What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Unity

Everyone is talking about unity. If you watched the impeachment proceedings yesterday, you heard it on repeat. The argument went like this:

Impeachment isn’t good because it will further divide us. Division is bad. We need to be united.

Many critique these calls, and I believe rightly so. After all, in the middle of these calls for unity were redundant, partisan, divisive statements which flew in the face of those same calls. It came across not only intellectually inconsistent, but (at times, at least) blatantly hypocritical.

And that’s when it occurred to me that no one was actually talking about unity. Not really.

They were talking about something else.

If you think unity talk in political life is harrowing, you should hear it in the Church. From personal experience, I know what it is like to live in a context that advocates for unity publicly while (in my case, specifically) being told that if I disagreed out loud with church leaders I was being divisive. I have been told that if I didn’t agree with church leaders on (non-Gospel, mind you) issues that I should go work elsewhere. I was sued once by a church and their pastor for questioning how they handled sexual abuse allegations. All while unity was a key talking point.

In response, I admit, I laid pretty low. I never told anyone the full truth about all those things. I left churches quietly and wiggled out of lawsuits without countersuing. Why? In part, because I was striving for the unity I’d been taught to strive for. I “didn’t want to damage the reputation of the Bride of Christ.” I thought I was being humble. I didn’t want to make a stink. Etcetera.

But I wasn’t pursuing unity at all. Not real unity. And neither are our politicians who are calling for it now.

In my experience, such appeals are calls for homogeneity, not unity; calm, not peace. We demand agreement, not cooperation. Far too often it is sameness we seek, not solidarity.

We just call it unity because we know it sounds better.

My churches did not want me to link arms with them in spite of our differences, they wanted my full assent and agreement to the opinions who were in charge, or they wanted me to leave (or at least be quiet).

Most of our Representatives do not want to link arms and work together across party lines, they want to “de-escalate” and bring calm in the wake of riotous times. But de-escalating is not how you get unity. It is how you get calm.

They don’t want to work together across the ideological divide (which would be true unity), they want agreement from the opposing side, or, at least, for them to be quiet about their disagreement. That would bring the much-needed calm they crave, but it would not produce unity.

Many are underscoring this, from the faith angle as well as in politics:

“I deeply believe Christ calls us to unity and I so want it. But calls to unity without serious regard for what broke us to pieces is like pouring fresh concrete over a collapsed bridge,” argues Christian author and teacher Beth Moore

“There is no unity without truth, justice and constitutional order,” asserts former presidential candidate Evan McMullin

By nature, I am a conflict avoidant person. It makes me cringe. I did not like it when I got in trouble as a kid. I wanted my parents to be pleased with me. I rarely found trouble in school. When coaches yelled at me it sometimes made me cry. I do not like arguing with my wife. I do not like disciplining my kids. I would rather just nod my head and go along with whatever you say and avoid any friction between us.

Can’t we all be friends? Sing “We Are The World” or “Kumbaya?”

So many who are now calling for this kind of togetherness have spent much of the last four years stoking the flames of the division they presently wish to extinguish. Often, those who light the match and pour the gasoline are the ones appealing for unity once they have an inferno on their hands. One of my old bosses would isolate, not communicate with us, drop difficult assignments on us at the last minute, talk bad about the staff from the pulpit, and disregard congregants with concerns. And when we would bring it up with him, we were the divisive ones. On another occasion, I was labeled insubordinate for relentlessly asking if we would address the ongoing refugee crisis. I was told no because, “no matter what we say it will only anger half the church.”

They said they wanted unity, but acknowledged that we already had invisible division and the true goal was to keep everyone calm.

No need to unnecessarily ruffle feathers.

But what about when we need to ruffle feathers? What if it’s not unity we need? Not yet, anyway? When cries for unity precede the hard work of justice, righteousness, and fairness they aren’t appeals for unity at all.

Calm, maybe.

Silence, perhaps.

But not unity.

The best I can tell, we are all unified on one point already — that there needs to be change. So perhaps the words of novelist James Baldwin — which I was reminded of recently during my church’s online Vespers service — are something we should take to heart. There is no skirting around these difficult issues. There are no cheap substitutes for true peace. The only way through it is through it.

Baldwin puts it this way, and he’s right:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 

I believe it’s time we face the fact that when we say “unity,” we don’t mean it.

And until we face the roots of our division, we’ll never achieve the solution we seek. Instead we’ll soothe ourselves with cheap substitutes that trick us into thinking we’re better off than we actually are.