"One, though Not the Same"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
July 22, 2018
Genesis 11:1-9; Ephesians 2:11-22
Being “one” is central to our faith. We assert the oneness of God. The primacy of this assertion connects us to our sibling religions – Judaism and Islam. We often summarize the idea of being “one” in the word “unity” – and we mean well by that. Unity is one of the ways in which we are made in the image and likeness of God. God is One. Humanity is one – though we find all kinds of reasons to resist our inherent unity. And, as noted in the story of Babel, monolithic uniformity is idolatrous and dangerous – something that YHWH intervenes to dismantle and prevent. Unity can easily become a false god – and be used to justify the tyranny of the majority. Unity appeals for calm in times of confrontation, struggle, and dissent. Unity, when construed as sameness, is boring, inequitable, and oppressive.
Just as humanity is one – we are also inherently diverse.
Creation is resplendent in diversity.
Our senses are tuned to perceive the world based on difference. Eyesight, for instance, is better at detecting borders and contrasts than it is at perceiving unbroken fields. Continuous “white” noise drops out of our consciousness, masking auditory interruptions. It is the same with touch, smell, taste, temperature, and the somatic senses of our internal organs. We only notice the changes. Our bodies are instruments finely tuned to discern and appreciate difference. We are created to delight in our differences.
I’ve always been drawn to persons who seem to be different from me. In my first full time job as an architect I worked alongside Manohar Mutreja, Edurina Alvarez, Dominique Tomasov, and Latif Ahmadjar – a Hindu, a Filipina, a French Russian by way of Argentina, and an Afghan Muslim – all immigrants. Later, I worked for an elite firm which employed only Ivy League graduates of European descent and was famous for its completely white buildings. The former firm was considered merely competent. The latter enjoyed critical acclaim. In hindsight, even though I was very good at the uniformity – the “whiteness” of high modern architecture – it was diversity among my coworkers that brought me joy.
Pursuit of sameness – what is mistakenly called unity – is often the motivation or justification for hostility to the point of violence. Sameness is the spirit of racism and misogyny and xenophobia. Sameness makes an object of the other – a vehicle for achievement, an obstacle to success, or simply irrelevant. What at first may merely seem as disregard evolves into dehumanization and justifies destruction. Uniformity demands purity, and we know that it is short distance from purity to violence. Appeals for unity and calm can disguise subtle forms of hostility. If the perceived threat to our unity is high enough, we become caught up in redemptive violence – the idea that we can overcome evil through violence, and that the sacrifice of a victim can somehow appease the gods and “fix” whatever is wrong with the world.
Ephesians tells a different truth about how to overcome evil. It evokes a vision of unity in response to the hostility that prevails. God the perfect Mother loves each of her children the best – none of us stand on the higher ground when it comes to our relationship with God or each other. Remember again the anxiety of Ephesians’ original audience. Their lives were strained due to their defiance of the sovereignty of Caesar and their embrace of the values and practices of Jesus – forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. These values stand in stark contrast to the values of the empire – accusation, control, hierarchy, and privilege – all enforced through violence.
Violence in the form of the Coliseum spectacles was used in the first century to sedate or incite the masses as needed. Violence was embraced by the empire and therefore legitimized. The experience of witnessing a violent act can falsely and temporarily create a sense of solidarity and mutuality. The same dynamic is at work in lynching and other forms of mob brutality. But external pressures often expose and exacerbate internal fractures. Anxiety will flow to the weakest point and manifest itself in animosity, anger, and allegiance to one side or another in any difference of practice or opinion.
The hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles was fundamentally the hostility between the insiders and the outsiders. In some ways the Gentiles were the insiders, more a part of the dominant culture than the Jews. But from the perspective of Ephesians, it is the Jews who have been on the inside of the relationship with God through the covenant – signified and enforced through the ritual of circumcision, a small “violence” signifying the commitment of the whole person to the community of God. The Gentiles were on the outside; from the perspective Jewish followers of Jesus, they were completely atheos, without God, and thus less than human. Today, it is very easy for us to recoil at points of view opposed to our own – to consider the persons that hold them to be atheos – without God – and therefore as mere objects – obstacles to our happiness or converts to be won over or inconveniences to be avoided.
