A Few Thoughts on Unity
Ah, the weekend of the Fourth of July. The flags are flying. I walked through the neighborhood last night and could smell hamburgers being cooked on grills up and down the street. I know there are vegetarians in the meeting, but that is a religion I have never understood, especially on a summer night during hamburger season. But to each his own, to each her own. Who am I to judge another person? Even though the word vegetarian isn’t found in the Bible, but that’s between them and God.
I was visiting with an older gentleman this week, a man at the assisted-living center where Mom and Dad live. We were watching the workers hang up little flags and streamers for the Fourth, and he began waxing nostalgic about how good things used to be, when everyone got along with one another, and there was great unity, and I wondered to myself what country he had been living in, because I don’t personally remember that ever being the case. It reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness pining away for Egypt. The past can paint a beautiful landscape, but it is usually lacking in detail and accuracy.
I’m a bit skeptical of unity and have been ever since I pastored my first church and all the elders, every man and woman of them, decided to fire me. I never saw such unity! Whenever there’s perfect unity in a church, a pastor ends up unemployed. Mark my words.
Because we tend to attach a positive meaning to unity, we don’t think about its downside. I remember back in the 1980s and 90s whenever one of our Quaker meetings championed the rights of gay people, other meetings would get all worked up and want to boot that congregation out. Then, when that congregation had been expelled, someone would stand and thank God our Quaker body was now in unity. But tossing out the folks who disagree with us until we all believe the same thing isn’t unity, it’s tyranny. It’s like when Kim Jong-un runs for the presidency of North Korea and gets 100% of the vote. That is tyranny masquerading as unity.
And you might remember that when unity was first mentioned in the Bible, it didn’t end well. You recall the story of Babel, don’t you, when all the people gathered on the plains of Shinar and had a prayer meeting and a pitch-in dinner, then decided to make a name for themselves by firing bricks and building a great tower. When God got wind of it, she scattered the people, and thereafter that place was known as Babel. And I call God “she” because it is the mothers of the world who straighten out the errant children. The fathers give speeches, while the mothers roll up their sleeves and set matters right. That is the way it is the world over. But I digress, so let’s return to Babel. The Bible says God scattered the people abroad across the face of the earth and confused their language. So they went from unity to disunity. Have you ever met someone who doesn’t speak your language?
I remember when a group of us from Fairfield went to the airport last fall to greet our Syrian family upon their arrival to America. We didn’t know what they looked like, just that they would be more tanned than we were and there’d be five of them. We watched the arrival board and saw that their plane landed, so started looking for tanned people and after a while there they were. We moved forward to shake their hands, and it was Babel all over again. They didn’t understand a word we spoke and we didn’t understand a word they spoke, so we ended up just smiling at one another, not saying a word, because that’s what you do when you meet someone whose language you don’t speak. You just smile a lot, don’t you? You smile and nod your head and you don’t make any sudden moves.
Or you raise your voice. I might have told you about when I was pastoring Irvington Meeting and we had a lady from Mexico show up at our meeting one morning. Her daughter was marrying a man in the meeting. A woman in the meeting named Dolores was greeting visitors that day and said to the lady from Mexico, “Welcome to our church. What’s your name?” The lady from Mexico looked at her, puzzled.
I said to Delores, “I don’t think she understands English.”
Dolores looked at her and shouted, real slow, “Welcome to our church. What’s your name?”
That’s what we tend to do when we don’t understand one another, when we don’t speak the same language. One of two things. We either smile a lot, or we yell at one another.
But in these days of disunity, I’d like to suggest a third way to respond to others who don’t speak our language, when we’re out of unity, and that is this-speaking up, but with kindness and clarity. I’m reminded of the early Quaker John Woolman, whose objection to slavery never caused him to be objectionable. When visiting those who held slaves, he refused to use the slave’s service without paying the slave, but always cheerfully, never condemning the owner. On more than one occasion, the slave owner, convicted by Woolman’s witness, would free his slaves. Woolman reminds us that when we don’t speak someone else’s language, when we are not in unity with another, there are ways to kindly communicate our sentiments.
We’ve been reading in the newspaper, and Nita spoke several weeks ago, about the slave wages of the long-distance truckers who supply Target, Best-Buy, Costco, and other places many of us shop. What if we asked for the manager each time we shopped in a store, gave them money that represented the fair cost of transporting the items we purchased, and asked them to pass it on to the truck drivers. You don’t think that wouldn’t get back to the executives who hired those corrupt trucking companies? And just to make sure the executives learned of your concern, you could write and tell them.
I had a high school speech teacher, Mrs. Judy Blough, who taught us that when you give a speech, you should tell folks what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. So let’s go over it once more. Just because we’re on unity on a matter, doesn’t mean our conclusions are moral. The Confederacy was united on the morality of slavery, after all. So unity is no indication of morality, sometimes tyranny masquerades as unity. And when we lack unity, we can smile and say nothing…we can yell at one another…or we can speak up, but with kindness and clarity, so there is no mistaking our concern.