Monday, April 24, 2017

Divisive Unity

Trump and Republicans and many of their supporters have, since the election, many times said, "The election is over.  Get over it.  We need a unified country."  Oftentimes these statements are followed with, "You've never seen the Republicans act that way."

Of course, anyone with an unbiased memory will immediately know these statements for what they are: hypocritical amnesia.  Many Republicans protested Obama's election claiming he was/is not American and Muslim (as if that is supposed to matter); many Republican Congressmen explicitly and publicly said they'd reject any Obama policies just to stall the government in order to elect a Republican Congress and President; and Republicans initiated the whole Supreme Court nomination fiasco (though Gorsuch is a good selection, the fiasco is the process) by unprecedentedly refusing to hold hearings for Garland--this last one is particularly difficult because the reasoning was that the American people had the right to vote for a president to nominate the justice and, even if we ignore the fact that we had a sitting president who just nominated someone, the presidential election campaign technically and officially does not start until the conventions in June.  Given all these quite recent events, a Republican telling a Democrat to 'get over it' is hypocritical.  Adding that Republicans would never act 'that way,' meaning protests and stalling, is nothing but amnesia.

By the way I've begun here you might think I'm launching into Republican bashing.  I'm not.  As always, it is important to hold one another accountable for the truthfulness and genuineness of our statements, but here I'm more concerned with the Republicans' call for unity.  Unity was a major talking point for all the candidates in the election and certainly was a talking point afterwards, too.  After the election, Trump, McConnell, Ryan and others all said it was time to forget everything past and move on together because he, and this Congress, would be for the people, all the people.  It's been rather clear that Trump is not a president for all the people, but let's put that aside for the moment as well.  Let's just focus on this call to unity amidst hypocritical amnesia.

What do people mean when they call for and pray for unity?  Obviously, when you are on the 'losing' side and you call for and pray for unity, unity for the sake of the good of all people is indeed what you want.  That is true because if your chosen policies and leaders have lost, then you gain nothing by becoming unified around a different set of policies and leaders.  Gaining nothing is perhaps the purest evidence we have of altruistic motives.  If, on the other hand, you gain total control by calling for unity because the majority is on your side, then unity is not necessarily altruistic.  When unity gives you everything then when you say, 'unity,' what you're really saying is, 'power and dominance.'  Calls for unity from a position of strength sounds oppressive to those on the losing side whose voices would be drowned out in supposed unity. 

While I do not mean to say that all Republicans who call for unity have ulterior motives and are actually power hungry, hoping to silence those who disagree, it is almost certainly true that when a victor calls for unity, those who are defeated feel silenced and oppressed.  Whether the victor likes it or not, and whether the country or organization in question needs unity or not, those in the minority who hear, "Let's forget our differences and move on as a unified whole," are actually hearing, "Look, our side is clearly stronger, give up, shut up, and assimilate."  You may say that responding in such a self-victimized way is not appropriate, that the victors, in this case Republicans, do not want to silence or oppress anyone and, again, the losers should get over it and move on.  You may say that.  But the typical loser's response is at least legitimate.  The Founding Fathers created a government that would protect minority voices and groups for this particular reason.  Our government's constitution and structure acknowledges that throughout history minority voices and groups have been silenced and oppressed in the name of unity and assimilation. 

The United Methodist Church, in which I am a pastor, knows this well.  Currently we are intensely debating homosexuality in the church (I don't know how to properly talk about this.  Saying, 'the issue of homosexuality' is certainly not right, nor is 'the place of homosexuality.'  What I have here said doesn't sound right, either, but alas).  This debate has raged for a long time and is now seemingly coming to a breaking point as the Church has yet to budge from its stance that, while persons who are homosexual are welcome and loved, persons who are homosexual cannot be married or ordained.  Lately, because of the intensity of the debate, there have been many calls for unity.  As a church, the Church has said, we have to be unified, since we are the Body of Christ after all.  Of course, the problem is that unity sounds great to those who are confident that we can and will rally around keeping the status quo, the tradition; while to those in the LGBTQ+ and alliance community, unity sounds like a subtle new way of perpetuating their silence.  Indeed, how would you feel if for thirty years you have been fighting for what you believe to be right, all the while being shut out not only from the church but from the very discussion, and then at the moment when your movement had momentum the majority portions said, "Well, wait, let's have unity"?  How would you feel?  Would you not feel like unity were being used as a silencing and oppressing tool?  To silence you so that the majority position could regain complete control?  If you didn't feel that way then you probably didn't care much about your positions in the first place.

Herein lies the difficulty: unity is a good ideal because any organization is stronger when unified, but when humans are involved differences of opinion--no, passionate differences of opinion are inevitable.  Calls for unity are, by nature, divisive. 

Divisive unity may sound disconcerting to you.  The idea that calling for unity might create more division, especially at times when it seems unity is most needed, may be troubling to you.  But you shouldn't be troubled.  Our country and Western religions are built on the right and the necessity for prophecy, for standing for justice in the name of liberty.  Without prophecy, without the freedom to voice one's sense of prophetic justice in a divisive climate, we would still be a slave-holding country, Jesus wouldn't have existed, and we'd be a part of Great Britain.  To put it bluntly, life would suck if we were always unified.  There must be room for divisive unity; there must be room for people to not 'get over it and move on' when justice and mercy are at stake, when the very ideals of our country are at stake.  Prophecy and liberty must never be stifled.

So where does that leave us?  First of all, we should get over and move on from hypocritical amnesia.  In general, we should probably never say, 'We won, get over it.'  Beyond that, we need to create space for dialogue.  People who are in the minority do need to accept that their positions may not always carry the day, but they have a right to expect that they will be heard.  Our political system has taught candidates, and the rest of us, that as long as we have enough votes we don't need those who disagree with us (remember Mitt Romney's famous statement?).  That is the wrong approach.  We cannot legitimately call for unity when we don't care about those in our unified bubble who aren't like us.  At the end of the day, then, unity must be a place where all people are invited to gather to speak and also to be heard.  The reason why minority voices and groups raise hell as they do is because, first, they believe they are right, but secondly because they are silenced.  We must hear one another and accept that we cannot all agree, and this also includes ensuring that the processes by which we make decisions are transparently fair (hint hint). 

We need to embrace divisive unity in order to move forward.  Perhaps the best way to embrace divisive unity is by limiting the number of universal rules our organizations have.  For the UMC, perhaps open the door to allow marriages and ordinations if the church, pastor, or conference involved are okay with it; for our government, perhaps take a more libertarian approach on social policies and let science do the talking for agency policies.  Whatever we do, rather than silence our divisions, we must let those divisions be our unity, because throughout history the minority's voice and prophecy has always made civilization move forward stronger.

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