True Unity Celebrates Diversity

Today’s scripture reading:
John 17:20-26

This sermon was preached in daily chapel at Luther Seminary on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

In the last several months, as the congregation I serve has sought to live into its commitment to become a more anti-racist community, our staff and lay leadership completed the Intercultural Development Inventory. The IDI has been used by thousands of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and, yes, congregations to assess intercultural competence, which the developers of the IDI describe as the “capability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities.”

Each of us who completed the IDI received a customized report indicating where we fall on the Intercultural Development Continuum. On one end of that continuum is the “Denial” mindset, which reflects a more limited capability for understanding and responding appropriately to cultural differences. Those who fall in this category often struggle even to acknowledge the reality of cultural difference. On the other end of the continuum is the “Adaptation” orientation, which reflects a capacity to recognize and understand the values and practices of different cultures and adapt one’s behaviors accordingly, as when we as Lutherans go out of our way to wish our Muslim neighbors a happy Eid on the final day of Ramadan and ask how they plan to break their fast. The goal for all of us, and for our organizations and congregations, is to move along the continuum toward Adaptation, learning how to recognize cultural differences and adjust our actions appropriately.

Most people—and most organizations as a whole—fall somewhere in the middle, usually in what is called the “Minimization” mindset. Those who find themselves in Minimization tend to notice cultural differences but prefer to emphasize the things we all have in common. When people say things like, “We might look different on the outside, but deep down we’re all the same,” or, “No matter our skin color, there is only one human race”—or worse, when people say things like, “I’m not racist, I’m colorblind!”—what is revealed in comments like these is a Minimization mindset. Minimization is also at work when we say, “All are welcome,” without going the further step of asking who has felt unwelcome in the past and what steps we can take to remedy that.

The problem with Minimization, we’ve learned, is that it erases cultural differences and asks those who come from diverse cultural backgrounds to assimilate into the dominant culture, to think and act and behave like the majority group. There is no freedom to be different, only the expectation that you will be the same as everyone else. The problem with Minimization is that it emphasizes a supposed unity at the expense of those who, in some way, are different.

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My husband Oby is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, so I’ve known for some time that John 17:21 is that denomination’s tagline. It’s emblazoned right there on the UCC’s logo: “That they may all be one.” I’ve often wondered, what did Jesus mean, “that they may all be one”? Ask any UCC pastor about that and they will probably quote a famous maxim attributed—most likely falsely—to St. Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” For them, love and unity in the midst of diversity are what’s most important.

Still, there’s something about that call to unity that doesn’t feel right to me. Maybe it’s that, to put it in the modern parlance of the Intercultural Development Continuum, this desire “that all may be one” sounds, to me, too much like Minimization. Unity at the expense of diversity. Uniformity at the expense of inclusion. Harmony at the expense of justice.

In her book, Church in the Round, feminist theologian Letty Russell challenges simplistic Christian understandings of unity. She writes: “The church cannot be a sign of unity if it achieves unity by marginalizing those who do not fit. Unity at the expense of the weak is not a sign of Christ’s hospitality welcoming all into God’s household…. The test of how well the church lives out its witness to unity in Christ is how well it breaks down barriers at points where people are being excluded.” “The church cannot be a sign of unity if it achieves unity by marginalizing those who do not fit.” Too often, for too many people on the margins, “unity” has meant “go along to get along.” Don’t rock the boat. All are welcome here; we only ask that you conform. What is the toll of this kind of unity, and who pays the price?

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Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley sparked some controversy not so long ago when she confronted members of her own political party. Congresswoman Pressley is the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in the U. S. House of Representatives, and she has described the particular challenges facing women and people of color who step into roles traditionally reserved for white men. After the especially vitriolic 2020 campaign season, Pressley urged colleagues on her own side of the aisle to address sexism and racism within their ranks and not to sacrifice equality as the party called for unity. She said, “Unity at the expense of my equality and my freedom and my existence and my safety is not an option, because we have sacrificed… and moderated and whispered in the name of unity for a very long time.” What, indeed, is the toll of this supposed unity, and who pays the price? How can a political party or any organization or institution claim to stand for welcome and inclusion if it expects those outside the majority group to assimilate and conform? Is there such a thing as unity that asks some people to suppress aspects of their identity and shoehorn themselves into the dominant culture?

Most of us grew up learning the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Those of us with a seminary education might even know where to find the Golden Rule in our Bibles. But I’ve become a proponent of what some have called the Platinum Rule, a variation of the Golden Rule that calls for a more thoughtful approach when dealing with others. The Platinum Rule says, “Do unto others as they would want done unto them.” Not, “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you,” but “Do unto others as they would want done unto them.” Or to put it another way, the Platinum Rule says, “Treat other people the way they want to be treated.”

Treating people the way they want to be treated seems like a no-brainer to me, but it actually is pretty different from the Golden Rule we learned in childhood. The problem with the Golden Rule is that I am only one person with a specific background, upbringing, and values; I only know how I want to be treated. Rather than assuming everyone is the same as me, and everyone else wants to be treated the same as me, the Platinum Rule says I should go the extra step of finding out how the people around me want to be treated, and then I should act accordingly. The Platinum Rule asks us to acknowledge the reality of cultural difference and invites us to honor one another by responding to their expressed needs, by responding in ways that help them to feel seen and known, valued and treasured. To my mind, each person valued and treasured is the very definition of unity.

I am persuaded that the unity Jesus was praying for in John 17 is not the unity of supposed sameness that neglects the reality of difference. Jesus’ prayer is that his disciples would be one, just as God and Jesus are one, with love at the center, love as the glue that holds it all together. What Jesus describes is unity rooted in love. Unity that embraces the whole world and infuses it with love. True unity—in the church and in society—will only be achieved when we create communities where love is at the center, where unity is achieved by welcoming and including all people in all our beautiful diversity. Where differences are honored and celebrated, and all can feel and believe that we are truly one in Christ.


Resources consulted:

Caileen Kehayas Holden, “What is The Platinum Rule and Why it Matters More Than Ever,” on Career Contessa, accessed May 18, 2022,https://www.careercontessa.com/advice/the-platinum-rule-at-work/.

Intercultural Development Inventory, “The Roadmap to Intercultural Competence Using the IDI,” accessed May 18, 2022, https://idiinventory.com/generalinformation/the-intercultural-development-continuum-idc/.

Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993).

Tyler Sonnemaker, “‘Unity at the expense of my equality… is not an option’: Ayanna Pressley turns the screws on Democratic leadership over party divides ahead of Georgia runoffs,” on Business Insider Nederland, published November 12, 2020, accessed May 18, 2022, https://www.businessinsider.nl/unity-at-the-expense-of-my-equality-is-not-an-option-ayanna-pressley-turns-the-screws-on-democratic-leadership-over-party-divides-ahead-of-georgia-runoffs/.


The featured image for this post is from Wylly Suhendra on Unsplash.


One thought on “True Unity Celebrates Diversity

  1. thanks for your sermons javen and especially for this one at the seminary. explaining IDI and minimalization is a real challenge but necessary to understand. it’s hard to know if our white privilege will ever let us understand it as the present dominant culture, maybe we will understand when we are no longer dominant. as Eric barretto said at mpls synod assembly in his bible study on acts ,””differences are a gift not a problem.”

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