Unity and Diversity: An Enduring Agenda

Presentation at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians Luncheon

210th General Assembly
Charlotte, NC
June 15, 1998

Jack Stotts

President Emeritus of Austin Theological Seminary
and former President of McCormick Theological Seminary

Note: A shorter version of this paper appeared in Covenant Connection #4.

I am delighted, I think, to be here. I am intimidated by all my friends and colleagues whom I know and who know me. Nevertheless, I am going to tell you what I think.

It is an enduring issue: the proper relationship between unity and diversity. From ancient times philosophers have debated the relation between the one and the many. In ancient Israel the so-called one people of God are divided into twelve tribes. In the New Testament Paul calls for both oneness in Christ but also the diverse gifts that others bring.

This search for the proper relationship between unity and diversity endures, because it is a human issue. And it is a promise. The poet W.H. Auden defined civilization as “diversity attained and unity retained.”

This search for the proper relationship between unity and diversity is both personal and corporate. We as individuals seek integrity-oneness-in the midst of multiple demands, multiple roles, and multiple interests. As H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote, “As it is with the self in itself, so it is with the community of selves.” Individually and together we reside in the tension between what James Luther Adams calls opposing virtues-the virtue of unity and the virtue of diversity. To be so involved engages us in a dynamic process that is ongoing and enduring.

The attaining of this proper relationship between unity and diversity at times is very much an unexamined issue. What we have attained flows like an underground current. But at times the water has become turbulent. When the latter occurs, we seek to reorient ourselves and our communities around the issues of constructive relationships between unity and diversity.

I do not need to tell you that we reside in turbulent times. In both our civil and our ecclesiastical communities we struggle today with seeking that proper relationship between those opposing virtues. For some the threat is from the side of those who would emphasize diversity over unity. For others unity is seen to endanger our diversity.

This is one of the dynamics currently in our society. In this country the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. worries about diversity being elevated as a major and exclusive virtue. He worries about the use of terms he calls hyphenated Americans: African-Americans, Euro-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc. He does so, he says, not because he does not recognize the value of our diverse heritage, but because he believes it will let those of us who are Euro-Americans and in power off the hook. It legitimates saying to others, “You do what you want to do. We’ll keep on doing what we want to do.” He worries about diversity becoming primary and not paying systematic attention to unity.

But equally others in the society are suspicious of unity as dominant over diversity. And rightly so. For there has been and is a dark side to unity. People and persons have experienced the negative side of a premature unity, a unity imposed by the powerful and the privileged over the tribes of all others. Where that occurs, the definition of what unites becomes imperialistic, imposed. It is the assertion consciously or unconsciously of the superiority of one group over another. Its logical trajectory leads from feelings of superiority to slavery of others to the gas chambers and ovens of the Holocaust.

Unity and diversity. In this nation we are struggling for a proper, productive and just balance between the two, open-eyed about the dangers of one isolated from the other, committed to multiculturalism, but trying to discern and put into place its individual and corporate contents. For example, the debate going on about bilingual education is symptomatic of that deep discussion about what is the proper relationship between unity and diversity.

Unity and diversity is an enduring agenda in the society, and so it is in the Church.

In our Church, we participate in the struggle to discern and develop proper relationships between unity and diversity. It appears to me, however, and to those both inside and outside the Church, that we as a denomination are engaged in a civil war. Pro-life and pro-choice tribes vie for dominance. Amendments A and B struggle for ascendancy. Those who interpret Scripture exhibit one kind of interpretation. Others exhibit another kind. Still others enlist in the cause of evangelism or social justice, as if they could be separated one from the other in the Gospel.

In the heat of such battle, rhetoric inflates to the bursting point. Those who take a position and advocate it are branded by their opponents by labels such as conservative or liberal, not to be descriptive, but to be dismissive. The stakes-emotional and institutional-are high. Threats and challenges are hurled at those with whom we disagree. Opponents gradually become enemies.

In such struggles the first victim, as in any war, is truth. People bear false witness against their neighbors, stereotyping them and invoking half truths and innuendo. Simplistic slogans replace careful analysis. Civility is exiled. Truth is crucified. All that counts is winning or losing.

I have already referred to the ecclesiastical issues around which these tribal battles are publicly fought. There are other reasons for our turmoil in our society and in our Church which I will not go into, which means that in one sense, these issues around which we struggle are symptomatic of some very deep currents in our society which need to be addressed.

Everywhere we look in the Church, there seems to be diversity and the search for unity. What is the proper relationship between these two?

What I want to do in the remainder of the time that I have is to suggest three theological principles that might be of assistance. I do not come to enlist you in a cause. I come to ask you to think with me about the issues that are theologically before us.

These three theological principles all begin with a Christological affirmation, as is true of any proper theological affirmation or amendment. They are these:

First: In Christ, unity precedes diversity.

Second: In Christ, unity presumes diversity.

Third: In Christ, we are propelled into the realization of ever more just and constructive relationships between unity and diversity in the Church and in the world.

