Episcopal Diocese of Rochester
Joy in Christ, a way of life

Essay: Our Unity is in God

February 2, 2017

Repentance, 1917, by Nicholas Roerich

Dear saints,

I write to you today with great humility on this day when nine years ago, you elected me to serve with and among you. I have grown much since that day and lift prayers of gratitude for the privilege of following Jesus together.

In this time of division and fear, let me begin by pointing to one of the foundations of our faith: unity. Jesus prayed, “…that they all may be one.” John 17. We come to one table, hewn out of the One Baptism and One faith to worship the One Lord! In God, our mother, our father, and the wholesome One who embraces each of us, we find our grounding. This is foundational to our faith. Our unity is not mere convenience or inconvenience, it is primarily godly and reflects the image of God in us collectively. I am immensely invested in you because God is immensely invested in you and me. We can see the face of God in each other with all our political and other differences during such a time as this and must work at it.

It is because of this foundation of our faith that I call upon us to consider a few things deeply and deliberately amid the turmoil in our nation and consequently in our world. One, we must repent and turn away from the sin of fostering and behaving in accordance to the lie that some lives are more important than others. Movements like Black Lives Matter are trying to intervene and offer a corrective to the practice of this lie. Two, let us be aware that since not everything we did in the past was good, repeating it is not a wholesome option; the power of “again” – trying to return again to the “good old days” – can be a nightmare to many who remember the bad old days. Three, let us be aware of the difference between passive and active peace, and pursue active peacemaking. Finally, let us not forget agency; that you may be the best suited expert to figure out a way in your corner. You embody the kingdom of God and I will be bold enough to say that there isn’t one book out there with all the instructions to fix the current set of predicaments. Given this complex context of great division, I urge us to give each other gracious permission and strive to see the face of God in each other as we practice our diversity of ethics knowing that there is wideness in God’s mercy. Warning: this is a lengthy piece.

Repenting: Turning From Our Divisiveness

So, let me begin with a word for this new season. Oxford University Press has declared the word of the year 2016 as “post-truth” politics. I find this intriguing since, in my opinion, we have lived in the world of post-truth for a longtime. I will get to that soon.

To be sure, our world is in much better shape in some ways as it is in a more regressive state in other ways. Let me start with the global gains of modernity through movements of liberation spurred by postmodern movements delving into issues of identity. Today there is greater visibility, agency and justice awareness for hitherto subaltern communities. Stories of organic intellectuals and their impact on this our island home are increasingly heard. Things are not alright for every community, as has been brought to light in the large population of people of color who are imprisoned in the United States’ criminal justice system (Michele Alexander’s work, The New Jim Crow, delves into this present reality), prompting movements like Black Lives Matter. To be sure, there is more work to be done.

While the gains of this era have been arguably significant for some communities and their narratives, it has also left us significantly divided and even more suspicious of each other. The threat of terrorism has further complicated our divisiveness. However, I contend that the root cause of human divisiveness is contained in the original sin of ancient and modern colonialism/racism: the mindset of domination. Part of domination's premise is to practice the mother of post-truths or the meta-lie that some lives are more important than others, consequently adopting a divide and rule strategy. As people who seek justice and peace, we must be careful not to contribute to this morphing lie by building more socially constructed narrow divisions that create “us-them” polarities.  

We can make this a season of consequence by focusing on the human right to self-actualization – that is, the process of growing into people that God intends and hopes for us to be –  but without demonizing others. We can renew our minds by directing our attention to the systemic sins of mindsets and world views that are the root causes for the universal morphing of various ancient forms of domination. I call us to a great repentance because at the root of our political divide is the sin of thinking that we can get by without others who don’t see the world like we do. We cannot and will not. I also call us to a confident yet humble practice of wise Christianity, which chooses to serve Christ in the other without being intimidated by forces that lure us to employ the same tactics of domination such as divide and rule. As Canon Ross would remind us, the word in biological science for uncontrollable and increasing cell division is known to us all: cancer.

