There are folk saying that our nation is more divided today than at any time since the Civil War. Others say that’s not true, or that the divisions of the two times are different. All I know is what it feels like, which is really difficult. Our neighbors, our families, the people on the news or in public institutions—all sit in places where we can find it stressful or even impossible to engage with each other over controversial topics. The stakes feel high, and the potential for cut-off between people always looms large.
Our denomination is experiencing this kind of moment, and it has made me think about the term, “unity.” I know from my experience as a pastor that one of the ways we have maintained unity in the UMC is by not talking about hard things. Many of us tried to make space that was generous and not overtly hurtful to people outside the dominant culture, whatever that meant. But the not-talking approach just held things in place and gave “normal” status to the dominant culture, leaving others who weren’t “normal” to fit in the best they could. That kind of unity upholds the status quo and doesn’t represent the fullness of all the people involved.
This is what some spoke up against at our 2016 General Conference and beyond. They felt that unity was being pushed “at any cost,” and they wanted no part of it. They were afraid their voices and experiences would continue to be plowed under, and I understood that.
At the same time, I remember hoping for unity as something different. I sat on the floor of that General Conference in Portland, Oregon, and wrote a piece on Ephesians 4:
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (vv. 1-6).
I can’t find that thing I wrote then, and it’s probably just as well. But this image of unity is one that hasn’t turned loose of me or of us, thank God. While there are people in and all around our church who are encouraging others to consider disaffiliating from our denomination, most recently through a direct letter campaign to our churches, I want to set before us again the vision of a church where the purpose or fruit of unity is not for its own sake—unity so we can say we’re unified. I believe a church truly unified in the face of diversity of thought or experience is one where people are known and seen, as fully as we can be by other humans, with love as the overarching, motivating principle. The point is not staying together; the point is love, and that’s what leads us to stay together.
I plan to remain United Methodist, not because we’ve always gotten this right, because we haven’t. But in the midst of a world where people who disagree can often barely sit in the same room, I seek to grow my own heart in this kind of love. I dare to believe that there are people with different perspectives who are willing and even desiring to do the holy work of listening and holding the tension of each other’s truth with humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love. I hope we can help each other become that kind of community and invite our neighbors to do the same.
What more might this nation, or our communities, need from the United Methodist Church? Is there a greater gift might we offer to the world?
Unity is a gift of God. Jesus prayed for it on behalf of his friends, right before they scattered and betrayed him (John 17). But it’s not something we will receive by not talking or listening, nor by denying that we are different. Our unity will be built through our decision to practice generous love, empowered by the one who is above all and through all and in all.
Grace and peace,