When Unity is Destructive

Unity

Herb Montgomery | May 27, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“I don’t read this week’s reading as calling for this kind of unity. I don’t read this week’s passage as placing unity as our value of highest priority. It’s a call for unity, yes.  But it’s not a call for unity at all costs.  If we have to choose between unity and harm being done to those our status quo has made vulnerable, then in the name of justice and love and compassion, our highest concern should not be maintaining unity. This kind of unity leaves the status quo unchallenged and unchanged.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:20-26)

I commented a few weeks ago on the various communities represented in the closing chapters of the gospel of John, as well as the effort of the author(s) of this gospel to offer legitimacy to each of them. We encounter a “big tent” approach for the communities that recognize Mary, John, Peter, and Thomas as all valuable parts of the much larger early Jesus community. (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12)

This week, we are meeting once again the desire of the Johannine community that all of the varied communities of those seeking to follow the moral philosophy and teachings of Jesus in those early years, would be one.

I don’t think we need to read into this call for oneness a desire for homogeneity. But that each community, with its varied emphasis and characteristics, to recognize one another as fellow Jesus followers as long as no one’s interpretation of Jesus is doing harm to the vulnerable and those on the undersides of community.  Whether that was accomplished is up for historical debate, but we read in this week’s reading at least that desire being present.

Most scholars of John see this prayer as the Johaninne community’s equivalent of “the Lord’s prayer” in the gospel of Matthew and Luke. This passage also includes some provocative statements regarding the relationship between Jesus and “the Father.”  It is ironic and sad that because of this, this prayer in John’s gospel for oneness was also one of the most significant sources of tension (at best) and harm and murder (at worst) between Christians during the 4th and 5th centuries regarding various beliefs of how Jesus was related to divinity. Much harm has been done around the question of the divinity of the Christ.

On this note briefly, early Christianity wasn’t settled on this question. What mattered most to these early Jesus followers was how folks defined and endeavored to follow the moral philosophy of Jesus. Not whether or not they all agreed to how Jesus was or was not divine.

I think we could learn from this today.  Before Christianity turned creedal, it was far more important how one practiced their Jesus following.  Beliefs were important, but they always held in tension with what fruit those beliefs were actually producing in one’s life. Are your beliefs manifesting themselves in life-giving ways or are your beliefs bearing harm.

This is important.  Today, I’d much rather have folks that are endeavoring to follow the moral philosophy of Jesus of love in their practices both personally and socially, politically, and economically, even if they have doubts and questions on the bigger faith claims of orthodox Christianity, than someone who could check off all the theological boxes on the list, but who weren’t genuinely endeavoring to follow Jesus ethical teachings in their daily lives.

Back to the prayer though.

This prayer remember was written by a community already one generation removed from the first generation of Jesus followers. These were second generation Jesus followers writing this.  And the need to repeatedly call for unity is already being felt.

And all of this leads me to a question about unity.  When is unity life-giving and when is unity death-dealing. Considering the above, one example could be unity over orthodox while ortho-praxy is ignored. This means a greater emphasis is placed on all of us believing the same thing as opposed to desire that we all be unified in our effort to follow a practice (praxy) rooted in life-giving definitions of love.

The creeds themselves can be an example of this kind of harmful unity. Take the Apostle’s creed for example:

I [We] believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

I [We] believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son,

our Lord.

He was conceived by the power

of the Holy Spirit

and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again.

He ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the

Father.

He will come again to judge the living and

the dead.

I [We] believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.

There is a lot here that I find problematic for Jesus followers today, but one of my biggest concerns is right in this section:

Speaking of Jesus, it states,

“conceived by the power

of the Holy Spirit

and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.”

We go from Jesus’ birth directly to his execution.  There are ZERO statements about Jesus’ life and teachings. Zero. And this is for many what defines whether a person is a legitimate Christian or not.  You don’t have to believe anything (much less endeavor to practice) anything regarding Jesus’ teachings if we take the creeds literally.

This is concerning.

I think of other examples of where unity is death-dealing rather than life-giving. I think of how communities that suffer harm and injustice are often called to forgive and reconcile with those who have harmed them while no efforts have been made toward restitution or reparations.

I think of how silence in regards to injustice is called for against those who “speak up for the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3) in the name of not rocking the boat or not causing a stir. Whenever I begin to feel this pressure to remain silent I take some time to go back and reread King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in its entirety.

Here is just a snippet:

“I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows . . . So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”

As someone who shares my social location within our present society, I want to be honest about how deep the temptation is at times to just stay quiet, to not have the energy to rock the boat once again, and to justify that silence by a pretense of concern for “unity.”

Wake up! This is that very “unity” that is indeed death-dealing.

I don’t read this week’s reading as calling for this kind of unity. I don’t read this week’s passage as placing unity as our value of highest priority. It’s a call for unity, yes.  But it’s not a call for unity at all costs.  If we have to choose between unity and harm being done to those our status quo has made vulnerable, then in the name of justice and love and compassion, our highest concern should not be maintaining unity.

This kind of unity leaves the status quo unchallenged and unchanged. And nothing could be further from the spirit of the table flipping Jesus we read of in the gospel stories.

To be a follower of this Jesus (and his ethical teachings of love) means, not to place our highest concern on maintaining unity within an unjust system. It means our highest priority being transforming our present world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, just as we see the Jesus of the gospels modeling in his life.

There is a time for unity. There is also a time for disunity.

May we have the wisdom to know the difference.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share experiences of where you have witnessed both life-giving and destructive expressions of unity with your communities. What are some ways you can foster one and stand up to the other. Discuss as a group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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