Last week the U.S. Congress reached an agreement about increasing the country’s debt ceiling after months of wrangling, posturing and finger-pointing. Opinion polls showed that during that time, especially in the last contentious week or so, approval ratings for congress as a whole dropped to extraordinarily low levels. One of the frustrations that the public expressed was the lack of desire in congress to compromise. As a matter of fact, “compromise” had become a dirty word among many members of congress in both parties.
It was then with interest (and, admittedly, a bit of a smirk) that I saw this week’s lectionary reading from Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Living together in unity seems not only a pipe dream but also undesirable in a world where compromise is seen as weakness.
How does unity work, really? And isn’t it just for home life, not public policy-making? Is real unity even possible, or is it just words in an ancient hymn written down for posterity by a psalmist?
“Unity” is actually a pretty strong biblical theme in both testaments. It’s never assumed to be an easy state to achieve. The frequency of injunctions to strive for it indicate just the opposite. If unity were easily accomplished, then households, churches, communities and the faithful as a whole wouldn’t have to be reminded about it so often.
It’s a misunderstanding to think that unity means everyone must think alike or act alike. Check out the story in Acts 15 sometime. It’s the tale of a huge argument (religious, cultural, and political) among early Christians. Would the church (of Jewish origin) be willing to welcome as members Gentiles who did not comply with Jewish law? For days delegates fought over the answer, coming up with an uneasy and unwieldy conclusion. Their solution didn’t last terribly long, but they continued to work at it over the years, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
Perfect unity? Definitely not. Unity? I think it moved in that direction. They talked, they worked together, they grew to understand each party’s deep desires and concerns, they met somewhere in the middle, and they kept at it over time.
Communities of faith are never really all of one mind on everything (unless they are a community of one!), but they hold together, sometimes across large divides, because they care about each other and they work at unity. Covering up differences isn’t the answer; working through them is.
Healthy couples and families function the same way. Rarely in perfect unity, they still find a way to cooperate, to honor each other’s differences, to live together in love.
Even, in all these groups, to compromise.
The psalmist seems to indicate that unity has ramifications long beyond our years, in “life forevermore.”
Isn’t that something we’d all like to see? A legacy of unity, a tradition of the hard work—and the great pleasure—of getting along.
Yes, it’s difficult and messy. No one group or person comes out on top. And that’s a good thing.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011