During times of turmoil, calls for unity are predictable, laudable, and sometimes sinister. The ugly specter of white supremacy in Charlottesville, protests and counter-protests that have turned violent, violence by and against police, a bitter presidential election, an increasingly polarized nation…we all say “ENOUGH!” People of good faith are understandably yearning for peace and unity. However, calls for unity are at times simply a lazy response to evil that we refuse to address. Even worse, these seemingly holy calls for unity could be tools to perpetuate and further obscure injustice.
Two examples occurred at a recent presidential campaign rally in Arizona. Court evangelical Franklin Graham opened the rally with a prayer in which he asked God to shut the mouths of those who look to divide with calls for unity. Who was he referring to? The response of the crowd at this point in his prayer (cheering and applause) leads me to believe he was referring not only to the white supremacists but to the hated “leftist” counter-protesters. The President has certainly made it clear that he considers both sides guilty of causing division and violence, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume the same sentiment in Mr. Graham’s prayer. Ben Carson’s speech at the same rally is even more direct: “The purveyors of hatred and division, they want to divide us on the basis of race, income, age and religion. But you know what? We are much too smart to fall for that garbage!”
Both Graham and Carson are engaging in a covert attack on what the right has labeled as “identity politics”, the source, presumably, of increasing division in America. I am not interested in defending identity politics, which like all political positions, is flawed and needs to be transcended. The problem with these attacks and simplistic pleas for unity is that they fail to acknowledge the injustices that are somewhere at the bottom of the pile*. It is like blaming researchers for discovering new diseases that we keep catching, blaming doctors for diagnosing those diseases, instead of wondering what is causing the diseases in the first place.
We’ve seen this many times throughout history, from those more interested in preserving or restoring a privileged status rather than addressing evil head on. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his greatest disappointment not towards KKK members, but the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Indeed, labeled a “rabble-rouser” and “outside agitator”, MLK was certainly not considered by these white moderates as a purveyor of unity. One can imagine earthly prayers in many a church during this time against “rabble-rousers who look to divide”, rather than heavenly prayers against the endemic racism and discrimination of the time.
In similar manner, many thousands of years ago the prophet Jeremiah witnessed the establishment prophets ignore evil and “dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious” and proclaim “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14). The prophets and the king at this time were far more interested in preserving national unity than in confronting injustice. They attacked Jeremiah the messenger and accused him of fomenting division and confusion, completely missing the real source of trouble. Sound familiar?
We can’t give up on peace and unity, but let’s stop waving it around like a magical wand, hoping that the real sources of conflict will just evaporate. We must also completely oppose any form of violence in protests or counter-protests. However, instead of labeling people or groups as discontents and dividers, let’s do the hard work of addressing the rampant inequality and inequity that still plagues our great, but beleaguered country.
* note that evangelicals typically point to “sin in the human heart” as the ultimate cause for what ails our country. I cautiously agree with this, but not to the point of ignoring structural/systematic sin and simply pinning the blame on corrupt individuals.