One and Not the Same
How very good and pleasant it is when kin live together in unity
Unity is a tall, tall concept, and this psalm reads like the poetry that it is – painting a picture of what life will look like – when. In the New Testament we refer to the kingdom; the kingdom that is both already here, but not yet fully realized as long as there is suffering, oppression and inequality. Our mission is to help repair what it broken in the world.
One of the ways we have traditionally done that is by thinking of ourselves as one, in Christ Jesus. “No longer Jew or Greek, slave or free.” But that concept, while true on one level, can also be hurtful on another.
I was reminded of this in watching Robin DiAngelo’s video, Deconstructing White Privilege. The idea of unity, that we’re all one, often gets translated as we’re all the same. And in so many ways that’s true. We all experience emotions, our DNA is 99.9% the same, and spiritually we think of everyone as a child of God’s loved equally. But as DiAngelo reminds us, that doesn’t mean we all have the same experience in the world. So to say to a black person, I don’t see color because we’re all the same, is like saying, your experience of inequality shouldn’t matter. It negates the unique experience of black people and the reality of systemic racism that makes people’s experiences anything but the same.
Now there was a time that the concept of universalism was held up and even needed. I was reminded of this when sitting with a friend in her 80’s who reminded me of a famous line in the 1967 movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. If you remember that movie, you know that it’s about a black man named John Prentice, played by Sydney Poitier, who comes to his fiancé’s house, a white woman. What’s important to remember about this movie is that interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states just six months before the movie came out.
There’s a moment in the movie when John Prentice’s father disapproves of the marriage and is urging his son not to go through with it. The discussion gets heated, and Poitier eventually says, “Dad you're my father, I always have and I always will love you, but you think of yourself a a colored man, I think of myself as a man.”
In the context of that movie, at a time when black and white people were fighting for the right to marry one another, that idea of sameness was helpful. But it hasn’t aged well, because the world is not what it was 50 years ago. We’ve grown in our consciousness and awareness, and what we’re witnessing today in our history is a kind of uncovering of what has been an insidious racism played out in systems that affect the lives of our kin.
And the Black Lives Matter movement is not the only place we see this uncovering. Uncovering, by the way is the meaning of the Greek word apocalypse. It opens our eyes to all kinds of problems that have long been covered up or hidden from our awareness. We see economic inequality uncovered by Occupy Wall Street. We see gender inequality uncovered with MeToo. COVID is uncovering inequity in healthcare and education (just to name a few).
I’m not asking that you agree with every aspect of every movement. No movement is perfect, and often the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction. And at times, it causes further division through unnecessary violence and rhetoric. But as our awareness of the problems grow, we can also tend to them, and find new ways of living that ultimately unites us.
I don’t have any illusions that we will all have the same way of going about repairing what is broken in the world. We will continue to argue about policy, we’ll vote differently, hold different ideological understandings. So how do we respect our individualism, embracing our differences, but also recognize that God calls us to creating a world where kin live in unity?
Unity the psalmist writes, “It’s like the finest oil used at ordination of a High Priest…it’s like the dew on Zion, the place where God dwells and enters into covenant with God’s people.” Covenants are like agreements, unions, where each party agrees, promises to do their part, our love for God, and God’s love for all of us.
As Christians we enter into one at baptism, claimed and loved by God as God’s own. That expands when we enter into a life in the community, and again at our own ordination should we choose to be an elder or a deacon, each step carries the weight of love, a life lived out in practice, by loving God and others. The two are interchangeable, unified as one practice. But it’s easier said than done, especially when the other person you’re trying to love is someone you don’t like, don’t agree with, want to change, can barely stand to be next to.
Jane Goodall, you remember her? Goodall is the lovely English woman who became known for her 60 years of studying chimpanzees in Tanzania. She recently sat down in conversation with Krista Tippet for the podcast On Being. Goodall was ahead of her time, entering a male dominated field in her 20’s, doing graduate work at Cambridge without an undergraduate degree.
