Unity from the Bottom Up

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By Robert Bishop

"Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one." - John 17:11b, ESV

One of the most unique images in the Gospels is that of Jesus giving his final instructions to his disciples in the form of a prayer. He’s not preaching, so much as praying out loud, allowing his followers to eavesdrop. It’s significant that these are among his final words. The revolutionary, who once called his colleagues a “brood of vipers” and who intentionally broke the law to set up a public challenge on its merits, is choosing to summarize his earthly activity as a unity movement.

Unity movements in Christendom, especially American Christendom, have a mixed history at best. We humans are much better at dividing ourselves, and, as it turns out, no amount of yelling “We should get along” into the void makes us any better at getting together. One reason we’re not very good at it is that our calls for unity typically come from the top-down, or they are at least borne out of an us vs. them argument. Those appeals almost always ends up being calls for them to be more like us, rather than the other way around. At their most insidious, exhortations to unify are actually means of perpetuating injustice. Just ask Dr. King.

A good reading of the High Priestly Prayer as recorded in John might point to a Trinitarian understanding of God as community. One might assert, as Stanley Grenz and others do, that the definition of sin is anything that disrupts this community. The interpretative mistake comes when we read the unity prayer in isolation. If we hear Jesus’s words as an exhortation to get in line and get along, we are likely to misuse them to call on each other to end conflict when that conflict is a means to justice and mercy.

Too often, leaders commit the sin of valuing institutional self-preservation over the true Trinitarian vision of harmonious living. The call for unity has been perverted and become a call for conformity and compliance, precisely because it comes from the top. The authoritarians call for unity when they don’t want the boat rocked. This self-preservation instinct, when it is acted upon by ecclesial leaders, for example, may lead to or exacerbate intra-denominational fighting and inter-denominational ignorance.

Jesus often chose the path of divisiveness. He pronounced judgments on those who wielded their authority to substitute acquiescence for true unity. “That they may all be one,” for Jesus, is a call to reformative justice, for there can be no unity as long as one uses their position against another. It is a call that leads to a prophetic voice that cries out for unity from the bottom up and rejects the false choice of polite assent. If we are to reject the temptation to substitute acquiescence for unity, then we must listen for the voices of the voiceless and follow them when they speak.

This post is part of Simple Incarnate 2019. This year we will be using Simple Harmony as a text from which to discuss the messiness that is living in community. With this study there is an Incarnational Group Guide designed for small groups with liturgies based on Philippians 2. This guide corresponds with (but does not duplicate) the Journey Course which is available to individuals. The Journey Course uses Larry Duggins's Simple Harmony along with selected resources to help the participant consider and digest the material. Each week the Wisdom for the Way will offer a capstone reflection tying both the Journey Course and the Group Guide together.

Please note that each piece can be used independently, but use of all three resources (the Incarnational Group Guide, the Journey Course, and the Wisdom for the Way devotionals) provides the fullest experience.