Divided We Fall

I pray “That they may all be one.”
This verse from John is one of those phrases from scripture
that is so well-worn
that it can begin to lose its meaning.
Jesus’ words so easily
become an aspiration to which everyone ascribes,
but toward which almost no one strives.
Oneness.
Unity.
Beloved community.
The heady hopes of counter-culture movements the world over.
The dream, too, of our counter-cultural brother, Jesus.

We hear well-meaning pleas for greater unity all the time,
from all quarters of our society, don’t we?
And yet, these pleas are so very easy to ignore, to dismiss.
I ignore them.
I dismiss them.
For the most part, we have no idea
how to actually work toward greater oneness, greater unity…
nor whether we even really want to do so.
Indeed, the hope of unity can seem to verge on impossibility:
becoming an ever more naive and fanciful aspiration
in our increasingly multicultural and pluralistic world.
And while the deep divisions in our society can cause much pain,
we don’t tend to yearn very deeply for oneness,
to crave a deeper experience of unity.
Part of why we don’t have much of a hunger for unity,
I think,
is because we presume that achieving oneness
would require us to put aside our differences…
…to strip away our distinctives until all that remains is
some sort of contiguous substrata of shared human-ness:
that place where we’re all supposedly more-or-less alike.
And yet, many of us viscerally resist this de-individuation.
I get downright queasy when I hear people say:
we’re all really the same, deep down.
Because we aren’t.
It isn’t true.
And it isn’t helpful,
even if expressions of this sentiment
can sometimes help effect a burst of short-term tolerance.

We aren’t the same and don’t want to be the same,
and yet, we also don’t easily tolerate too much difference.
We clap politely when public figures urge us toward unity,
all the while tacitly acknowledging
that we have no intention of really getting to know people
who are more than a few degrees different than ourselves.
We’ll have friends of different races, of course,
as long as they have comparable educational levels
and compatible cultural tastes.
But more than a few degrees of difference
can make things just a little too uncomfortable.

I remember well an interfaith gathering that I attended
several times a year back when I lived in California.
The mission of the host organization
was “to promote mutual understanding, respect, appreciation,
and cooperation among people of faith”.
In other words – to seek unity.
We always met in big halls around circular tables,
with chicken picatta and a mystery vegetable medley for dinner.
And almost invariably,
people sat with others of the same religion and the same race,
as we listened to rousing speeches about being in right relationship
with people of different religions and cultures,
speeches about celebrating and honoring our differences.
At opportune moments during these orations,
when we were supposed to feel the warmth of community,
many would glance knowingly toward the other tables
and offer tepidly hospitable smiles that said:
I see you over there,
but we really don’t have to do the awkward dance
of pretending to be interested in each other.
I’ll promise not to treat your people badly,
but I’m not going to really try to get to know you,
or your culture,
or your religion.
I’m comfortable right over here,
and I’m gonna let you be comfortable right over there.

At the end of these gatherings,
I remember hearing other attendees commenting about how wonderful
it was to be part of such a diverse and vibrant interfaith community.
And I remember always feeling saddened by these reactions,
because eating dinner while listening to a speaker
is simply not the same thing as being a community,
especially when we have eaten and listened
while sitting at segregated dinner tables,
trying our best to avoid a conversation
with someone who is too different from us.

And these interfaith banquets were not an anomaly, of course,
but simply a microcosm of how we habitually self-segregate
in our churches,
in our schools,
in our cities,
in our nation,
and in our world…
…even when we think we’re “doing diversity” well.

Since I first arrived in Philadelphia,
a little over 5 months ago now,
I’ve heard so many people
celebrate the incredible diversity of this city.
And the diversity is indeed incredible and inspiring.
But did you know that Philadelphia
is also the 4th most segregated city in the United States,
trailing only Chicago, Atlanta, and Milwaukee?

It’s a tough word – segregation.
It’s a word that many of us presume to have expired
with the successes of the Civil Rights movement,
as segregated schools and other public institutions
became officially illegal.
And yet, our society is still incredibly segregated.
Many of us still choose to live in relatively mono-cultural neighborhoods.
And apparently moreso in Philly
than in many other American cities.
And segregation is problematic for a whole host of reasons.
Segregation erodes a sense of common destiny…
…erodes a sense of empathy and compassion
for those who are very different from us.
The further away “the other” lives,
it seems,
the more other they become to us.

In the continuing unfolding of the current presidential primary season,
I have been ruminating
about the seemingly intractable divisions that face our nation
and about about the patterns of segregation
that help to keep these divisions alive and well.

