Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
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There’s a lot of talk swirling around these days about “unity.”
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I believe unity is a good thing. A noble and necessary thing.
But, to paraphrase Indigo Montoya, I think a lot of people who are using that word don’t really seem to know what it means.
The White Church of the Christian Center
By way of a case study, let’s take this past Sunday night’s Super Bowl commercial[i] by Jeep, featuring Bruce Springsteen at the U.S. Center Chapel in Kansas talking about our need to meet each other in the middle.
On the surface, it’s a wonderful thought…the idea that there is somehow some place of common ground on which people of all perspectives can meet.
But, as author Diana Butler-Bass noted in her weekly newsletter, The Cottage, “The commercial…falls short from the perspectives of both history and theology. […] Beyond its obvious emotional appeal, aspects of the narrative are troubling” (italics original).
“First, there is no mention of the original inhabitants of the land — the Pawnee tribe. Second, the only person in the ad — Bruce Springsteen — seems a lonesome figure oddly disconnected from community even as he pleads for a ‘ReUnited’ States of America. But third, and perhaps most important, the symbols of the commercial are singularly Christian, a damaging neglect of religious diversity. A white chapel with a steeple. Inside, under the words ‘Pray America,’ hangs a wooden flag in the shape of the American mainland. A cross, with a heart, is nailed over Kansas. Despite the beauty of the ad, and what is an important and well-intentioned message, the whole thing left me wondering: Is ‘unity’ for white Christians only?”[ii]
Stuck in the middle with…me
I think that last statement nails the issue.
We normalize our own perspectives and experiences.
Very few people would ever identify themselves as being on the fringes or extremes.
We all believe we ARE the middle…even those of us who are furthest from it.
Which means that, when we talk about “unity,” our expectation is for everyone else to give up their position and come around to ours.
In the words of 1970’s one-hit-wonder Stealer’s Wheel, there’s nothing but clowns to the left of us and jokers to the right.
Is that your brood of vipers?
A friend of mine texted me this morning to tell me about a meeting they were in where the speaker was talking about this whole idea of unity and meeting in the middle. The topic had something to do with how family gatherings among people with differing political views have been shown to be shorter in recent years than they were previously.
The implication is that we don’t like spending time with people with whom we disagree.
It’s one thing for us to have honest differences of opinion over matters of policy. But where is the “middle” when it comes to disagreements over whether children should be kept in cages at the border, or whether BIPOC, women, or LGBTQ+ people should enjoy the same legal protections and economic advantages that I do as a middle-aged white man?
I’m not sure “unity” between people who strive for full human dignity and those who are fine with the exploitation of others is possible.
That’s why real unity requires repentance. It demands a change of direction from injustice toward justice.
Still waiting for the crumbs
Unity is not as simple a concept as it sounds like.
It takes work.
It takes the hard, sometimes painful labor of self-examination.
It requires sacrifice.
But not necessarily on both sides.
Oppressed people should not have to just endure “slightly less oppression” in the name of unity.
Folks who are victimized by unjust systems and structures shouldn’t be expected to be happy with the crumbs from the table.
The work of unity is the work of the privileged.
It’s not meeting in the middle.
It’s dismantling systemic political, economic, and social disparities that benefit some by harming others.
It requires the vulnerability that comes with leaving our place of privilege and going to the ends of the earth to make sure everyone gets treated with fairness and equality…even (especially) when that means giving up our own advantages.
Only then will we find true unity.