Jesus prayed that his church would be one. Paul decried divisions in the church. The Psalmist reflected on how good and pleasant it is when kindred lived in unity. We are a long way from realizing this vision.
Years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr made the point clearly:
“Denominationalism in the Christian church is such an unacknowledged hypocrisy…. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society…. The division of the churches closely follows the division of men into the castes of national, racial, and economic groups. It draws the color line in the church of God; … it seats the rich and poor apart at the table of the Lord, where the fortunate may enjoy the bounty they have provided while the other feed upon the crusts their poverty affords.”
What does unity mean? Does it mean that everyone is the same? Does unity mean that everyone marches in lockstep? Does it mean everyone agrees on everything? Does unity mean drumming out difference and diversity?
Sadly, sometimes it does. Liberation theologians have reminded us that insisting on unity leads to hierarchical systems of domination. The Pax Romana was a kind of leveraged unity. Demanding everyone get in line with the dictator or the leader, or else, is not unity. It is tyranny.
When the church has insisted on unity, history shows, it has tended to push out those on the margins. In those eras, the church modeled itself after empire.
In our denomination, unity can take that imperial form, but more often is often achieved by demanding theological or confessional allegiance, or aligning with Eurocentric models of organization, ecclesiology, theology, liturgy, and so forth. We think we are lifting up the right, pure theology and ecclesiology, when it is actually European theology and ecclesiology we are centering.
In many ways, this represents the challenge we face in the church today, and in particular my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The problem with a monochromatic church is it becomes difficult to recognize what realities in the church are cultural and which are evangelical (that is, centered on the gospel. A one-dimensional church proclaims a one-dimensional gospel. How do we create an inclusive, cohesive church without whitewashing diversity? We have not, as the results confirm, but fortunately, the Christian tradition has plenty of examples to show us the way.
Unity without sacrificing diversity looks like hybridity. Hybridity dismantles hegemony. The incarnation, at the very center of our faith, leads the way. Jesus is truly God and truly human. His humanity does not sacrifice his divinity, nor does his divinity sacrifice his humanity. God demonstrates the ultimate self-emptying dynamic of divinity, one that is that is foreign to Roman theology, by taking on the form of a human slave (Philippians 2). This theology of the cross subverts theologies of supremacy and domination. It can be our guide as we consider the unity of the church. God reveals the greatest truth of existence by entering into solidarity with the lowest form of life in the Roman Empire: slaves. This is the essence of Christlike community. If we are going to have unity, Christian unity, it can only be predicated on our identification with the least of these – those on the margins.
Virgilio Elizondo has helped us understand the hybridity of Jesus’ earthly identity. He was from Galilee, a crossroads of nations and trade routes, a part of the country where Jews had intermarried with Gentiles. As a Galilean he had an identifiable accent. Like a mestizo, he was looked down upon by those of purer ancestry. This is often where God moves: in the margins. Are we willing to go there, or will we demand to be the center?
The day of Pentecost provides another an example of unity in the midst of diversity. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh as Joel promised: men and women, young and old. No one has a monopoly. People gathered from all over the world find a unity of the Spirit that transcends their national differences. It happens in the intersection of culture. It happens in hybridity. Counterintuitively, we will not find the illusive, underlying, mystical unity of the Spirit until we find a way to embrace the full diversity of the body of Christ. The way will be in engaging those on the margins.
Additionally, Trinity Sunday offers us a window into the divine. The Chalcedonian formula proclaims one God in three persons. One God, homousios, without sacrificing any of the three persons. The Godhead is a community of unity within diversity. The Trinity models diverse communal leadership.
The apostle Paul experiences this diversity in the hybridity of living in Jewish and Gentile worlds. He proclaims a unity of all who are “in Christ” regardless of their ancestry, dietary laws, or even religious practices as sacred as circumcision. Unity is not dependent on language, worship patterns, or even God-language. When in Athens, Paul identifies one of their gods, the unknown god, and introduces that god as the crucified one. Vítor Westhelle says, “Behold, the hybrid God.”
It is admirable and even desirable that the bishops want to speak with one voice. The challenge is, that voice is often the same mainstream voice that sidelines subaltern peoples, theologies, and ways of thinking. We can find ways to speak with one voice, but whose voice? The bishops’ voices? No, it must be the voice of the hungry, the immigrant, the despised, and the disabled. To do this, we will need to put those voices at the front of the room and the front of our agenda, as the priority of our work. Our mission will be to find Christ in the other, where he has promised to be (Matthew 25:35-45).
For Niebuhr, unity was not uniformity. It was rich and poor at the same table, which requires commitment and a significant amount of latitude. We can do this. It is within reach if we are willing to make it our North Star. We will need to focus on the marginalized rather than the territorial disputes and polemics of Northern Europe in 16th century. We will need to immerse ourselves in the lives of immigrants, refugees, those with disabilities, and any who are despised and rejected by the world over the loud, angry powerbrokers threatening to withhold their offerings if we do not uphold the status quo from which they are benefitting. We can make this ontological shift. We absolutely can, and must. Until we do, all our attempts to forge unity will really be forging uniformity, which will inevitably result in expressions of supremacy, domination and tyranny.