How to Have a Conversation: The Limits of Unity

In the wake of a long, rancorous election cycle, I can understand why a lot of my friends and family hoped that November 8 would mean an end to painful division. In the months that have followed, I’ve seen many people grow exasperated with the continued anger and protest of those opposed to the Trump agenda. I’ve seen many of them grow exasperated with my continued protest and anger. “It’s over,” I hear them say, “can’t we all just come together and unify behind our president?”

So what’s wrong with calls for unity and peace? The question, perhaps, is what kind of unity and peace we are hoping for: the kind that would be a product of a struggle for equity, or the kind that would preclude that struggle? Because if we are looking for a “unity” that would simply erase outward manifestations of tension -- the "unity" of a family dinner table that has tacitly agreed not to discuss the convictions that divide them -- we are really looking for sameness, quiet, and a way to avoid asking ourselves difficult questions. And the trouble is that this kind of unity (the unity that preserves our own comfort) often serves to perpetuate a status quo that benefits those in power at the expense of the marginalized. If we use calls to “unity” as a way to silence cries against injustice, we are hiding behind a “love for all humanity” so that we don’t have to consider our involvement in the structures that make life more precarious for particular humans. 

This dynamic feels particularly clear to me in our memories of the Civil Rights movement. With the benefit of retrospect, this now seems like a cause that was clearly just. Many of us would probably like to believe that, had we been alive at the time, we would have supported the activists. Yet in 1964, most Americans thought the Civil Rights movement pushed too fast (63%), was too violent (58%), and was hurting the country more than it was helping (58%). Martin Luther King, Jr., whose words are now often used to ask today’s activists to be more moderate, in fact wrote from Birmingham Jail about his great disappointment in white moderates, who chose a simple version of “unity and peace”:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, 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; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.

Especially as white people who now feel comfortable with King’s messages of love and bridge building, we have to fight to recapture the King who disrupted what his countrymen would have thought of as “unity and peace.” King was perceived as divisive not because he sought to divide, but because he drew attention to divides that already existed in the system -- divides that most of the country was willing to tolerate or even embrace. In order to avoid tolerating injustice in our own time, we have to understand the points on which King and other activists were not willing to compromise in order to reach consensus with white moderates. And we have to understand why white Americans in the 1960s opposed his demands, threatened and attacked protestors, or stayed silently at home, so that we can understand the forces that would keep us from being on the right side of history in our own time.

I get why it is hard for many of us to hear that solidarity will require struggle. Like many people I know, it is painful for me to be divided from friends and family. But as people of faith, we believe there are higher moral goals that we can’t sacrifice in order to feel more comfortable. We know that we can’t buy peace and quiet in our own homes if the price is our silence about the violence being done to our neighbors’ homes. We hear the call to practice what King called "divine dissatisfaction" with the pain and inequity we see around us. So we know that if we want bridges, we will have to build them through dialogue. And if we want them to be bridges that can carry real peace, we cannot build them to accommodate injustice.

This reminds me of another favorite Bonhoeffer quote: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe.” I come to this space of dialogue to dare peace with my friends, because I want the hard kind of solidarity that is earned through struggle. But I can’t unify behind those in power while they threaten the lives of the vulnerable.