“Believe Us Or Burn in Hell!”—Why Unity is not about Policing Others

The Apostle John tells us that before Jesus was arrested he prayed the following words, part of a longer prayer: “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. (…) so that they may be brought to complete unity.” What has come of Jesus’ prayer?

The unity Jesus prays for is connected to both the unity that he and the Father have and to the task that is set before the believers (“Then the world will know that you sent me”). In theological parlance this means that unity is connected with the Trinitarian nature of God (that is, God as a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit) as well as the mission of God, the so-called missio Dei in the world.

It is safe to say that unity among Christian is therefore of prime importance. The identity of the Church and the competition of its task heavily depend on it.

Passionate Disunity

It is therefore incomprehensible how the Christian Church has made a complete joke of unity. It is not that the Church didn’t try. But in spite of all sincere efforts, Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity separated from each other with the Great Schism in 1054 CE and in 1517 Martin Luther initiated a reform movement that would birth Protestantism and with it a myriad of denominations, confessions, splinter groups, and know-it-alls who can’t find a church at all to belong to. More recently, Martin Luther King made the poignant observation about American Christianity that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” So much for unity.

Christians have never been good at getting along with each other let alone the rest of the world. In 325 CE they were already slapping each other in the face over issues surrounding the identity of the one who taught them to turn the other cheek. During the era of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church did not shrink away from torture in what is now known as the Inquisition. And the persecuted Protestants knew how to persecute the ones in their midst who deviated from the party line.

How is it that the attempt to follow Christ has led to so much hatred, judgment, head banging, excommunication, division, burning, slaughtering, and …er… just plain disunity?

Authority and Uniformity

Well, the answer is pretty simple. There were (and still are) two main misunderstandings about what unity means. One is that unity is coupled with authority. The second is that unity is coupled with uniformity. The latter mistake assumes there is a fixed body of teaching based on a fixed interpretation based on an infallible authority (whether pope or Bible). Another word for this is dogmatism. The former mistake assumes that unity is organizational and needs to be enforced hierarchically (or some derivative organizational form).

Authority and uniformity reinforce one another. Uniformity needs authority to enforce itself on the masses and authority needs a measuring stick by which allegiance is measured and this measuring stick is the uniformity of thought.

Added to this is a third problem. And therein lies the rub, really. Christianity has seen fit to make salvation dependent on uniformity—you need to display assent to the right beliefs—as well as the prerogative of authority—the leader decides who is saved. “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” is what they called this in the Roman Catholic Church: there is no salvation outside the Church. This is a sure way to discourage dissent (if getting burned at the stakes already didn’t). But lest anyone think I’m just after the Catholics, the Protestants are no better: “You’re going to hell if you’re not part of our Church,” some say. Lovely!


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Subverting Jesus’ Teachings

Most of what the Christian Church has done in the past 2000 years is subverting the teachings of Jesus and turning them into their very opposite. And this is no more true than when it comes to unity. For not only have churches subverted the meaning of unity, they have also managed to display the most abject form of disunity in their judgment upon and persecution of dissenting believers in their fold.

In order to think aright about Jesus’ prayer (and the implicit teaching from the apostles) on this point, we simply need to deconstruct the two assumptions of uniformity and authority. That the fatal connection between authority and unity is wrong, can be simply demonstrated from within the Gospel of John itself, In chapter 13 Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in preparation of what was to be his last meal. His leadership is expressed in the form of radical servanthood, not authoritative power. How is it then that we see popes and archbishopric princes, mega-church stars and tv-preachers, manly chinned neo-Calvinists and charismatic smilers sitting on golden thrones and lording it over the eternal destination of millions of souls (and their bodies)?

The assumption of uniformity in teaching can be refuted with the anecdote where Jesus’ disciples tell Jesus about a person who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. This person did not belong to Jesus’ circle. Jesus says: “Do not stop him (…) for whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus was not interested in keeping everything under control nor was he concerned what exactly this person was teaching. How is it then, that you need to subscribe to an exact statement of faith before you can belong anywhere? How is it that you need to be initiated with certain rites before you are considered a citizen of heaven? How is it that endless volumes of dogma claim to capture the teachings of a man whose main attempt was to subvert rusty thought patterns, prejudice, and hypocrisy among his hearers?

Centrifugal Unity

What then is the unity that Jesus insists on? The answer to that question is connected to the question of how the unity between Son and Father is related to the missio Dei, i.e. the mission of God in the world. The Trinitarian God (Father, Son, and Spirit) is a radically outgoing God who moves out of the center toward the periphery. God is merely the center of a centrifugal process that moves toward and embraces a massively diverse world. Trinity and missio Dei are one, because God’s identity is to be open to the world. God and the world belong together.

But what does God do to the world? Does God conform that world to God’s self such that everything looks the same? No! Rather, God becomes like us. That is what de incarnation is all about. In order to bring about unity between God and us, God becomes an other, Jesus becomes like us, a human being. Jesus becomes what God is not in order to bring unity and reconciliation.

But there’s more. God’s becoming a human being in Jesus Christ was not for the purpose of setting up a kingdom on earth. Indeed, Christ’s kingdom is not of this earth. This is not just a statement about location but a statement about its radically different nature. Where earthly kingdoms set up authority in order to establish uniformity, Christ gives himself away. The radical world-embracing love of God in Jesus led to Jesus’ self-erasure. Jesus was the point of what God was doing only to the extent that it led to Jesus’ extinction. Think about that when you see a religious leader trying to be the center of attention or when scribes and secret services try to police your belief system.

Becoming Unchristian

Inquiring after the unity Jesus prayed for, we bring these two things together: becoming otherness and giving oneself away. In becoming human and giving God’s self away in Jesus, it becomes clear what unity God has in mind.

In Christ God embraces a wildly diverse world, emphasizing and fostering that diversity, seeking the flourishing of all that is within the context of its own givenness, toward a fulfillment of its own potential and its own identity. The unity we talk about is not centripetal (drawing things to the center) but centrifugal (away from the center) in an affirmation of what the world is. All that God wants is that Jesus’ selfless love and affirmation of the otherness of the other becomes visible in all of humanity. That is the change God seeks to bring about in the world.

That is the kind of unity we could have never thought of: a unity that affirms the other with ever increasing self-giving love. In that sense, most of Christianity of the past 2000 years is the very antidote of the unity Jesus prayed for.

For the sake of that unity, may we all become a little more unchristian.

Photo by Thaï Ch. Hamelin on Unsplash

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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