This week, instead of a video, I have some text to share with you: three pages from my next book. I’ve been working on this chapter for several weeks, but I think I need your input. I’m using an extended metaphor for institutions — including churches. Please read:
There’s a lot more, of course, but that’s the church metaphor I start with:
Now, here’s the wider context.
I am an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, and the church I now serve as pastor is a part of that denomination. The motto of my denomination is, “That they may all be one.” This is a quotation from the Gospel of John, from a passage known as the Farewell Prayer (John 17:1-26). The UCC got its start back in 1957, when two previous denominations united: the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and the Congregational Christian Churches. And each of those two parent denominations was itself formed from the unions of two grandparent denominations, twenty some years before that. So we’re not just the United Church of Christ — we’re the Uniting Church of Christ, we’re all about uniting, and Jesus’ prayer, that they may all be one, has long been part of our dream.
But personally, I’ve always been a bit conflicted about that motto.
It can be a great thing, unity; it can be a great thing when people can transcend their differences and work together. There’s a feeling of unity, sometimes, in corporate worship. It’s a great feeling to be part of a team, in sports or in business, when that team is really working together and firing on all cylinders. It gives you motivation, and a sense of purpose, to be part of something bigger than yourself.
But on the other hand, people in Nazi Germany had that same sense of motivation, that same sense of being part of something bigger than themselves; and there is a drive for unity behind white power movements like the Klan; and there was a drive for unity behind some of the most evil and intolerant parts of Christian history, like the great inquisitions. Those things are not just historical oddities; they’re so common that I would say they’re typical of the way humankind has expressed the drive for unity. Typically, we seek unity by enforcing conformity, by policing dissidents, and by turning against outsiders. The drive for unity can be totalizing and destructive; it can be just a tool of the basic institutional drive to survive, eat, and grow.
So here’s a problem: unity can be a great good, or a great evil. It can be one of the most uplifting human experiences, or one of the most degrading. And so I’m conflicted about the motto, that they may all be one. It needs careful thought. We need to be very careful about the kind of unity we seek.
In this chapter of the book I am trying to cast a vision — two visions, really. First, I want to cast a cautionary vision about the siphonophoric nature of institutions; second, I want to cast a hopeful vision about a different way to understand Jesus’ prayer, that they may all be one. Not one in race or caste or language; not one in national or political affiliation; not one in church or creed. I don’t think that God desires that any part of our beautiful diversity should be erased. I’ve written a hymn about this, and I’ll share it with you another time.
But now, leave a comment, and tell me something: what kind of unity should we be seeking?