I’ve also spent some time thinking about the particular divisions
that I not only tolerate, but that I sometimes even celebrate.
The mental divisions between “good people” and “bad people”
that I use to help me feel safe,
that I use to validate my causes and concerns.
In particular, I’ve been reflecting upon
the disdain and condescension I can tend feel
toward working-class white people.
You may know that I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin,
which is an incredibly white place.
It’s also a place where football and hunting
occupy much of casual conversation.
Our football team’s name comes from the meatpacking plants
that were a staple of blue collar employment in our city’s history.
Paper mills still run day and night in Green Bay,
and things you use everyday in your home
are still made in my hometown:
Bounty paper towels,
Charmin toilet paper,
Puffs tissues.

Green Bay is an industrial city,
and many of the kids I grew up with
had parents who worked unionized industrial jobs.
Green Bay was a conservative, provincial place,
and it’s a place I was eager to escape as a teenager…
…a place I resented for not being able to accept me
as a creative, sensitive, smart young man
who would eventually realize he was gay.

Fast-forwarding to today,
the working class experience is not something I think much about,
although I’m surrounded by it where I live in South Philly.
Factory work is something quite removed from most of us
who live in Eastern seaboard cities,
largely because so many manufacturing jobs
have been outsourced overseas.
And that outsourcing of blue-collar jobs
has been devastating
to a huge number of people in this country.
Rampant blue-collar unemployment
has, understandably, led to deep frustration –
a frustration that is often channeled into a political desire
to reclaim an America of the past –
an America where manual labor still warranted dignity and respect,
an America where a blue-collar worker wasn’t a second class citizen,
an America where the social order felt more stable and comprehensible.

Yet,
rather than trying to understand the struggles
of working class people,
rather than trying to comprehend how those struggles
can fuel the construction of worldviews that I find repugnant,
I tend to pre-emptively categorize working class white people
as probable bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes.
And in so doing,
I almost completely write them off.
I almost completely shut the door to the possibility of oneness.
I almost reject the possibility that patterns of division could be undone.
And I prematurely and categorically begin to create an Other.

And this “Othering” is quite dangerous.
Dangerous because
Jesus has shown us that division
is harmful to to our spiritual health.
That to be divided from a neighbor,
is to be divided from God.
That accepting anything less than unity
is accepting something less than the fullness
of God’s redemptive power in our lives.

We tend think of unity as over-and-above the call of duty.
Something that would be nice to work on
when we’ve solved all of our other pressing problems.
But what if division IS the problem?
What if segregation IS the problem?
What if our chronic “Othering” IS the problem?

And what if there is also a way forward,
a way out of these deeply ingrained patterns of separation?

Civically, we often think that we can legislate our way out of problems.

In church life, we often think that we can program our way out of problems:
creating a new class, or group, or project to address some issue or another.

But what if the way forward is much simpler?
What if the simple truth is that relationships
are the only way forward?
And that it’s possible to have a relationship
with someone who disagrees with you
on some very important things.

And that the mutual conversions that happen in and through
these kinds of unlikely relationships
are the only reason that many things ever change in our world.

So perhaps our work as Christians, then,
is to actively go looking for just these kinds of unlikely relationships.

But where, you might ask?
Where do we begin seeking unlikely relationships?
Do I need to head back to Green Bay,
or to Bonnie’s Capistrano,
a bar in my South Philly neighborhood
that still allows indoor smoking?

Maybe eventually.
But the good news is that there are plenty
of unexpected relationships to be had right here.
As I’ve been getting to know you,
I’ve also been discovering that many of you
are still strangers to one another.
I’ve also been discovering that,
like all people,
you can sometimes be afraid of approaching someone new.

But I’m going to invite you to try it today, even if it’s uncomfortable.
It could be the beginning of something new and wonderful.

So, right at the end of worship,
I’d like you to introduce yourself to someone
you don’t yet know and who seems intriguing to you.
You could even break the ice by saying:
“I’m doing my sermon homework,
and I’d like to get to know you a little.”

Now some of you may flee from this assignment.
And I understand.
Knowing and being known is scary stuff.
But isn’t that ultimately why you come here each week?
Because you yearn to be known?
Because you yearn for relationship with God
and with other human beings?

It’s okay to admit it.
Others here feel it, too, you know.
There’s so much desire for connection in this place.

So let’s begin.
And whether we intend it or not,
we’ll be joining in on God’s project of unity,
God’s aspiration that we would all be one.
Because unity is built very simply:
one surprising,
unlikely,
redemptive
relationship at a time.

May it be so.
Amen

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