Ever since President Biden implored the nation to join him in seeking it in his inaugural address on January 20, it is the new “buzz word.” Ironically, “unity” and what it looks like has now itself become a point of disagreement, among politicians and in wider conversation. We can’t even seem to agree on what unity means or what it requires of us! In other words, there doesn’t seem to be much progress on the unity front.
President Biden knew his call for unity was both an imperative and a gigantic leap. He spoke the words against the backdrop of our nation’s Capitol, where just two weeks prior a mob had violently stormed the doors, terrifying those inside and leaving five people dead. That day was unimaginable to most of us, but as stunning as it was it should not have been entirely a surprise. The deep cultural, political, and religious divides in our country have become increasingly more entrenched and stark for years.
I don’t know how or if politicians, either in Washington, D.C. or even here in Minnesota, will find a path to anything resembling unity. What I do know is that a call to unity is something people of faith cannot simply dismiss.
The Epistles of our sacred scriptures are full of language calling the earliest Christians to a new kind of relationship. Those letters were written to communities equally divided by bitter disagreement and strife. They argued about who was welcome and who was not, struggled with what the culture would permit and what it forbade, and disagreed about what defined “truth” in their time. (Sound familiar?) And yet Paul and others who wrote the letters consistently reminded those communities that Christ’s bold, saving love had “broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14) and appealed to believers to be “united in the same mind and purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Jesus taught in word and in deed, again and again, that love of neighbor was a nonnegotiable of our faith. His ministry constantly broke through barriers, invited difficult conversations, and encouraged a way of living that defied traditional divides of culture and belief. In the Gospel of John, in his impassioned farewell discourse, Jesus prayed:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17: 20-23)
That prayer, that all may be one, guided our own origins as the United Church of Christ in the 1950’s, and remains our scriptural anchor as a “united and uniting” church. The impulse to strive for unity is undeniably part of our institutional DNA.
That is not to say that we are always united in thought and purpose in the United Church of Christ. To the contrary, the merging of the Evangelical & Reformed and the Congregational Christian traditions at our conception in 1957 was fraught with its own significant disagreements. And in every generation of the UCC since then, we have continued to encounter conflict internally and externally. In the Minnesota Conference UCC, we experience our own divides, sometimes centered on social justice issues, or significant decisions like selling our camp property, or the chasm many observe between our metro and greater Minnesota churches.
Despite all of this, the UCC’s collective yearning in every setting of our life together is for a spirit of unity. When we became the United Church of Christ in 1957 we understood our work of unity-building was not done. We covenanted to continue that ministry of building the unity of Christ’s Church and to strive for a vision of a world where all God’s children were united in a common cause of justice, peace, and inclusivity.
This moment in our nation’s history calls on us to lean heavily into our own stated commitment to be a “united and uniting” Church. I believe to the depths of my soul that the Church, and we in the United Church of Christ, have an important and vital role to play in weaving this divided country back together. What we model in our own life together, and what we invite in our communities, matters deeply.
What would participating in the work to build unity look like? Some thoughts to guide us:
- Unity is not unanimity. Engaging in this work does not require us to have unanimous agreement on every subject. But we can agree to disagree without wishing harm on those who think differently than we do. Diversity of thought and experience can actually be a strength and a gift if we can hold those tensions in a space of mutual love and respect.
- Seeking unity does not require us to compromise our deeply held values or silence our thirst for justice. Sometimes, calls for unity are really an attempt to maintain the status quo or silence voices that are making us uncomfortable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can bring both our passion for truth and justice and a heart for unity and relationship.
- Listening is essential. Nobody comes to their views in a vacuum. How we think and how we act is shaped by our experiences, our fears, our hopes, our griefs. We have to learn how to truly listen to one another, not always for the sake of finding agreement, but listening to understand what lies beneath another’s words & actions.
- Staying at the table is essential. Whether it’s in our church life, in our communities, or in our nation, we’ll never achieve anything remotely close to unity if we don’t make the choice to stay engaged in the tough conversations. It’s tempting when the going gets rough to disengage. And there will be times when we do need to take a break to center our spirits and take a deep breath. But ultimately we have to be willing to stay at the table, do the hard work, and commit to creating something new, something better every day. We have to want unity enough to actually labor for it.
Over the next months and years, the Minnesota Conference UCC will be creating a variety of spaces and opportunities for us to engage in the spiritual task of building unity. Our aim will be to demonstrate the practices of building unity in our own life together in the Conference, and to model those practices for the communities where we live. Together we will choose to be a small part of the healing this country so desperately needs. We will live our way into the fervent prayer of Jesus, that all may be one. And we will honor by doing so our own denominational commitment to be a united and uniting church whose work is never complete but always calls us to faithfulness in the striving.
If you have ideas about how we can engage in this important work together, feel free to reach out to me and share them. I look forward to hearing from you.
Grace and peace,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister