After an election campaign that has been described as the most hateful in history, it is no surprise that internal tensions are rising. The predictable calls to unity seems to fall on deaf ears.
The thin veneer of unity seems to be under threat in many nations, but in the USA the division is very visible at the moment. And so I have chosen this example as something I see emerging all over the world. (We have been resident in a few countries, including the USA) I also used the words, prophetic vision, not to claim some divine instruction or validation of what I’m saying, but rather as a possible future that is most likely. In fact I want to share two possibilities – two possible ways of achieving unity. The first, and a method that has been most successful throughout human history, was expounded by the late Rene Girard and is known as memetic theory.
A New Enemy – A New Unity
Trump, has been very effective in identifying enemies and rallying the battle cries. These chosen enemies have often divided opinion, but now that it is preferable to have a unified America, it will be much more beneficial to focus on enemies beyond the borders of the USA. This process of projecting our own internal conflicts onto others is also known as scapegoating and has successfully served individuals, families, communities and nations throughout human history. When I say it has successfully served us, I do not mean to justify it, but simply to acknowledge its success.
The USA and for that matter, any other country, has never been as united as when they are at war.
Practically how this works, is that the focus gets shifted and instead of doing the hard and unpleasant work of understanding and resolving internal conflict, the quicker and easier path of projecting our own guilt onto another is chosen. This brings much relief and a type of unity that is almost immediate … but, unfortunately, not very lasting.
This is why many countries are understandably a bit nervous right now. No one knows who the chosen enemy will be … and enmity is not exclusively expressed in physical violence. Trade and other agreements that try to promote equality and protect our earth can just as easily be used as weapons of manipulation. Already stocks in Defense/Weapons companies are up and stocks in Green Energy companies are down according to the Wall Street Journal. The fact that Trumps foreign policy is mostly unknown means everyone is a bit nervous and that is an ideal situation if you are about to choose a new enemy, because whatever nations are not chosen will likely be so relived that they simply join in beating the chosen scapegoat.
A new enemy does not simply divert attention, it also places much greater pressure on dissidents to conform, to abandon their trivial differences in the light of the greater urgency of a real enemy. The choice becomes more black and white – are you either a patriot or an enemy.
A New Way of Being Human
Now what I have explored above is by no ways new – it is the way in which cultures have developed and nations have unified themselves since time immemorial.
It is also the process that Jesus exposed when He chose to suffer the violence of the principalities and powers, the government and religious institutions of his day, rather than conform to them. In this act of defiance he identified with the scapegoat to the extent that he became the scapegoat.
And if he simply died and remained dead … nothing would have changed. The age-old wisdom of loving your compatriots and hating your enemies, of uniting a nation through violence against an other, would have remained in tact. But in the resurrection we are confronted with the reality that our conveniently chosen scapegoats might just be innocent! In fact, God might not be the one justifying our violence … but the one suffering it!
But the resurrected Jesus also brings a shocking new revelation. Retribution is not the only way of setting things right – it is possible to forgive! He introduces us to a way of being human that can heal both the victim and perpetrator of violence.
So what are the two ways of uniting a people?
One way is a manipulated unity. It’s a unity achieved through enmity, an identity defined by who it is against. The scapegoating mechanism is highly effective in achieving such a manipulated unity. But unity brought about by enmity will always be fragile – it will always be under threat from the violence that birthed it.
What is the alternative?
As humans, two of our most instinctive desires are to belong and simultaneously to be distinct. These desires may seem contradictory … and indeed the balance between them might cause conflict, but it is exactly the harmony between these desires that can bring peace.
Otherness can be frightening and dangerous for it represents the unknown. We want enough otherness to intrigue us, but not so much as to scare us. Otherness, because it is unknown, has the potential to harm us.
Likeness can be frightening and dangerous too, for if someone is too much like me, they can replace me. As such, likeness can represent the disintegration of differentiation. When boundaries disintegrate it makes us uncomfortable. We want enough likeness to be comfortably familiar, but not too much likeness so as to lose our sense of uniqueness. Equality has the potential to eliminate us.
Despite these potential dangers, love is only possible when both likeness and otherness are present. God is the most surprisingly beautiful encounter with otherness and likeness one can ever have. (Desire Found Me)
There is a unity possible in which we recognize and respect the difference of another, in which we do not require that all conform, but we rejoice in the difference. This can only happen when we are satisfied with what and who we are. In a place of dissatisfaction we will always view the difference of another with envy – wanting to attain it – or with fear, wanting to eliminate it.
It becomes easy to extend peace to another when we have found it in ourselves. This is obviously the more difficult route, for it requires that we understand both ourselves and the other.
Many Christians feel that their faith is under attack and their way of life under threat. There was a time when the disciples witnessed the brutal murder of their Messiah and hid away behind locked doors plotting where to run next. But Jesus enters their fear-filled room and says:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
(John 20:21–22 ESV)
Instead of plotting with them how to protect their little world, he opens up a whole new world to them – one not ruled by fear of the other, but one in which they are called to embrace the other and form a new community not defined by borders. I am so thankful for friends in the USA and all over the world who are pursuing unity in this way … and even against impossible odds it is the only way worth pursuing.
So can we have unity without an enemy? Wise men throughout ages have said something similar to this. Identify the enemy… within. Conquer that enemy and you won’t produce yet another victim – there will only be a victor!