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Unity for its own sake not enough to bring us together

Unity for its own sake not enough to bring us together

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Jesus prays “that they may all be one.” This prayer is found in Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, where Jesus explains to his disciples that he will soon be taken from them. That prayerfully expressed desire, that they may all be one, is a mantra of the denomination I serve, the United Church of Christ. As we strive to be a united and uniting church in the UCC, we consistently return to that prayer for oneness to guide our vision and mission in witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has stoked cries for unity. However, there is a difference between being unified as American citizens and being one as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, which Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community — the creation of which, he said, “will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Jesus’ prayer wasn’t concerned with the preservation of normalcy and acquiescence to that status quo; it yearned for the culmination of God’s peaceable kingdom, where all of creation is bonded unto itself by faith, hope and love. That vision — of faith in a world where all people are in right relationship with one another, of hope in a society steered and strengthened by compassionate neighborliness and humble servanthood, and of love for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from — asks for more than passive peace. It asks that we change.

Unity asks that we cool our collective jets and focus on getting back to normal to bridge the divisions in our country. That has merit, but focusing on one thing as a means of remaining silent about deeply embedded ideologies that make neighbors into enemies is a perpetual obstruction to the oneness for which Jesus prayed. A mob erected gallows on federal property, complete with a noose, reminiscent of post-Reconstruction era lynching. A man stormed the capitol wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt, prompting one Jewish man to share his traumatized testimony on Twitter about how that xenophobic ideology “deprived me of virtually all of my extended family.” A prayer for oneness discerns that to dismissively suggest that addressing our history of white supremacy, racism and Christian nationalism won’t help unify our country placates the idol of unity over the sacredness of humanity.

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays this month, the Lincoln Center is hosting online Bible studies, free and open to the public, that unpack the scriptures that informed Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. This week’s study examined King’s concept of a “world house,” where he said, “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

An inclusive, peaceable world house is the embodiment of Jesus’ prayer, that they may all be one. And the “somehow,” the means of reaching that oneness, was proposed by the study’s facilitator, the Rev. Eleanor Colvin, pastor of First United Methodist Church of College Station. Colvin suggested that to establish an inclusive, peaceable world house, we must lament, repent and repair. To reach the vision of faith, hope and love, we must take up the mission of lamenting the sinful injustices of our past, repenting from the hateful ideologies that caused and allowed them to happen and working to repair the damage done by them. By this vision and mission, we may all be one.

Take, for example, this overlooked historical moment. On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating enslaved people in Washington, D.C. However, to ease the slaveowners’ pain, the government then paid those loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person freed; $8,000 in today’s money given in reparations not to enslaved African Americans, but to those upset that they could no longer enslave them.

That compensation clause was made to preserve unity. It sent the clear message that property was more important than people, that appeasing anger was more important than elevating humanity. That’s who we were. It’s an unaddressed piece of who we are. It’s what we are called to lament with fearless honesty, to repent from with courageous confession, and to repair with qualitative changes in our souls, and quantitative changes in our lives. That mission starts with Jesus’ prayer, that we may all be one. From that prayer comes the unity our restless hearts truly need.

If this work sounds daunting, think of something you can do with the gifts God gave you to achieve the inclusive, peaceable world house. In our Bible study, we were asked to complete the prompt, “I hope to repair the world house by ...” Some of the responses were, “learning more about racism and white supremacy,” “not shying away from tough conversations,” “serving others,” “working with children” and even, “baking cookies for strangers.” Whatever it is, we can all do something that we may all be one.

The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.

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