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How the church can model unity to a fractured culture

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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A fractured map of the United States
© josephsjacobs/stock.adobe.com

Psalm 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (NIV). And when they don’t, as Americans can attest, it can be downright unpleasant. 

Given the dispute over the presidential election, the riot at the Capitol, and partisan votes in Congress, politics remains an obvious fault line in our cultural landscape. Our country also has been torn apart by issues like race, sexuality, and even the pandemic. 

But there are practical steps Christians can take and Christ-like behavior they can adopt to promote consensus. The Bible makes it clear that the church should model unity to a watching world. 

“This is because the church is to reflect the values of the kingdom of God to a world in desperate need of experiencing Him,” Dr. Tony Evans wrote in Stronger Together, Weaker Apart: Powerful Prayers to Unite Us in Love. “The church is the only authentic cross-racial, cross-cultural, and cross-generational basis for oneness in existence.”

How to encourage unity

In an interview for this article, Dr. Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and a leading Christian thinker, recommended that the church take a three-pronged approach to encourage unity:

“First, one way we help to bring healing to our nation’s division is by embodying what it means to be a gospel people. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, unites in diversity. Thus the church should strive to be a unified people demonstrating the reconciling power of the gospel that unites in diversity. Our culture needs an example of what this looks like. And the contemporary church has not been an answered prayer to what Jesus prayed in John 17 [including asking for unity in the Body of Christ before his crucifixion].

“Second, our loyalty to a party should not trump our allegiance to our King,” Stetzer continued. “There’s nothing wrong with registering and identifying with a political party. But in an age where American politics grows in its polarization, believers must be careful not to get sucked into that identity politics. 

“Third, the church must be willing to use her prophetic voice to call out hypocrisy and ill-behavior that contribute to the divide. We cannot be willing to call out one side and not the other. For instance, if believers called out President Trump for behavior and rhetoric unbefitting of a president that incited division in the country, they must also be willing to call out President Biden for governance that is deeply divisive in our nation and that falls short of what he promised he would be, a unifying president.”

Extend grace 

American history, while illustrating the dangers of division, also shows the benefits of extending grace. In George Washington’s Farewell Address, he warned of the perils of political factions, maintaining that unity was needed to preserve peace and liberty. 

After Abraham Lincoln was nominated to run for the US Senate in 1858, he told the Illinois Republican State Convention, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” paraphrasing Jesus’ words in Mark 3:25. 

Then, in his Second Inaugural Address as president in 1865, little more than a month before Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln struck a conciliatory note in a speech full of biblical allusions. “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” he aimed “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” 

Lincoln, who populated his cabinet with his rivals for the presidential nomination, modeled the virtues of forgiveness. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” he said. 

Evans likewise recommended “letting go of offenses” and “forgiving those who have hurt you.”

Seek common ground 

It’s also wise to focus on common ground rather than differences. Joe Biden invited leaders of both parties to attend a church service with him on the day of his presidential inauguration. Every president since 1952 has signed a proclamation for the National Day of Prayer, which will be May 6 this year, when people of all faiths are encouraged to pray for the country. 

Unity is built through relationships. Dr. Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, praised Dale Carnegie, author of the classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, for his insights into the art of persuasion. Carnegie recommended avoiding conflict. Instead, he urged people to smile, listen, and be friendly before trying to convince someone with a different viewpoint. “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own,” Haidt wrote. “And if you do truly see it the other person’s way — deeply and intuitively — you might even find your own mind opening in response.” 

Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, compared the work of disagreeing with civility to being a missionary: “We are called to find common ground where it genuinely exists, improve our own arguments, and win over persuadable Americans by answering hostility with magnanimity, understanding, good humor, and love . . . . Nearly all of those who disagree with us are not, as we so often think, immoral; they simply express this morality in different ways.”  

If you want to engage people of differing views in a meaningful way, Brooks said, “Don’t attack or insult. Don’t even try to win,” adding, “Almost no one is ever insulted into agreement.” 

Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the Senate, wrote in his memoir, The Long Game, in 2016 that he preferred negotiating with then-Vice President Joe Biden rather than President Barack Obama.  

With Biden you didn’t waste a lot of time on things we knew we would never agree on,” McConnell said. “I didn’t lecture him, he didn’t lecture me, we got down to the areas where there was possible agreement and we were able to get to an outcome — a very different experience from being in a negotiating setting with the president.” 

He called the president “Professor Obama” in his memoir and said his tendency to lecture him when they negotiated was “grating and irritating.”

“Revel in somebody’s humanity”

On the other hand, Drs. Cornel West of Harvard and Robert P. George of Princeton, an intellectual odd couple if ever there was one, have learned to disagree agreeably. West is Black, Baptist, and progressive; George is White, Catholic, and conservative.

But they became friends while they were both teaching at Princeton, and they continue to work together today. A photo promoting one of their recent appearances showed West’s arms wrapped around George, with George’s face split in a big grin. 

George talked fondly of how they became friends—“it was love at first sight,” he said—and called West his “brother.” 

West echoed those sentiments. “I love this brother,” he said. “And love is never reducible to politics. Just like friendship is never reducible to political agreement. You learn how to revel in somebody’s humanity.” 

They wrote an op-ed for The Boston Globe in July, pleading for unity as the presidential race headed into the stretch. “We need the honesty and courage to recognize and acknowledge that there are reasonable people of good will who do not share even some of our deepest, most cherished beliefs,” they wrote. 

West and George could serve as a model for reconciliation in our fractured land. While clinging to biblical truth, they are humble enough to admit when they are wrong. 

They love each other despite their differences, perhaps even because of them. Rather than trying to win an argument, they make seeking truth a primary focus of their interactions. 

Even when they disagree, they feel enriched because they learn from each other. 

So should we.