Unity in an Age of Division

Our church hosted a “Unity Forum” after the 2016 elections. I’ll never forget it. Pittsburgh is one city that often feels more like two. There’s Old Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh of the steel industry, I.C. Light, and voting Republican. Then, there’s New Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh of the technology and health industries, microbreweries, and voting Democrat.

At the forum, one side wanted to Make America Great Again, while the other side chose to stand With Her. People from both side, citizens of both the Old and the New Pittsburgh go to our church.

Instead of sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, we often share the same pew. Red and Blue are sprinkled throughout the congregation instead of neatly divided into separate sections. It’s not uncommon to see an outspoken Trump supporter squished into the same pew as someone who marched against Trump.

But on a Sunday during an election season, it can feel about as volatile as Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family. Conversations are cordial as long as no one asks who you voted for.

High Tensions

Tensions were particularly high after the 2016 elections. Social media posts from some of the people in our church were downright offensive. Congregants were wondering what we would say from the pulpit, if we said anything at all.

Our church felt more divided than ever, and we wanted to do something that could heal the disunity before the cement dried. We announced an upcoming “Unity Forum” and invited anyone with feelings—any feelings—to attend.

It seemed like a good idea.

We tried, really really tried, to lead people into face-to-face conversations with one another. We tried to help people seek to understand before they were understood. We tried to teach people how to make sure they could explain what the other person was feeling before they shared what they were feeling. We tried to create unity and, in the end, we only saw how deep the disunity ran.

We saw in our church a microcosm of our country, and we didn’t know what to do about it.

Israel’s Polarized Cultural Moment

We aren’t the first nation to live through a polarized cultural moment. God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel whom he had set free from slavery in Egypt, had their own experiences of disunity.

In 1 Kings 11-12, after King Solomon walked away from the Lord, God promised the kingdom would fall apart under the leadership of Solomon’s son—an act of judgment on Solomon’s worship of foreign gods. And, under the poor leadership of his son Rehoboam, the unified kingdom divided into two: Israel in the north, Judah in the South.

If they had cable news, the anchors would have been stoking the heated rhetoric. Some people would have had “Make Israel Great Again” bumper stickers on their chariots, while others would have been wearing “I’m with Rehoboam” t-shirts. There would have been long arguments on social media about which side was to blame for the division. Feast days would have been full of tension, not unlike our own.

Israel’s Moment of Peace

Only two generations before the division, though, the kingdom was in a far better place. King David was on the throne. The kingdom was mostly at peace with itself, even if it was at war with foreign nations. It was a peaceful, rather than a polarized, cultural moment—one in which the king had time to write poetry.

In Psalm 133, a poem which would be sung for generations to come, David muses,

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

It’s one thing to sing this in a moment of unity, like what Israel experienced under David’s rule. It’s quite another to believe it when your kingdom is divided in two.

As one of the “Songs of Ascents,” a collection of psalms possibly intended to be sung on the way to Jerusalem, this psalm was part of a playlist that was listened to from generation to generation. It was sung when the nation was at peace and when relatives were ready to kill one another. It was sung when politics were cordial and when they were explosive. It was sung when unity was palpable and when disunity was the norm.

In a polarized cultural moment, how can we find the kind of unity David describes in this psalm? Is it even possible?

How Not to Create Unity

While most of us are not sure what oil dripping down Aaron’s head or dew on Mount Hermon feels like, both seem better than whatever we’re experiencing right now. We’re growing tired of the disunity all around us—in the church and outside of it. There’s a sense of malaise about our fragmented, polarized moment.

None of us, though, can seem to agree on what it might look like to pursue unity.

For some of us, unity means not talking about our differences. We can have unity as long as no one brings up politics at dinner or on Sunday morning. We can have unity as long we only stick to the accepted topics of conversation. It’s superficial, of course, and everyone knows it. But it’s better than losing friends over midterm elections.

For others, unity means agreeing on everything. Kyle J. Howard, in his recent article in Fathom Magazine, writes, “As a young Christian, I assumed that being ‘united’ had to also include uniformity.” Until we can agree on everything from politics to baptism, unity will always be just out of reach. In the end, we tend to just surround ourselves with people whose opinions make sense to us.

Then, there’s a third group of people who believe unity is impossible. We’re too divided and too polarized to even pursue unity. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’re never going to agree on everything, and superficial conversations with relatives aren’t worth it.

But is there another way?

Through and In Jesus Christ

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, he opened with Psalm 133:1 as a way to set the stage for the entire book. In the opening chapter, he explains the secret to the unity David describes:

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.[1]

Jesus is the one who makes true unity possible. In his death and resurrection, he created unity across racial and ethnic divides, gender divides, and political divides. It’s a unity even greater than the one David probably imagined when he wrote this psalm. The gospel creates the unity we can never create on our own.

In Ephesians 1:14-18, Paul describes the unity made possible by Jesus, writing,

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Unity is not primarily something we create; it’s something we discover.

What Unity Truly Depends On

In and through Jesus Christ, we have access to unity that goes deeper than surface-level conversations and the need to agree on everything. It’s here that God “has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Ps. 133:3).

When I left the “Unity Forum” back in 2016, it felt like a failure. It felt like we made things worse by trying to make things better. It felt like we were trying to do the impossible at our church by being a church where both sides of the political spectrum could worship the same God from the same pew. I thought people would leave the Unity Forum and never come back again.

In the end, though, people stayed in our church. People showed up the next Sunday and sat down in the same pews. They still talk to one another. They still have hard conversations. We still address political topics from the pulpit, and it tends to offend people on both the left and the right.

No one can create unity with a Unity Forum. If that’s what we’re trying to do, we will always leave feeling like failures.

The best we can do is point to the unbreakable unity we have in and through Jesus Christ—a unity that depends not on whether we can agree on everything or how well we can avoid hard conversations, but on what Jesus did on the cross thousands of years before any midterm election.

Austin Gohn is a pastor at Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a student at Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of a forthcoming book from Gospel-Centered Discipleship on Augustine’s Confessions and young adulthood. You can follow him on Twitter.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 21