The word “shalom” is translated as “peace.” It could be defined as health and wholeness – the unity of the body – individual and collective. When we allow our differences, great or small, to disrupt the shalom of our community, we cannot build the temple in which God dwells. First century Christians were divided along lines of culture and practice. Our divisions in the twenty-first century resonate with theirs. The mutual human condition shared between first century and twenty-first century Christians is that we are both estranged from God. Estrangement from God stems directly from estrangement from each other. When differences of culture or practice delve chasms between us, we undermine both the nature of the church and the efficacy of its mission. The hostility embedded in the human condition plays itself out in innumerable ways. The predominant culture in the first century and the predominant culture today share many aspects – but today what weighs most heavily on my heart is our addiction to violence. Our games are violent, our entertainment is violent, and we are too quick as a nation to resort to violence to maintain the values of empire – accusation, control, hierarchy, and privilege.
According to Ephesians, undermining hostility is one of the main reasons for the cross. In life and in death Jesus modeled the humility that cuts through and sets aside the pride of individualism and the basis of hierarchical divisions between the children of God. Through the shalom of Christ, God has created a new thing – “a new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” In this new peace, it is more important to be together freely, honestly, and uncoerced than to agree or conform to one another. The peace of Jesus Christ is not a sleepy, easy daydream. Nor is it an enforced conformance to specific practices or observances – such as the Covenant maintained by submission through circumcision and exclusion – through ritual purity – or such as the Pax Romana – maintained by coercion through the sword, and intimidation through the cross.
God’s peace is not defined merely by the absence of violence or hostility. Peace is not neat and tidy. Peace is messy. Peace is not easy or cheap – it’s costlier than war. Peace is not comfortable – it’s challenging; both globally and personally. It is initiated through Jesus’ exposition of the hypocrisy of peace achieved through violence. Ephesians declares peace on new terms, the peace forged not by the "lords" of Empire in its manifold forms, but by the Lord of love. The cross undermines the wall dividing insider and outsider – dividing person and object – dividing same and different.
Unity – that is being one, though not the same – is good for us. Unity challenges, strengthens, and enriches us. But the point is not to be one merely for our own benefit. Once again, that plays into an ethos of privilege and its enforcement by any means necessary. The point is that the real image and likeness of God in humanity is kaleidoscopic. I am maybe a little too proud of my fondness for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. But there is a form of diversity with which I am not so comfortable – political diversity. My discomfort with politics that oppose my sense of love and justice in the world helps me to understand better the discomfort of others who disagree with me about issues of race and culture and how best to include them in the household of God.
When confronted with division and hostility, what can we do aside from dig in, surrender, or escape? This fall we will begin to explore this question together. With the leadership of Eric Walker, we will hold three panel discussions, on the first Thursday of October, November, and December. We will explore ways to understand our differences and nurture civil discourse about the common good. We plan to include engaging speakers as well as relevant and usable training to engage each other as persons rather than as opponents or opportunities. We plan to consider how the hostile polarization in our culture impacts the common good and how to face the challenges it creates. And we hope to learn actions to stay together – to seek unity in our diversity. Alongside this series of panel discussions, we will engage in a seven-session curriculum developed by Terri Stewart to help predominantly white congregations understand and grapple with racism and white privilege. Our hope is that both opportunities will draw together a diverse community, both from within and from beyond our congregation. Both will include opportunities for learning new strategies for listening, engaging, and humanizing the other – so that we can truly be one, though not the same.
The church is the daring practice of an alternative politics – a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ's Presence. We trust this power, letting it undermine every separation wall, until we are "built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God." In the new humanity that is created through Christ, there are no more favored and dismissed, no more included and shut out, no more redeemed and abandoned. In the new humanity, we are one child and we are all together God’s favorite. Each story is different, and we are all part of one story. Our backgrounds are diverse. We are the diverse construction materials that Christ has gathered in to build a dwelling place of God, where God reigns, where we embrace the way of Jesus, where it is not our preference or comfort that guide our commitments and choices, but what is pleasing to God.
Thanks be to God, who makes us one, though not the same.