Unity, Not Compliance
Years ago, I attended a church in the New Thought movement. Before I jump in with where I’m going here, I want to be fair. It wasn’t without its issues.
The broader New Thought movement itself has been going through a lot regarding its own identity in a time where more and more people are “spiritual, but not religious,” yet no longer bound to a nominal sense or expression of Christianity that New Thought can provide. Gurus, metaphysical fads, and even a presidential candidate eclipse the familiar set-up of a preacher and her congregation.
But even amidst all that, there was a sense of unity that was utterly perplexing.
I went to church with a Jewish friend, and the first service where we reconnected was a hands-on healing service centered on a tradition that comes out of India. Our pastor too had spent time in India studying spirituality and metaphysics under a guru before somehow integrating it all into the kind of heart-opening Christianity that leaves you believing in angelic visitors, prophets, and the healing power of back country revivals.
What struck my friend and I completely dumbfounded was how different the individual congregants were to one another. At a time when the country seems gripped by an unshakeable divisiveness–black vs white, liberal vs conservative, men vs women, gay vs straight, and so on–here was this church that managed to deflect all of that in such a way that people across these differences came together, communed together, and put the focus back on someone greater than themselves at least for one morning each week.
Diehard Sanders and Trump supporters embraced each other with real hugs, and real concern for one another’s well-being. Interracial couples, gay couples, single moms, Christians, Hindus, Jews, New Agers, and so many others–all there in one place, enraptured in this practice (it wasn’t even just a belief) that G-d is one, that G-d’s love surrounds us, and that we can live as one people in the midst of that love.
And there was such a natural ease to it. No one sat around pointing out their differences or hawing over how good we were for working to make them not matter. It was just unity. It was just oneness.
It was the most awe-inspiring experience of G-d’s presence I’ve felt in any community so far in my life.
And I couldn’t stay in it. Maybe it was my age or the “darkness” a healer I met there saw still in my heart. Maybe it was media and ideologically driven drama.
At the start of the pandemic shutdown that eventually robbed me of my livelihood, I came tumbling back to a reality of economics, winners vs losers, disease, infection, and dire differences located just beneath the surface. And I never made it back to that church after that. Part of me resented the “best lives” so many luminaries of that church were living, unfazed by the world around them. Part of me disbelieved their entire reality, as the “reality” of my own struggles eclipsed this fantasy I’d allowed myself to escape into.
Looking back now, it feels almost like a test that I failed in some sense, a test of how far I could carry that unity down from the mountaintop and back to the world that lives apart from it. I didn’t make it past the parking lot.
What Does Unity Even Mean?
I remember hearing a lot about unity with the election of Biden. And yes, I am so forgiving and so un-cynical, that for a brief moment, I believed that was what we could look forward to.
As the media paraded narratives about historic firsts, thwarted coups and fascism, and a reappropriated concern for the “soul of the nation,” I was looking forward to a return to mediocrity, a unity of uneventfulness.
Over the last year, as vaccine conspiracies have become enacted social policies around the world, I’ve begun to understand this is unity only in the Orwellian sense of doublespeak. More accurately, we might call it compliance or totalitarianism. It’s a severed unity defined by the meaningfulness assigned to our differences.
And it is everywhere now. (Did we all fail that test?). On storefront windows, plastered in big bold headings, flashing at the top of church websites, between us and the grocery market, the Christmas markets, schools, families, relationships of all kinds–the division is the most salient commonality, and given so much power to define who we must be.
Here’s the President who ran a campaign on the promise of unity:
“We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this.
For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”
I miss the unity of praising G-d with people I didn’t see eye to eye with, sharing a faith that G-d will sort out our differences. Unity starts with accepting people where they are, treating their concerns as real enough at least for them, and talking to them like they aren’t idiots for whom you have nothing but contempt.
Unity means working as a team, one country some might even suggest as appropriate here. This country needs leadership that’s willing to build bridges across different perspectives and concerns, not privilege one over the other and reiterate the difference until it feels insurmountably intrinsic to our nature.
This country needs G-d. And more people who see each other as brothers and sisters in Creation.