Could our nation possibly be more divided than it is today? One side of the political spectrum calls for racial justice, while the other decries concepts like white privilege and systemic racism as “unpatriotic.” One side recognizes Joe Biden as the president-elect, while the other adamantly believes baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud. One side wears face masks and observes physical distancing, while the other ignores science in the name of individual liberties.
This division feels deeply unsettling to many Christians. The “good news” at the heart of the faith is a message of reconciliation. We’ve heard about how this gospel famously tore down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. Many Christians can remember when that same gospel fueled the work of Dr. King and other American Civil Rights leaders. At some critical moments of division, the message of Jesus has inspired a justice that breaks barriers.
But what if now, at a time when the need for unity feels more urgent than ever, the church has lost sight of what the idea really means? What if we’ve settled for the easiest imaginable version of unity, and it’s slowly tearing us apart?
In the opening pages of his classic book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made some incisive observations about the churches of his day. He noticed that people had traded in the real and costly grace of God for “cheap grace.”
Cheap grace, he described, is a grace that is so free it demands nothing of anyone at any time. It is so free that it dares not introduce an obligation upon people, before or after forgiveness is granted. It amounts to “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
The key point here, and the reason these words are so bold, is that cheap grace does not come from God: it is “the grace we bestow upon ourselves.” Real grace, he insisted, is costly. It is costly not only to God, who gave up the one and only Son, but also to us. It demands and entails our repentance. The loving of our neighbors as ourselves. The picking up our crosses and following Jesus into discipleship.
Perhaps this contrast—the real, difficult version of something held up against the cheap and easy imitation—will help us navigate the disaster of American disunity.
In the context of the Christian faith, we could describe the ideal of unity this way: despite the many factors that would threaten to divide us, Christians’ shared faith in Jesus binds us together in loving relationship. If ever there were a case of “easier said than done,” this is it. And so we have to consider, how exactly might we do this? How does a group of people who experience a host of divisive pressures maintain the love, resilience, forgiveness, belonging, and unity of its members? There seem to be three possible paths to unity—two that lead to something cheap, and one that leads to something real.
First is the path of conformity. A church that might theoretically contain Republicans and Democrats, for instance, creates a culture where being a true Christian requires a particular political affiliation. Litmus tests are employed, such as people’s views on abortion or the Black Lives Matter movement. Unity is lost because those who don’t conform one way or another are excluded and eventually expelled.
Next is the path of silence. A church that contains Republicans and Democrats, for instance, creates a culture where it is taboo to discuss anything with a political dimension—which includes all social issues. So whether you’re listening to a sermon or chatting in a Zoom small group, you won’t hear a word about immigration, racism, or marriage equality. Unity is unknown because the community only ever engages topics of personal piety.
These two approaches create the illusion of unity, but I’m afraid it’s what Bonhoeffer would call “the unity we bestow upon ourselves.”
There is only one path to true unity: honesty, grace, and most importantly, justice. This path is far costlier because it places demands on everyone. Demands to listen, to learn, to love. It requires that political opponents listen to each other. White and Black members in Sunday School must discuss systemic racial injustice. Straight and queer parishioners must grapple with the dehumanizing effects of heteronormativity. And unity demands that these same people, even when they disagree or miscommunicate, continue to love each other with the love Jesus displayed on the cross.
This path is even costlier because we can’t fall back on a simple both-sides-ism. The views of a white supremacist are not acceptable, while those of a justice-seeker are. Those who deny the outcome of a free and fair election are not on equal footing with those who accept it. People will need to be called out for bigotry and dehumanization, as all of these painful conversations must be conducted with an eye to God’s justice.
Yet, the church’s job is not to purge itself and cast out all conservatives. Its job is to disciple everyone, liberals and conservatives together, in the way of Jesus. There is a tension here—the church must cleanse itself of all racism, but not of all racists; all oppression, but not all oppressors; all evil, but not all evildoers (for who would be left within its walls?).
The work will be difficult. But true unity, like true grace, is worth it.