Why was Paul so upset that members of the church at Corinth were identifying themselves over and against one another in terms of who had baptised whom? Why, in John’s Gospel, do we read that unity is essential if the world is to know that Jesus was sent by the Father? And, in keeping with the justice theme of this series of Christmas reflections, what does a vision of Christian unity say about how we pursue justice?
Though there are many ways to frame the problem, I wonder whether one potential ‘opposite’ of unity is an excessive form of tribalism (not that tribal or shared identity is itself always bad). Tribal societies arguably emerged as practical ways of banding together as a shared form of survival – no bad thing. At its worst, though, tribalism can express itself in extreme forms of ethnocentrism, where the value of others is so denigrated that the ‘other’ is demonised and where ethno-cleansing (or other forms of ‘cleansing’) can become almost routine.
Tribalism builds on our having a claim (via kinship or shared interest) on local, familiar ‘others’; but Christian tribalism (if we can call it that) could start with something different: for there is an ‘Other’ who has a prior claim on me and on us all. Christian tribalism could be different from other tribalisms, for our shared identity should not come primarily from us. Rather, it depends on our realisation that God’s love, something we cannot earn or possess, graciously shifts the vortex of any self-referent tribalism away from ourselves. Indeed, one way of reading disputes in the early Church is to see a budding movement away from being a small tribal Jewish sub-sect, to realising that this movement is precisely not about us, certainly not about who baptised whom, and perhaps not even about who believes this or that potentially divisive ‘theological idea’.
The realisation that identity (and so unity) is a gift, a gift modelled on God’s ultimately trustworthy love, shifts the goalposts. We are defined by the claims made on us – both by the Other and also by every ‘other’, who are all loved by the same God; and living the truth of that claim impels us to love both our neighbour and our so-called enemies, for God ‘makes his sun to rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust’ (Mt 5.45). Indeed it is love of our enemies, which is to say love of other tribes, that apparently ought to distinguish us. Christian unity is not for ‘our sake’, not for our tribe’s sake, but for the sake of others, whom we are to love audaciously and sacrificially. In these days, such love is expressed principally by yearning and striving for justice for others.
If we Christians can do that together, if internecine tribal instincts are trumped by effective concern for others, even for the most vilified, then we will be witnessing to the power of God’s love to provide a vision beyond intra- and extra-tribal differences, a vision beyond hatred, beyond ethnocentrism, beyond the tensions that lead to violence and war. Such was the vision of the Kingdom, where God’s love defined and subordinated all other relations, where our freedom to love others was to be the hallmark of our having received the Spirit, of our having dreamt the dream. But if we can’t do that even amongst ourselves, if we eschew unity, then we descend to idolatry, preferring the darkness, and trumpeting to the world that what divides us is fundamentally more important than what unites us, more important even than God.
Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham