Pros and Cons of Unity Movements

I appreciate President-elect Joe Biden’s calls to unity after long years of national fracture, but I confess my unease. Not for the concept of unity, but rather because of common mistaken notions about what unity means. In my experience, when some people call for unity, what they really want is uniformity.

I was born and raised within a religious “unity movement”—a movement that (by the time I arrived) had divided into three major streams and numerous other rivulets. Growing up, I was thoroughly immersed in the notion that we were right and everyone else was wrong; that we had discovered what was real and true, and if only you would believe the truth as we believed it, we could all come together in unity. It’s an enticing mindset.

As in the fundamentalist denomination of my youth, I’ve seen similar calls for unity coming from political conservatives in recent years. “Join us in our full throated support of this president and his policies and then we could all get along.” (My op-ed published last year in our local newspaper challenging this kind of mislabeled appeal was met with resistance from my conservative neighbors.)

So maybe you can understand my discomfort with unity movements. Still I believe unity is possible and a noble goal for our nation. However, the goal must be seen clearly as a quest—not for sameness—but for authentic concord and harmony.

Consider the marvelous coherence of a complex symphony. Diverse instruments play parallel melodies within layers of cadence and rhythm. So much goes on at the same time, it’s difficult for a novice like me to comprehend the complexity. But even my inexperienced ear can appreciate the gorgeous collaboration of sounds and silence.

Consider the stunning balance within an ecosystem. Dramatic varieties of life coexist side by side and thrive—not in spite of—but because of their diversity. Consider the miracle and mystery of the human body. Brains, eyeballs and big toes couldn’t be more different, and yet they work together seamlessly to carry the whole body to wherever we want it to go (most of the time)!

So if Mr. Biden is talking about unity within this kind of context, I’m all in. He has said his administration will “look like America.” That is both beautiful and daunting.

Symphonies don’t just happen. The individual members must come together with good will and commitment each to play their part. The whole orchestra must practice, practice, practice—listening to each other and respecting the leadership of the conductor. Needless to say, many rehearsals will sound dis-harmonic: a chaos of noise instead of a symphonic brilliance. Still they keep at it: coming together, working together, and holding onto their common goal.

Over the past several years, a “dialogue movement” has evolved that seeks to guide us through these current disharmonies toward a more unified society. This unity movement is “based on the idea that there are peaceful, productive ways to communicate whereby all points of view engage each other, listening and learning take place, bad ideas gradually get countered by good ones, and those who continue to disagree nonetheless come to see each other as fellow human beings. From this point of view, then, a good community is one that includes a great deal of difference and disagreement, but does so in a way that enriches the lives of all.” (allsides.com/dictionary)

This is my dream for this land that I love: unity that celebrates our diversity and benefits from our differences. But dreams don’t just happen any more than symphonies do. If our nation is going to accomplish authentic unity it will demand from each one of us and all of us together good will, commitment, and practice, practice, practice.


Learn more about The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation

Explore Living Room Conversations as a good tool to engage in productive dialogue across differences. LivingRoomConversations.org

Photo credit: New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra @ Symphony Space (March 14, 2010) Dave Wharton Photgraphy

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