First: In Christ, unity precedes diversity. I believe that, to use Paul Tillich’s terminology, the functional canon within the canon for many of us in the last half of this century has been Galatians 3:28:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is the theological principle that has driven many of us in the Church. It has not stood alone, but it has a certain centrality in our hermeneutics. Within the Church that commitment to oneness in Christ drove the concilior ecumenical movement which flourished in this century. That principle, that affirmation, underwrote the Church’s involvement in the Civil Rights struggle of the fifties and the sixties. It opened the door for a consideration of ordination of gays and lesbians. It guides our interactions with those with whom we agree to disagree today.

It is this oneness in Christ that makes all of us brothers and sisters. It is that oneness in Christ that opens places of shelter to those who have none. It is that oneness in Christ that elevates the virtues of solidarity and mutuality. This struggle for inclusiveness in the Church is the institutional incarnational consequence of unity in Christ.

When we affirm that unity in Christ, we do so with humility. To be one in Christ is to confess that we share common needs with all people: the need to love and to be loved; the need to forgive and to be forgiven; the need to hunger and thirst for a righteousness beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees. To be one in Christ is to acknowledge our common need for a sense of self worth for ourselves and for others. It is our common need to recognize and rejoice in differences that open up new worlds of understanding and acting. It is our common need to expand our vision of God’s tribe. It is our common need to weep with those who weep.

Maybe you saw a few months ago now, the events leading up to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, in Texas, as you might know. What you did not see was the local television shot that was taken after the execution had occurred. It showed Karla Faye Tucker’s parents and the victim’s parents embracing each other in common weeping. We need not to be embarrassed by our common weeping with those with whom we disagree strongly.

And oneness in Christ is to confess that this unity in Christ is a gift of God, not our deserving. And because it is a gift of God, a gift of grace, it is not a cheap unity; it is a costly unity, because among other reasons, it means giving up our enemies, by which we are often defined. It means being self-critical about ourselves, it means repentance, it means believing almost against experience that, as the poet Richard Wilbur tells it, “What estranges us can be what enlarges us.” That is hard to believe. But that is the promise in Christ.

In Christ, unity precedes diversity.

Secondly, unity in Christ presumes diversity, indeed a robust diversity.

The affirmation of diversity is initially a theological recognition that we are finite people. We all see through a glass darkly. God shows no partiality, but we show a lot of it. It is a part of our human condition and our sinfulness that we do make judgments. We are, in a sense, seeking to be experienced in transforming our negative statements about others into positive statements about possible futures.

And unity in Christ presumes diversity, for without diversity any form of unity becomes static. Unity without diversity becomes uniformity, finally a stagnant and, worst of all, a boring experience. In Christ diverse human tribes are God’s gifts to us. They nourish us. They grow us. They sustain us. They challenge us. In all our transactions they correct us. They stretch us. For unity in Christ is a dynamic reality.

This is not to say that we always rejoice in our diversity. We don’t. It is not to say that differences are inevitably good. They are not. It is not to say that conflict will disappear. It won’t. It is to say that in Christ diversity is presumptively a good gift of God. It is to say that when we speak with those who are members of a different tribe we try to speak the truth in love, to be at the same time both candid and caring. It is to pray, not like the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like other people-thieves, rogues, adulterers, “conservatives.” It is to pray uncondescendingly for those with whom we disagree and to ask them to pray for us.

Finally, the test of a theologically authentic relationships between unity and diversity, for me, is whether or not we who affirm the theological priority of unity stay in touch with and are engaged with people at the margins of both the Church and the society, not only the marginal person, but the tribes who have marginal power and resources. Do we listen for “the voices of peoples long silenced”? If we do not do so, we are not being true to our heritage, our Reformed faith.

That outreach to the marginal is important not only for assuring their just participation in the unity we are given. It is also a gift of the spirit that is for our own humanness, for those of us who by grace, gift, and choice represent what we like to call ourselves, the center of the Church. The center of the Church is dependent, for its authenticity, upon being in touch with those at the margins of the society, if we are to move toward a more inclusive Church and society. Theologically, it is those whom the world calls weak who bear incredible strength. Time and again, down through history, we have seen it happen. The few, the outcast, the oppressed, the suppressed carry the vision, dream the dream, generate the energy and moral passion and the courage to act on what they believe. They give us insights and clarity in their dynamic relationship to us. They expand and they rouse our consciousness so that we might indeed continue to be engaged in the search for a unity and diversity that is proper and fair and just and loving. We in the center, if that is not too ambitious a statement, need to confess that we are dependent on the strength of the weak.

That’s my own experience. The Civil Rights movements of the fifties and the sixties were dependent on the strength in weakness of those whom the world called weak. Without that strength in weakness from which to draw, many of us, if not most of us at that time, would not have contributed to changes that were needed and are still needed among the races in this country. The faithfulness and integrity of the center draws from the strength of the marginal. They in the margins know better than we that a dream defeated is not an issue denied, but only deferred. We depend for our wholeness upon the strength of the weak.