Over time, she received all kinds of criticism from scientists because of her unscientific approach. She was naming her subjects, instead of numbering them. She talked about the chimps’ personalities, observed that their minds were capable of problem solving and an emotional life. Up until then science believed that those abilities were reserved for only humans. But as Goodall pointed out, all she had to do was remember her childhood dog Rusty to know that wasn’t true. Goodall saw what so many of us see as children: that we are part of, not separate from, the rest of the animal kingdom or creation itself.
Goodall reminds us that the buddhists understand this idea of inter-connectivity. The indigenous people understand too. But our western understanding of creation makes its mistake at the beginning when we misinterpret the idea of humans as being separate from the rest of creation, given dominion or power over, rather than understanding the role as stewards – called to care for, not to rule over.
Science insisted on objectivity; Goodall made her discoveries through empathy. It lived at the core of her work, and it lives at the core of ours – as kin who are called by God in covenant to live in unity.
Empathy, like love, is a practice. Some of us carry that ability from the beginning; others of us have to work a little harder at it. The practice of empathy begins with curiosity: the desire to ask questions, what must it be like to be you, to be them, to be the other, the one I don’t agree with, don’t understand, don’t always like. If my promise to God is to love God and to love others, how do I do that in practice? Can I let go of the need to be right, in exchange for finding a place we meet, connect and love, despite and even because of our differences? I say because of our differences, because the church at its best is not made up of like-minded people, but people who know how to love, as Christ himself loved.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber tells the wonderful story of her congregation which at one time she proudly called weird. She had many LGBTQ folks, but as the congregation began to grow, she was witnessing “normal” suburban folks who were messing up the weird she worked so hard to grow. When she reached out to a colleague he said, “Well you guys are really great at welcoming the stranger if it's a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mum and dad.”
This was confirmed later when one of those transgender kids said to Bolz-Webber:
“As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into your community, I'd just like to say that I'm really glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad because they love me in a way my parents can't right now.”
That’s our call as the church, to provide love for the other, the stranger, the one who is not us, who we can only imagine being, the one we don’t fully understand, the ones whose shoes we haven’t walked in.
Goodall tells the story of herself as a four-and-a-half-year-old, who even then was curious and determined. She wanted to understand how a hen laid an egg and in her four-and-a-half-year-old world, enters into a hen house on a property where her family was vacationing. She waited there for four hours, and by the time she returned her mother was so worried sick, she had called the police.
Goodall’s mother had a choice in that moment. She could have, with righteous indignation and complete justification, scolded her daughter for having run off. But instead as Goodall describes it:
But when she saw me rushing towards the house, she saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear the wonderful story of how a hen lays an egg.
Goodall recounts that story to illustrate the making of a scientist and credits her mother for nurturing qualities like curiosity.
But when I heard the story, I heard something else. I heard the kind of love God’s calls on us all to express. Despite all our righteous indignation, despite all the ways we want to correct the other and list all the reasons why they’re wrong, we’re called – like Christ – to see the eyes of the other as our own. Ourself, our child’s, our kin.
If we imagine the voice of God in that story we might hear something like this: “Tell me, my child, what did you see? What did you discover? What kept you from me for so long? Welcome home, let me love you, the only way I know how; which is to forget what you did wrong, and embrace instead who you are now, with this new discovery inside of you.”
Can you imagine entering into conversation with the “other” that way – especially when you’re angry, in the right, wanting to change them, make your point, and point out to them just how wrong they are? Maybe that’s too tall an order.
But maybe, as in Luke’s gospel, “The kingdom is like a seed.” We can start small, like a seed, letting go of the need to be right and replacing it with the need to love – through the questions I can ask, the deep breaths I can take, as I search the ways we can connect through the eyes that remind me that we are kin.
If my heart becomes a little more open, a little more sympathetic, slightly more compassionate, somewhat more aware, incrementally more Christlike1 – we can grow into becoming a dwelling place for kin, living together in Unity.