The Cost of Unity

Post Author: Stephanie Sorge

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.

 ~Philippians 2:1-8


Can’t we all just get along? In the midst of all the turmoil and division in the U.S. and countries around the world, prayers for peace and unity continue. I will always pray for peace and unity. But I’m having more difficulty with the calls for unity, which don’t seem to recognize the costliness of it.

Unity is important; division can destroy. I haven’t kept up with all of the investigations of how Russia may or may not have influenced the U.S. presidential election last year, but the most recent news has captivated me. Russian operatives created and disseminated thousands of ads and fake news stories – on both sides – through social media. The goal was to heighten the divisions between Americans even further, to increase the emotional and visceral reactions, to foment such unrest and hatred internally to tear at the fabric of our democracy. The effort continues, such as with the recent #takeaknee and #standforouranthem social media divides.

Mission accomplished? These campaigns didn’t create the divisions in our nation, but they certainly have fed the beast. As the beast of division and hatred grows, it fuels and amplifies, and even normalizes, the hate speech, threats, and actual violence that we have seen escalating in the United States. The vitriolic hatred and clear threats and actual violence that shook Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 exemplify that beast at work.

I live just over the mountain from Charlottesville. On Saturday, August 12, I responded to the Clergy Call issued by Congregate Charlottesville to be a presence for love and justice, opposing the white supremacist groups that came to rally around the Robert E. Lee statue. Since I was unable to participate in the trainings offered on non-violent direct action, I volunteered offsite at the UVA hospital. I arrived just before the car plowed into the pedestrians on the downtown mall, just before the hospital lobby was transformed into triage. I saw the victims coming in off of stretchers. I spoke and prayed with some of them and with their friends and families waiting for more information. The hate and division were palpable, leading one colleague to wonder if we shouldn’t take spiritual warfare more seriously in the mainline churches.

The author and her husband at the Concert for Charlottesville

The author and her husband at the Concert for Charlottesville

A month later, my very lucky husband won tickets to the Concert for Charlottesville, billed as “An Evening of Music and Unity,” and showcasing top musical acts all coming together for healing and unity. I was a bit conflicted about attending the event. Shouldn’t residents of Charlottesville, and especially people of color, be attending instead of me? My choice to go was one of privilege all around – we had tickets, we were able to budget for paying the high parking costs, the gas to get there. I had a couple in my church offer to watch our kids for free. And though we could have used the money, I was privileged enough to choose to use these tickets rather than scalping them for hundreds of dollars each, which is what many people did. This “free” concert was quite expensive after all.

The vast majority of concert-goers were white, while most of the people of color I saw at the event were working for the event staff, concessions, and security. The privilege was clear. The unity was not. I wore my “Black Lives Matter” shirt, which was alone in a sea of rather typical concert clothing. The musicians spoke about music and unity and coming together. They spoke about reclaiming this idyllic bastion of white progressivism, maybe not in those words, but they were mostly silent on the lines of division. Only the black musicians – especially The Roots, Brittany Howard, and Stevie Wonder – also mentioned the injustice that pervades society on a daily basis. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, there was such a strong reaction to come together and say, “This is not who we are” that I fear we missed an opportunity for critical self-reflection and recognition that this IS who we are. Unity and peace can’t be forced by the dominant culture. The call to unity should not seek to silence the oppressed.

Unity is important. Division can be deadly. But I’ve also seen, too often, calls for unity that attempt to silence the calls for justice. Why can’t we leave race out of things? That’s an easy question to ask when race doesn’t define for you opportunities for equal access to the rights and privileges that we should all enjoy.

As I write this article, our nation is reeling from another mass shooting. We hear the media touting this as the deadliest mass shooting ever, but there were mass shootings in the 19th and 20th centuries that were far deadlier. That these shootings aren’t counted speaks to another injustice: as far as our history books are concerned, mass shootings of black and brown bodies don’t count.

We hear the news, and again, we hear the call to unity and peace. We hear that it is not time to “politicize” tragedy by pushing for sensible gun laws. Those who mention the privilege at work in labeling the shooter as a “lone wolf,” and describing him by his hobby of online poker and appreciation of country music rather than his skin color, religion, or ancestral country, are shamed for stirring a pot when we should all just be united in prayer for the victims.

“Unity” is an innocuous and easy plea for those whose lives aren’t at risk. “Unity” is a plea that the powerful and privileged can make. “Unity” is too often used to silence the voices of dissent, and the voices of prophetic challenge. That unity is cheap, and inauthentic, and we should not be satisfied with it.

Real Unity, on the other hand, is a theological imperative. Paul urges Christians to be of one mind, but more importantly, to have the mind of Christ. Unity isn’t cheap. Unity with God was only achieved by the pouring out of God’s power, the self-emptying of Christ to be united to us. Christian unity requires a pouring out for the powerful and privileged. It requires those who have power and privilege to give it up, and to choose unite to those who are oppressed, marginalized, and voiceless. It requires a unity for justice and peace for all of God’s children.

Christian unity respects our differences, and argues that it is precisely those differences that make us function as one body, as hard as that can be. Christian unity calls for even greater honor to the parts of the body we shame and hide. Christian unity recognizes that we are united, whether we want to be or not, and what hurts one member of the body hurts us all. Christian unity entails humility for the powerful, voice for the marginalized, and justice and peace for all. And until the day when that unity is a reality, when all of God’s children are equally valued and their dignity upheld, we must not be satisfied with unity’s impostor.

The Rev. Stephanie Sorge Wing is a graduate of Kenyon College and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Stephanie is grateful to serve alongside and be cared for by the saints of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her two boys love going to church, where they know beyond doubt that they are loved and welcomed. She has also served churches in Kentucky and North Carolina.

Image by: Stephanie Sorge Wing
Used with permission
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