Monday, November 21, 2016

Unity, Without Uniformity

Despite discord, Times Square displays signs of unity.
My wife and I had the opportunity to spend some time in New York City just days before the Presidential election. As a boy growing up in New Jersey, I used to get into “The City” often, but hadn’t been there for more than 10 years. As we walked and toured around Manhattan, I was impressed once more by the incredible diversity that characterizes the “city that never sleeps.”

A tour bus guide commented that only 2 in every 5 residents of New York City is American-born. This bore itself out as we heard people talk. There were times when it was rare to hear an actual “American” accent. (Even of the “New Yawk” variety.) We saw people of virtually every ethnicity, and as for fashion, it was clear that in the Big Apple, anything and everything goes.

Yet, in the midst of the diversity there were unifying factors. American flags hung from many buildings, often more than one. In the heart of Times Square, a brightly lit flag gleamed in its red, white and blue. We made our initial visit to the Statue of Liberty, and its symbolism of freedom and liberty seemed strong.

This poster at a 9/11 memorial museum
captures the spirit we need.
Going to Ellis Island, also for my first time, scenes and photographs reminded us of the countless thousands of immigrants who were processed there sharing a common goal – to experience a better life, one much better than they’d known in their homeland. All of my grandparents had passed through those halls early in the 1900s, so it was a poignant time for me.

So now, with the 2016 Presidential election campaign mercifully over, hopefully along with much of its rancor, vitriol and antagonism, it’s time for people across America to refocus on who we have been – and who we should continue to be – the UNITED States of America. We seem to have become “Untied” for too long.

At the same time, we must understand that unity does not, and should not, mean uniformity. With the blessed diversity we can observe in our nation’s great cities and increasingly, even our small towns, it’s important to recognize we can be different and yet celebrate spirit of genuine unity.

This applies especially for those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote powerfully about this to the church in ancient Philippi: If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).

I purposely highlighted the words “if” and “then” in the passage, because it’s what is known in the world of grammar as a conditional statement – if certain things are true, then a specific conclusion should follow.

An enduring symbol
for liberty - and unity.
Within the body of Christ that we affectionately call “the Church,” there is great diversity. Not only in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and other demographics, but also doctrines, traditions, worship styles, music, and other factors that shape our beliefs and practices. But as Paul also wrote, it’s important not to let those differences create wide, uncrossable divides. He wrote to the church in Corinth, For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Don’t major in the minors.

As followers of Jesus, we can fall into the trap of participating in the continued stoking of the fires of division and discord. Or we can strive to find and nurture bonds that make for unity, while acknowledging we’re not asked nor called to insist on uniformity.

This does not mean sacrificing our convictions or compromising our faith, but it does involve recognizing there is beauty in diversity – a quality Jesus knew so well. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And it’s one big, wonderful, diverse world.

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