I watched the Presidential Inauguration on January 20th like many other people. I was curious to see what tone the new president would be setting.
I heard the word “unity” used a lot. It’s a great theme in theory. And the message was needed considering how un-united the nation is right now.
And then I heard complaints from opponents of the new President saying that he lied about wanting to be united for a variety of reasons.
I’m not interested in getting bogged down in the partisan semantics about the term unity. It’s essentially the same arguments that sprout up when the word “bi-partisanship” get thrown around. But I will say this – I think there is a big mistake playing out. That mistake is assuming that everyone shares the same definition of what unity is. I don’t think that is the case.
Unity doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Unity doesn’t mean that we allow the most resistant in society to determine what happens either. Unity isn’t about giving those out of power the sole ability to determine the direction of the nation either.
Unity gets used a lot in political speeches, but it is hardly ever defined. I think it needs to be defined so we all know what it is that we are supposedly seeking.
There can be no unity without trust. And as evidenced by a multitude of events and statements in recent months, trust is broken in this country – very broken.
Trust is also a misunderstood term. Everything likes the term, but I’m not sure that everyone understands it all that well. Too many people start with an assumption that they are norm and that everything should be judged from their own example. That makes having a common definition of trust and unity really difficult.
This isn’t just true in politics. It is also true in terms of faith and church too. Christians are supposed to be united. Except when we look around, we see over 10,000 Christian denominations. So much for unity right? Depends on how you define the term. Is unity about everyone being in the same denomination and worshipping the same way? Or is unity about have core beliefs that are agreed upon? Or is unity something else entirely.
I don’t think Christianity in the US is very united. There I times when I wonder if I worship the same God as some other Christians. I see some strands of Christianity taking stands for things that seem very unChristlike to me. I hear arguments from some strands of Christianity that have a very different focus than I would argue Christianity is about. And there is not a united way of reading Scripture, to top it off. Which makes me wonder if I have trust of these Christians. Without trust, there is no unity after all.
So is unity the goal for the church? What would it look like? How do we get there?
Before we answer that question we need to do some self-examination. We can’t just move forward without looking at where we have been. The first step towards unity and trust is repentance – an acknowledgement that we were in the wrong and that we are sorry for it. Until that happens, trust won’t begin to be developed. We won’t be able to move on. If we just plow ahead, then we ignore past abuse, pain, and wrongs as if they didn’t happen.
Imagine if someone came and took your money and punched you in the face. And then years later you meet this same person again. Both of you remember the incident. And the abuser says something like “Let’s not dig up the past. It’s time to move on.” Are you going to trust this person? I wouldn’t. There was no acknowledgement that what happened was wrong and that the other person was responsible for it. There is no indication that they have changed either, which is why I can’t trust them. There can be no unity in such a situation, no matter how good the intention. For me to unite with someone like that would mean that I would have to become like my abuser. And since I recognize that what they did was wrong, I’m not going to do that because I’m driving by not intentionally harming others. Nor should I unite with this person. I have no obligation to unite with them, even if unity is the ultimate goal. I’m not the problem or the one holding unity back from happening. The other person is responsible for that. I’m responsible for not allowing abuse to continue.
How many churches have suffered abuse for decades because this same system plays out and everyone is afraid to name the abuse? And when someone tries to acknowledge the truth, too often they are shut down. They are told that they are causing division. That they should let the past go.
But the person who acknowledges the truth about abusive systems is not the problem. In order to move towards unity, acknowledgement of the past must happen, no matter how painful or inconvenient it may be. Until the past is dealt with, we will be stuck in it. Until we learn from the past, we’ll be forced to continue to learn the same lessons over and over. Until we deal with the past, there is no future.
The essential question is this – do we fear repercussions of dealing with the past and past abuse and breaking of trust more than we fear not dealing with these things and allowing such abuse and mid-trust to continue to fester? Do we place a higher value avoiding discomfort in dealing with the past than we do with setting things right in order to have a vibrant future? Are we short term in our thinking (avoiding the pain of confronting the past) or long term (focused on what we can become)?
Until we answer these questions, we’ll never truly deal with the idea of unity and trust. And we shouldn’t be surprised when we have dysfunctional and divisive government, relationships, and church bodies.