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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Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Featured Text:

“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.