Unity, Schmunity

Not every grandiose abstraction is some high and worthy ideal; not all the things that end in “-ity” (like chastity and humility) are actually virtues. Case in point: that annoying beggar of a word, “unity.” It pops up everywhere, including a cheerful memorandum recently issued by my place of employment: “Our theme for the upcoming year is Unity!” Underwhelming inspiration for a hard year’s labor ahead, since we just slogged through a grueling eighteen months on the dubious rhetorical strength of “we’re all in this together.” And – forgive me if I’m mistaken – didn’t we last see “Unity” calligraphically rendered on a tee shirt at Target, right alongside other intellectual tours de force like  “Bad Hair, Don’t Care” or “Tacos and Tequila”?

I wouldn’t pay $12.95 for that, much less install it as the lodestone of my moral compass. In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell describes the eviscerating effect of miseducation, mass media, and bad government on the very texture and content of words. Jargonized English, he asserts, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Unity is a repeat offender in this sense; every time it appears in our modern parlance, it grows more threadbare and fills our minds with a soupy, emotional haze. Let’s stop this ubiquitous misuse of a once-respectable word now, before we all devolve into numbskulls. 

Whoa, whoa, whoa! – the pious objector might exclaim. “What about Psalm 133:1 or Colossians 3:14? Isn’t it good and pleasant when brothers dwell in unity and aren’t we supposed to put on love which binds everything together in perfect unity? Bypassing the sticky wicket of translation, common sense alone should warn us that God’s Word does not urge us to conformity for its own sake. Unity, like obedience, depends very much on an ultimate point of reference. In other words, obedience is valuable when it is directed to rightful authority; obeying our base impulses or the Deceiver’s subtle promptings would be no virtue at all. In the same way, Christians ought to be united in our Lord– to be of one mind in the truth; unity under a false banner or for the sake of creaturely comfort is in no way praiseworthy or desirable. Like stained glass windows, obedience and unity only make sense when they have Light shining behind them. Even our nation’s pledge of allegiance acknowledges this fact: the original version does not say “one nation, with liberty and justice” but rather “one nation under God.”  In civic life also, everything hinges on the source or focus of unity, not the mere quality of being “all in this together.”

Think of it this way: early Christian martyrs who refused to pay due obeisance to the emperor as a divinity were tearing at the fabric of the Roman social fabric. They were indeed guilty as charged of sowing disunity. In 1521, One of the strongest accusations levelled at the reformer Martin Luther was this: teachings contrary to the dominant papal authority would inevitably tear apart the Church. They did. Unity was broken. If unity is a keystone virtue – like courage or fortitude, both of which were required in spades by the early martyrs and the early reformers – then all revolution, reformation, and vindication of truth are ipso facto the work of villains. 

Which leads us to the likely results of elevating “unity” to the status of virtue-in-itself: either relativism, or totalitarianism. Seem like a logical leap? It’s more like a step across a stagnant puddle. There are two quick ways to ensure unity of action, thought, and purpose among men. First, reduce all meaningful ethical choices to subjective values with no claim upon reality, leaving a “public space” defined by void and the inviolable right to self-will and self-definition. This invisible town square is a place of unity in which all good citizens affirm and embrace each other’s self-determined identities – the ultimate and only binding act of civic duty. Such a society is outwardly diverse but inwardly monotonous, like a mass-produced trinket printed in a thousand colors. Its apparent celebration of difference is grounded in fundamental limits on human belief and conviction. The other path to unity, even more efficient, is simply to brainwash everyone into uniformity by seizing control of education, information, and media. In the age of technology, we don’t need imperial edicts or the Inquisition to maintain control over the official narrative. Those who exalt unity as a good-in-itself would not groan beneath the yoke of propaganda; on the contrary, their virtue-signaling and spontaneous policing of family members and neighbors would be the stuff of Sunday School parables. 

What can we as Christians do to resist these two dystopian tendencies? The same as ever: fast and pray. In the meantime, abiding in hope of mercy, we can immediately cease the vapid and unreflective use of “unity.” If possible, expunge it from your vocabulary until the delirium passes. Stop preaching unity to each other. Tear the schmaltzy Colossians 3:14-on-a-tropical-beach page out of your Bible quote calendar. Whatever it takes. And remember that the communion we enjoy by God’s grace is a union in and under our true Head, not a demoralizing lateral conformity with each other. The reduction of humanity to a homogenous blur – “we’re all in this together” – is the exact counterpoint to the harmonious differentiation of a living organism. The Body of Christ is just that – a thing with distinct parts, texture, complexity. A thing built for life, even when it gets messy. Even when there is conflict. Even when, heaven forbid, there can’t be unity.  Because in the end, if we don’t want to be “all in this together,” our only saving alternative is to be “all together in Him.”