“The Problem of the ‘Christian unity’ language in Christian (Evangelical) Culture”
Christian unity does not guarantee cosmic peace, political stability, and earthly comfort. Why do some Christians in this culture like to talk about unity in Christ and harmony in the body of Christ, but refuse to discuss the pressing issues that lead to disunity and disharmony in the Church and society? What are the contributing factors associated with this mental state of fear and Christian disengagement with these urgent matters?
Arguably, unity is a costly adventure and humble attitude. Like unity, harmony is sacrificial and an intentional doing. Unity will not come until Christians actively get engaged in genuine and honest conversations, such as the social, class, political, economic, cultural, racial, gender, sexual, ideological, etc. issues that have divided the body of Christ, dehumanized delinquent children and single mothers, and marginalized the poor, the needy, the racialized populations, the undocumented immigrant populations in this country, etc.
Christian unity is not a smoke screen for Christians to hide their dangerous political ideologies and choices, theological tribalism, and moral superiority. We should not think of Christian harmony as a safety net to cover up the sin of racism and xenophobia, and prejudice toward the undocumented immigrant and the religious other. Rather, it predicates upon the willingness to be changed and the openness to be challenged.
Harmony requires the discipline of listening to other’s pain and suffering, as well as their stories and their histories. The concepts of unity and harmony in the church and in society are associated with the biblical concept of justice and Christian discipleship. This is an overwhelming issue in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, especially in the Prophets.
For example, Jesus, the founder of Christianity and the spiritual head of the Christian church, was a controversial figure. Regularly, he would engage in verbal fights and heated arguments with the people in the church (i.e. the temple), the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and other individuals in society that had both religious and political influence in the culture—over pressing social, political, and religious issues that bore tremendous effects on people’s living conditions and future—especially the marginalized groups, the vulnerable, and the poor populations. Jesus actively preached and taught on both spiritual and societal matters. He did not say, “Folks: we are all Jews, let’s get along. We are all children of Abraham and let us just worship the God of Israel, our common Father and Creator.” He made sure his audience and those who did not want to listen to him know that social and political issues mattered to God; the triumph of the Kingdom of God and justice in society mattered to God; and the spiritual life and salvation of all people were also vital concerns to God. While Jesus gave priority to the reign and justice of God in the world, he was equally attentive to how problems of (moral and ethical) injustice and inequity, systems and structures, and unequal distribution of wealth were affecting the poor and the disadvantaged in his own society. Followers of Christ are called to imitate him, to love people like him, to act like him, and to have the mind and spirit of Christ. Jesus defended the weak and the poor in society; correspondingly, he has called his followers to do likewise.
Second, Paul, the most influential religious figure in the Jesus Movement and the second most controversial figure in the history of early Christianity after Jesus, was attentive to moral, ethical, and spiritual matters. For example, in his letters to the Christian churches in Galatia and Corinth, he directly addressed some of the major concerns of his culture, and the urgent factors that were affecting the church and human flourishing and the common good in society; they included the problems of poverty and hunger, sexual morality, gender ethics, political issues and ideologies, cultural differences and ideologies, ethnic pride and privilege, racial tribalism and preference, equality and equity in society, divorce, marriage, death, war, etc. Like Jesus, Paul did not just say to the Galatian and Corinthian Christians: “Folks, we are just ‘one in Christ.’ Let’s just focus on saving the soul of the lost, and forget about existential problems in society.”
Finally, it is important to note that both Jesus and Paul were also preaching and teaching about unity in the church and harmony among the people of God. Correspondingly, both religious figures were calling both men and women, and boys and girls to get right with God and to live justly before God and in harmony with their neighbor. Yet both of them understood clearly that some earthly forces in addition to spiritual matters were affecting the human experience and flourishing in the world—contributing to a history of pain and suffering, a catalogue of alienation and dehumanization, and a life of despair and bankruptcy.
The question that lies before the individual Christian and the American church is as follows:
What is God calling you to do? What is Christ calling the American church to do?
As a follower of Christ, Christians are morally responsible to inquire about the contemporary societal forces—public policies, state laws, county laws, etc.—that are detrimental to the welfare of their neighbor and other political decisions and choices that are impacting the living conditions of the marginalized, the homeless, the needy, the racialized, the politically-alienated, and the economically-disadvantaged populations in their community, city, and country. If the individual Christian keeps avoiding these complex issues, perhaps, he or she does not understand the transforming power of the Gospel in politics, society, and in the public sphere. If the Christian church in America is silent on those crucial matters, she is probably not imitating Christ and walking in his footsteps.
Christian unity is an active force in society that could potentially contribute to both holistic transformation and spiritual renewal of the people in culture. It is a discipline that requires the process of nurturing and reinvention; it makes a clarion call upon us for moral redirection and a christocentric orientation toward God and one’s neighbor. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us, “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security.” In the same line of thought, unity in the body of Christ or harmony among the people of God in society is not a project that seeks to preserve individual safety, status, privilege, and national pride. Christian unity calls for the urgent death of Christian nationalism, American exceptionalism, and ethnocentrism. It renounces all the external forces and privileges that become a hindrance to be committed totally to King Jesus and to serve in compassion and act in justice toward one’s neighbor. It is a call to self-denial and total obedience for the sake of imitating and following Jesus in this life. Christian unity does not guarantee cosmic peace, worldly treasures, and earthly comfort; nonetheless, like Christian compassion, it does seek the best interest of one’s neighbor and empowers individuals to act in a manner that promotes the dignity of the most vulnerable and to care for the marginalized groups in society.
Peace and Blessings,
Dr. Celucien L. Joseph