In Christ, finally, unity and diversity propel us into seeking ever richer, more just forms of unity and diversity. The unity and diversity we seek is dynamic, not static. It is an ongoing, enduring struggle.

Two examples, small examples, draw my attention. One has to do with ecclesiastical unity; the other, more with unity among an intimate family. It is true that there is probably more cooperative work and mutual respect among faith communities in this country than ever before. But the struggle for the oneness of the Church beyond the local, if I read it correctly, has diminished greatly. The scandal of that separation was experienced by me in a powerful way that occurred some twenty-odd years ago.

McCormick Seminary had just relocated to the south side of Chicago from the north side. We’d done so to become part of an ecumenical cluster of theological schools and to enjoy the rich relationships that had been established and were being established. After we had been there for two or three years, Bill Guindon, the president of the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, called up one day and said, “I’d like to have you participate in an Ash Wednesday service next week. I hope that you’ll impose the ashes with me and the other presidents of the other schools.” Now, I was born in Texas. It seemed a little papish to me. But I said, “All right,” probably because of peer pressure as much as anything. And we gathered in the Lutheran chapel. President Bill Guindon presided over the service. Those of us who were presidents took our place there on the stage, if you will, of that chapel. As the people came forward, we imposed the ashes: “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”

Then a Lutheran layperson got up to speak. He put his manuscript aside and said one sentence: “How strange it is that we can share the ashes of death but not the bread of life.”

How strange it is that we back away from our friends in Christ. How strange it is that we are not in the streets celebrating full communion with Episcopalians and Lutherans. How strange it is that we seem to have lost our drive for doing whatever COCU does lead us to. We seem rather to be saying, oftentimes, “Let’s get out of it.” How strange it is.

And in the world the search for appropriate relationships between unity and diversity goes on in family, church, society, business, diplomacy. We should be celebrating the possibilities that are there.

One story about that: how indeed it is possible, how indeed it can be reported as true, that enmity can be indeed overcome by forgiveness and by love. It’s from a book entitled In the New World: Growing Up with America, 1960-1984. It’s an autobiography by Lawrence Wright. He tells in that book about how, during the Vietnam War, and his father were opposed to each other and became enemies to one another, how indeed he and his father could not carry on a civil conversation. So he ceased coming home. Then, he said, Watergate happened and Nixon was thrown out. That’s where the difference had been symbolically centered, the struggle between his father, who had supported Nixon, and Lawrence Wright, who did not–indeed, Wright thought him a scoundrel. Watergate had happened. Nixon was in the hospital now with phlebitis, near death, in shock. Pneumonia had set in. He was in critical condition both in October and November, and Lawrence Wright writes:

I went back to Dallas for Thanksgiving dinner. For seven years, my father had been enemies, first because of the war and then because of Nixon, but now we looked at each other without anger once again. I saw what all this had done to him. The man he identified as ‘my President’ — in the way people do who only expect to have one President in their lifetime who stands for what they stand for — had shown himself to be a liar and a scoundrel. My father’s judgment was shaken. He had defended Nixon for two decades, he had believed in him completely, but he realized now that he had been dreadfully wrong.

In some unexpected, unlikely fashion, Watergate had made it possible for me to love my father again. I saw in him now an appealing humility, which replaced the old bullying sense of certainty. That part had been the Nixon part, and it was gone. However, the Nixon part of me was still present, still rueful and petty and paranoid, and as my father carved the turkey and my mother poured the wine, I offered a toast. ‘To phlebitis!’ I said.

Mother drew a breath and set down her glass. My father stopped carving and looked at me. He lifted his glass and said, ‘To us–just us, the family. 

To us — just us, the family. What a toast. To us–just us, the family of humankind. To us–just us, the family of the Church. To us, the family of God.

We are engaged, as we have been for some time, for as long as we have existed, I suppose, in seeking the proper relationship between unity and diversity. Many of you in this room have been engaged in that struggle, and you are my heroes and my heroines. You have been engaged in that struggle far more than I, and yet we all are those who would like to join those who have been more actively involved in seeking a society where there is just distribution of unity and of diversity.

An ancient author says about this strategic goal, this struggle, what I feel in my bones on my better days, and which I know many of you could affirm who have been far more engaged in the search for this oneness and diversity that is promised in Christ than I have. Listen to what an ancient, wise person wrote:

I have fought many a battle and lost.
But I have won enough battles
To forever believe in the struggle,
And not to retreat from the field of battle.

I have trusted many friends who have failed me.
But I have known enough true friends
To forever believe in friendship,
And to keep on trusting.

I have had many dreams that never came true.
But I have had enough dreams come true
To forever believe in the dream,
And to keep on dreaming.

Keep on dreaming. Believe in the dream. Seek that dream, that reality. Hear again promise. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In Christ, that dream is a promise.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.