This past week two things happened. (1) The president gave his state of the union address, in which he acknowledged the stark divisions between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., and urged both to look past politics to "leadership." (2) A friend of mine who is a pastor sent a blanket e-mail to pastors and other Christian authority figures in our area, suggesting that they aren't competition for each other but colaborers with each other, and urging them to strive toward interchurch unity as they go about their ministries.
I suspect more than two things happened. But these two took up a lot of space in my brain. I'm a fan of unity, of course--can anyone not be? Everyone is on board with unity--at least in principle. Unity is one of those big ideas, like justice, like peace. Unity is one of the things that back in the 1970s John Lennon suggested we "imagine," one of the things Coca Cola wanted to "teach the world."
So if everyone is on the unity train, why does it never seem to leave the station? I suspect in part because as appealing as the idea of unity is, the reward it brings is almost indistinguishable. There are, I presume, people I have something approaching unity with--relationships that are marked by mutual respect and common cause, for lack of a clear definition--but those relationships just are; unity isn't an achievement that we in our small circles celebrate on a regular basis: "Look how well we're getting along! Hallelujah!" Unity, where it's achieved at some level, fades quickly into the background while we go about more pressing, more interesting business.
And then there's the cost of unity. To truly be united means a surrender, or at least a reconfiguration, of sovereignty. For me to be united to you means not only that you share my interest and values, but that I share yours and yours. When the Confederate States of America became the United States of America, individual states could no longer print their own money or levy tariffs on their neighboring states. There's a cost--a real cost--to unity that the rhetoric of unity neglects to mention.
The appeal to unity is always an indictment of the status quo. To desire unity is to acknowledge that how we've organized ourselves is causing more hurt than help, and so to appeal to unity is simultaneously to recommend that we reorganize ourselves. That means abandoning the patterns that we've fallen into, those patterns that were originally thought (and perhaps even successfully designed) "to form a more perfect union." To unify is first to deconstruct, to clear the withered foliage of our age-old imaginations and plant some new seeds.
I'm not offering a program for unity by any measure. I don't have that imaginative a brain, and besides, I only got that e-mail as a courtesy from my friend: I don't have any authority anywhere. What I am offering, I think, is a reminder that to strive for unity demands more than a nod and a hurrah, a handshake and a hug. To strive for unity means to be prepared to sacrifice those things that stand in the way, and that in and of itself means that we need to know well what we value--what we can mutually agree to give up, and what we dare not allow to wither.