Healing our divisions is hard because our common practices and even our language is impoverished and often unhelpful. Let us also be wise in recognizing that inclusion of all does not mean accommodating intimidating-styles of leadership. Let us use our mindful resources to grow into the full stature of Christ by consistently practicing the spiritual art of being wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Repentance, I believe, is a start!

Again: Great Again – Or Never Again?

The second thing I invite you to be careful in is deploying the power of “again.” The apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Philippi, famously encouraged them with these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!” That is an example of a worthy repetition of a value and a practice that is not exclusively Christian: to rejoice! It is good to be reminded to repeat good practices such as generating the joy we share in Christ Jesus not only when things are going the way we want them to but even during hard times. When such a desire is applied to social wellness, it is problematic. There are aspects of our common life like slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans, the Holocaust, intimidation of native peoples, persons who are migrant farmworkers, Muslims, LGBTQ, and other minorities — including the minority status relegated to the environment evidenced in disasters such as Chernobyl — that we don’t want to see repeated. These represent cultural practices and unjust laws to which we need to continue saying, “Not Again!” The interesting thing is that the idea of going back to the “good old days” is a problematic for all people; those who have called the shots and those who have not. Christian exclusivism and American exceptionalism have had a symbiotic relationship in the past and we would be naïve to repeat the damage done to self and other even if they are glazed with good intentions and simplistic gains.

Active Peace: Let Us Be Agents of Transformation

The third invitation is to consider the path of intentional peace, as opposed to a passive peace. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." Matthew 5

To resemble God as children is to understand that Jesus' name cannot be invoked for any coercive strategies. Intentional peace, as opposed to a passive peace, moves things to deeper spiritual realms. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul instructs the saints in Ephesus by saying, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The pursuit of peace is a call to a bloodless war if most of life calls for confrontation. The question is whether we are going to practice violence and even passive aggression or be decidedly nonviolent, yet not passive.

The Civil Rights Movement had a lot to teach us and still does. In his “An Experiment in Love,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reasons with the need for active nonviolent resistance. "For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil."

Jesus called peacemakers Blessed because they are strong agents of transformation who resist evil, not as bystanders in the drama of life who go about life leaving normalized forces like domination and coercion unchallenged. Peace is not the absence of conflict but the intentional nonviolent actions that resist and help transform domineering worldviews into accountable circles of responsibility.

Agency: Here I Am – Send Me

Finally, I must come down to the most foundational aspect of discipleship: agency. It is the “here I am” moment. The place of saying YES to Jesus. Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God” most significantly to bring attention to its locus or embodiment, “within you.” While I believe reading books and listening to others can be helpful, I beseech you also to look and listen deeply within yourself in solitude and in community. These are challenging times that need more than simplistic solutions and mere group sessions, which can be helpful, but are never sufficient. These challenging times also call for deep theological and ethical revelations and practices. Let us continue as leaven marinating and permeating the grassroots of our world by creating small and effective communities and institutions that will spread the culture of practicing beloved community values such as kindness, forgiveness, accountability, and the joy by "putting on Christ" in each other.

In this season of divisiveness, we could seek more balance. The filmmaker Ken Burns crafting a documentary on World War II famously said, "There's too much pluribus and not enough Unum." Jesus is revered the world over for one thing. He emptied himself. He calls us to care for the "other" without annihilating our own "self." Let us never forget that we are more powerful when we are not divided and that the one who is perceived as the least among us is the greatest in God's economy.

Here's hoping for an outpouring of deep and abiding discipleship to challenge and overcome the lie of the “post-truth” world. The force is deep and ever present among us. I hope many of us will take deep dives of thought and action that help transform our worldviews, ourselves, and our world. Let us work toward our unity in this season while we embark on varied expressions of resistance, compromise, reconciliation, and more. Let us keep looking for the face of God when we differ in our strategies concerning refugees, Muslims, undocumented farmworkers, Dreamers, and any person whose personhood is being compromised. We are a good nation with good people who abide by the great laws of this land, which is the land of the free and the home of the brave collectively.