother hides him for three months. When she can no longer safely do so, she adopts a bold, risky tactic. She creates a waterproof basket, places her son in it, and sets the basket adrift among the reeds lining the Nile River. It’s risky because she seems to entrust her son’s life to chance. In the perspective of the author of Exodus, however, she is really unknowingly giving her son over to a divine plan.

The daughter of Pharaoh comes to the river to bathe. She sees the basket, hears the baby’s cries, and, the text says, “she took pity upon him,” even though she realizes it is a Hebrew child. That’s the remarkable thing about this princess. Despite her high station, she possesses a heart of compassion.

She adopts the baby as her own son and raises him in the palace. But in so doing, she must defy her own father. His policy is to destroy the Israelites; her compassion moves her to save one. Of course, she plants the dragon seed that will grow and mature into the formidable leader who will ultimately thwart her father and destroy his carefully nurtured plans.

It is easy to appreciate the courage of Moses’ mother. She risks all when she places her son in the basket and sets him afloat on the river. We seldom appreciate the equal courage of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The text does not tell us whether Pharaoh ever knew what his daughter was doing. Does she keep Moses’ origin a secret from her father? If so, she practices deceit on her father. Or does her father know, but make an exception for this child because of his special attachment to his daughter? If the latter, then we find Pharaoh, despite his fierce resolution, is at heart a double-minded man. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Whatever the case, in exercising compassion, Pharaoh’s daughter in effect defies her father just as much as the midwives and Moses’ mother.

We see in this story how the unfolding of God’s plan depends in part upon the courage of two women. Small acts of compassion can have major consequences. I find that a thought-provoking take on the Exodus’ story of liberation.

A Note:

This insight into the Pharaoh’s daughter is not original to me. I first encountered it in a Krista Tippett interview of Avivah Zornberg on Tippett’s PBS program On Being. Zornberg draws upon the understanding of Pharaoh’s daughter that we find in the Jewish midrashic tradition. The interview is well worth listening to.

Image by Gustave Doré.

Peter Follows Jesus on a Downward Road

What appears to be a throw-away line in the Biblical text is not.

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A mosaic image of the apostle Peter in the Church of the Chora in Istanbul.

Sometimes we read a something in a Biblical text that strikes us as a throw-away sentence. Upon a closer inspection we realize it is loaded with meaning.

An example is the sentence in the Book of Acts that ends chapter 9. The paragraphs that precede it describe the travels of the apostle Peter around Judea. He visits the town of Lydda. There he heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas. Then he goes to Joppa where he raises the recently deceased Tabitha from the dead.

It is at the end of this last story that the author states: Meanwhile he [Peter] stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner [Acts 9:43]. We may just skip over this sentence, believing it is just a filler to help bridge the text over to the next story. We feel we have no reason to care where Peter finds accommodations.

But Luke does tell us this, adding that Simon is a tanner. That little detail is what makes this whole sentence suddenly come alive. In first-century Jewish society, tanners were considered ritually unclean. Pious Jews, therefore, would generally avoid contact with tanners, because it would threaten their own purity. Simon the tanner was on the outskirts of both polite Jewish society and the Jewish religious community.

Yet Luke tells us that Peter chose to dwell with Simon while he was in Joppa. That is a bit surprising. It meant that Peter, the respected leader of this new Christian movement, was running the risk of incurring ritual impurity by staying with a participant in this despised craft.

In that little detail we begin to see how corrosive is the impact of this new Christian movement on the traditional ideas of Jewish purity and impurity. Peter is crossing over the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out in the religious community. Furthermore he seems to be walking a downward road, downward in terms of his own social and religious status. How can a respected spiritual leader act like this?

Jesus sets the example

Peter could respond, of course, that he is following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus, too, notoriously crossed over those boundaries. Jesus welcomed and touched lepers. He placed his hands on the dead son of the widow of Nain. He received tax collectors and prostitutes and extended forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery. The gospels make a point of telling us that Jesus often touched such people, creating direct contact with them.

Jesus overturned the Jewish laws on food purity when he announced to his disciples that nothing they ate could defile them. Instead what does defile them is what comes out of them in behaviors like fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, deceit, envy, slander, pride [Mark 7:17-23].

Jesus set the example. The book of Acts shows us how in baby step after baby step, the new Christian movement began live out this new spiritual stance. We see how the Christian movement came to embrace both Aramaic- and Greek-speaking Jews. Then it starts to welcome into the community outsiders like the new Samaritan believers, the Ethiopian eunuch, and now Simon the tanner.

All this is working up to the great and momentous moment, described in Acts 10, when Peter preaches the gospel to the Gentile centurion Cornelius and his family, and the Holy Spirit descends upon these new believers. This is Jewish Christians opening their spiritual arms to the ultimate outsider, the Gentiles. That will change the character and direction of the Christian movement forever.

Significantly it is the story of Cornelius that will follow immediately upon the sentence: Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

 Peter shows that he already has the open heart and mind that prepares him for the momentous vision that follows in Acts 10:9-16. In this vision, Peter is told to rise, kill, and eat a variety of animals unclean by traditional Jewish standards. Peter protests that he has never eaten anything profane and unclean. But the voice in the dream responds, What God has made clean, you must not profane [Acts10:15].

Given this context, the stray sentence about Peter staying with Simon, the tanner, explodes with meaning.

This is the movement of Christianity at its best: welcoming the outsider into the community of faith as an equal with the already established believers. When Christians practice a closed-door policy over whom they will let in and whom not, they betray their heritage received from Jesus and his apostles.