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.

Parental Discretion Required: The Story of Noah

Scripture text: Genesis 6-9


People think the story of Noah and his ark is a cute children’s story. We retell it in illustrated children’s books. We make toys of the ark and its collection of animals.

I find the story of Noah, however, to be one of the scariest in the whole Bible. We should think twice—or maybe three or four times—before reading it to young children.

The story tells of an effort by God to scrub the earth of evil through a catastrophic flood. God wipes out all mankind, except for the righteous Noah and the seven members of his family.

When we think clear-headedly about this story, we are reading about an act of global genocide. God literally wipes out all humanity, except for a very minute chosen few. Other acts of genocide in human history pale by comparison.

So you want to read this story to your children? If children are already scared about powerful forces that affect their lives, forces they cannot control, do we want them to think that God caps them all? No, the story of Noah’s flood is not simple child’s fare.

So why is this story in the Bible anyway? How does it square with standard Christian teaching that God is a God of unconditional love? I’ve been asking myself that question ever since the full import of the story hit me some years ago.

Here’s the answer I’ve come to for myself. First, I don’t read the story as a historical account. If the story has its origin in some historic flood in the ancient world, that historic event has been clothed in the mists of myth. The story was clearly a myth in the world of ancient Sumer. There the Hebrew writers probably first encountered it.

But that brings us back to the first question. Why do the Hebrew writers include this story in the book of Genesis? What does it contribute to the Bible’s whole story?

To start, we must note the prelude to the story. In Genesis 6:11-12, the text says: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.”

God sees how the good earth that God created has been defaced and defiled by the violence of human beings. He determines to cleanse the earth by removing all the evil human beings who have been responsible for that corrupting violence.

God’s solution to the evil of human beings is to literally cleanse the earth of these evil beings through a massive extermination. Then maybe peace and wellbeing can be restored to the globe. And so comes the great flood, a kind of universal bath to scrub away evil.

But this massive bath does not cleanse the world of evil. When the survivors emerge out of the ark, the text (Genesis 8:21) quotes God as saying, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Consequently God transforms the bow of destruction into the rainbow of blessing.

God seems to learn that the root of human evil lies in the human heart. It cannot be eliminated, therefore, by any form of literal extermination. The solution to the evil of the human heart must be a transformation of that heart.

And so Genesis leads us forward to chapter 12 where God calls Abram out of Ur to follow God’s call by faith. We are launched into the Bible’s grand story of redemption, which for Christians culminates in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

The telling of the story of Noah’s flood then becomes the way that the Biblical story recognizes the vanity of all forms of social cleansing.

Stalin and the Communists sought to cleanse the world of the evil bourgeois capitalists and the kulak farmers. The Nazis sought to cleanse the world of the evil Jews, gypsies, and misfits. The Hutus sought to cleanse their country of the evil Tutsis. The Serbian Christians sought to cleanse their world of the Bosnian Muslims. Shiite and Sunni Muslims try to cleanse the respective societies of the other religious tradition. And so it goes in historic example after example.

Sometimes we ask why doesn’t God intervene into the world and sweep away all evil people in one swath of his sickle of judgment. Let the righteous prevail. But the story of Noah’s flood suggests that such radical acts of judgment, such acts of genocide, are never the solution to evil, even if God is the one doing it.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the myth-clouded story of Noah’s flood is telling us something literal about how God learns a lesson. But it does have a theological lesson to teach us. And that is that if social cleansing does not work for God, it will not work for human beings either.

No form of social cleansing addresses the real source of evil, the evil that resides in the human heart. An alternate solution must be found. That alternate solution is, in my view, the real story of the Bible.