Unity Amidst Diversity OR Are we going to be Soup or Salad?

Reflection by Jim Turner, October 14, 2012

Our Divided Political Heart, The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, by E. J. Dionne, Jr.

Christian Scriptures: 1Corinthians 12:12, 14-17

Back in the mid-1970s I wrote and delivered a message titled: “Unity Amidst Diversity.”   It became a message I revised and delivered a number of times over the years.  It became my understanding of who we were as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  If you are visiting this morning, or perhaps fairly new to sharing in our fellowship, you may not be aware that this congregation is fully recognized in three Church denominations.  We are recognized in the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, and the Disciples of Christ.  (Pause a moment)  I think that makes us “UniPresbySciples!”

While I went to a multi-denominational seminary for my graduate degree, The Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, I was raised in; ordained in; and endorsed as a Chaplain in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  The Disciples of Christ is an American origin church, developing out of a period of revivalism in our country’s history.  Its birth is usually identified with the Great Revival of 1801 at the Cane Ridge Meeting House near Paris, Kentucky.  Its founding slogans were, “We are not the only Christians, but seek only to be Christian,” “No creed but Christ,” and “Where the scriptures speak, we speak, where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.”  Seeking to unify Christians under a simple, non-creedal faith, the early founders resisted becoming a denomination.  Even after admitting they had become yet another denomination the Disciples continued to reject creeds, to work toward ecumenical relationships, and to remained tenaciously congregational in its structure.

These aspects, as well as its value of independent thinking led the Disciples of Christ to grow into a fairly diverse religious institution.  Its lack of creedal statements and its diversity of belief, made it difficult for this denomination, (not unlike our congregation), to identity itself to others.   I sense the Disciples of Christ has always lived with an identity crisis, a crisis that lead this movement, intent upon unifying Christianity in a simple, creedless tradition, to split more than once over its history.  The Disciples greatest weakness, nevertheless, was also its greatest strength.  That is, it found its unity in its diversity.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was a natural outgrowth of the rugged individualism and free thinking of a young country’s expansion into its new frontier.  In its early days it was, in fact, a frontier church.  America was moving west.  The nation continued to grow.  Others, also looking for new hope and new freedom in this “New World,” continued to immigrate.  Like this new church of rugged individualists, America was to become known for its diversity.  I think it is unfortunate, however, that the metaphor which we have come to know ourselves by is “the melting pot” of the world.  When I think of a melting pot I think of colorful elements melted down into a bland mixture.  Yet, as a country, we have always struggled with our diversity.  We have, for too long, wanted every-one who comes here to look and act like us.  We seem to have a difficulty with integrating difference into our society and culture.

This has been so since our founding.  Look at the Pilgrims.  They came here seeking religious freedom.  All too soon they became Puritanical, and everything was about correct religious belief.  And the first fault they found was in the spirituality of the native peoples.  Throughout our history we seem to have struggled with new religions and cultures entering our midst.  Whether the Irish of New York, the Chinese rail workers, the Africans fresh off the Plantations, or the Mexican seasonal migrant workers, we have resisted the new and the different.  And, even with all of the evidence against Islam being a violent faith, many of us put the violent acts of a radicalized minority on the backs of all Muslims.

Nationally, we also struggle with an identity crisis. I think we struggle with whether we want to be “soup,” or “salad.”  Like the melting pot, soup is a blending of different ingredients to make a blended mixture of taste.  A salad finds its rich taste in the very diversity of ingredients which maintain their individual identity.  We seem to be struggling with which we want to be in this nation.  If we look at the far Right of the spectrum in our country we find the Tea Party movement and others who want their individuality, which seems to mean, everyone be like me… look like me; believe like me; act like me.  On the other end of the spectrum we find we so called “liberals,” who value the full range of people who make up our culture.  And, at the extreme of this end of the spectrum there is little patience individualism.  I think what has made this country great is the creative tension between these two extremes.  It seems to me we have lost the creativity, leaving only the tension between them.

E. J. Dionne, Jr. reflects on this lost creative tension in terms of Individualism and a sense of community.   Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and University Professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.  In his latest book, Our Divided Political heart, E. J. demonstrates the creative tension our nation has held since its founding; a creative tension between individualism and a sense of community.  E. J. argues that this creative tension has been broken between the Republican Right and the Democratic Left.  The Right fights for the rights of the individual, (at least the rights they find meaningful), while not taking seriously a sense of community.  On the other hand, he argues, that we on the Right argue for the importance of community while not giving enough credence to individual liberty.  While these differences have always been a part of our political landscape, Dionne shows how these have shifted between the two political parties over their history, and how they have drawn a part, leaving a deep divide between them.

Writing in Our Endangered Values, former President Jimmy Carter lifts up the dangers of this kind of extremism.   Speaking about extremism and the breaking down of the intentional divide between church and state, Carter wrote that “Fundamentalism in any religion, [and this includes Christianity], is dangerous.”  He also makes a strong case for how Fundamentalism has found its way into our American Politics.  And, it is, perhaps, even more dangerous there. Published in 2005, Carter’s book goes into detail about the extremism and insertion of religion into government and concludes that what we need most in government are moderates; moderates who are willing to reach across the center line and find compromise. This certainly will not happen as long as one side, or the other, understands “compromise” as “you come over to our side.”  This is not going to happen when a fourteen year old girl named Malala is shot in the head because she stood up for herself and the girls of her country to get an education.  This is not going to happen when, in the same week, the Nobel Prize is given to scientists making discoveries in Chemistry and Quantum Physics and senators serving on the science committee of Congress state that a woman cannot get pregnant if she is “legitimately” raped and that the earth is “young,” “created in seven days as we know them,” and “The Bible is all we need to have to lead this country.”

Alright, this is where, I move toward solutions, correct.  Here is where I tell you what you as an individual and we as a congregation can do to work toward a resolution of this divide in our nation.

Unfortunately, I have no idea.  Therefore, I will stop and pass around the microphone…

…But, before I do, a couple more observations.  Every weekday morning I drive about 80 children from just North-East of the convergence of G.E. and Airport road to Benjamin Grade School.  When I look in the mirror over my head I see a rainbow coalition of races, cultures, and religions.  (I know the latter because one of my little girls wears the Hijab, and more than one mother wears a Burka.)  It is a beautiful sight.  I truly do believe that diversity is a wonderful thing, and I believe that we really can find unity in our diversity.  If you think about it, Paul’s metaphor is powerful.  Our bodies are wonderful things.  They are marvelous because they are complex.  All the different parts are what make it function so well as a whole.  E.J. Dionne is correct, “Both [individualism and community] are essential to the American story and to America’s strength.” (p. 4)

So, since I don’t have the answer, what do you think?  How do we respond to our lost value of diversity? Do we value diversity in our own congregation?  Are we as diverse as we would like to be?  How do we respond to the divide in our national politics?  Are we as extreme in our views as the other side?  How do we learn to respect those of differing views? How do we respond to extremism, in our nation and in the world?