Monday, November 09, 2020

The Privilege of Calling for Unity

In both the lead-up to the election and in the week since, I've been hearing and reading various people calling for unity and greater understanding no matter who wins. Notably, these calls have largely come from white people, for whom the stakes are lower regardless of who our next president will be. 

Calls for unity can be tricky, because they involve a healthy amount of integrity and self-reflection in order to be genuine and effective. Otherwise, the encouragement to be united can be more harmful than healing, more in the service of comfort and maintaining the status quo, rather than the pursuit of a true space where all grow together in mutual understanding, safety, and compassion.
 
Speaking for myself, there are times when I hear a speech or sermon on unity and there is some part of me that responds, “Yes, if only those other people I don’t agree with could hear this and get their act together, we could really begin to accomplish some things!” Maybe you can relate to that kind of reaction. It’s the kind that doesn’t move toward unity because it lacks the recognition that I myself may need to do some soul-searching about my own thoughts and actions in order to achieve it.
 
How often have calls to unity been couched in those with power wanting those without power to fall in line? 

How often has a call to unity been about those whose behavior is exclusionary wanting someone else to hide parts of themselves before they can be included?
 
A movement that seeks to erase difference and in which the powerful ignore the experience of those on the margins may call itself unity, but in practice is something else entirely.
 
When Paul addresses several disparate groups in Romans 14, he has to tread carefully in order to avoid falling into any of the traps of false unity that I have mentioned:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God. 13Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. (Romans 14:1-13)

In this part of his letter, Paul finds himself caught between those who insist on maintaining more strict dietary restrictions and those who believe that their newfound freedom in Christ allows them to eat whatever they want. There are those who want to keep setting aside the special days and festivals of the faith they have known, and those who have no sense of importance reserved for particular times of the year.
 
We in our privilege so many centuries later may look at this argument and wonder what the big deal is. Why get so worked up over food and holidays? Why would this sort of thing be so divisive? 

The answer is in how couched these arguments were in long-held beliefs and practices that reflected culture and identity. To refrain from certain foods and to honor certain days as sacred was to communicate to the larger world something of who they were, and also who they were not in relation to others, especially to the Empire that overshadowed everything.
 
To have such practices minimized would not have sounded like freedom. To have markers of identity and experience rendered unimportant would have been more threatening than welcoming.
 
So what is an apostle trying to keep these people together to do? Rather than take sides of one group over the other, he instead calls for an end to the condemnation between them. There’s a way to be united in the midst of difference, and it involves doing everything in honor of God, whether one’s choice is to abstain or indulge, to observe or refrain from observance. No matter what you do, Paul says, do it for God first and foremost.
 
This still would have been challenging to his audience. It would have taken some openness and a willingness to change one’s perspective to understand that of another. It would have involved those who thought of themselves as “strong” to be more respectful and understanding of the so-called “weak,” and the former giving up of their own felt need for comfort and conformity to live in true community with the latter.
 
Paul seemed to know—and he strove to impart it to his listeners—that real unity takes more than making someone else change for you.

So as the vote count continues and as the anticipation mounts in this in-between time before the inauguration, I would be wary of what calls to unity are really asking people to do. If they come from a desire to downplay the cries of the marginalized and oppressed in order to maintain another's comfort, then it is not true unity. 

But if a call to unity includes a lessening of privilege and a striving to walk alongside others in their struggle, to hear the stories of another, to move in the same direction toward greater peace and justice, then we will be walking on a better, more righteous path together.

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