JOPLIN, Mo. —
Two hundred years ago, a man took up paper and pen and wrote of a matter of importance to him. President George Washington, in his farewell address to Congress and the nation, spoke plainly and forthrightly of his opposition to the formation of political parties.
Two thousand years ago, another man took up paper and pen, as it were, and wrote of a matter of importance to him. The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, spoke caringly and forthrightly about his concerns regarding the divisions occurring within the church.
These two documents -- one a national treasure, and the other sacred scripture to Christians -- in their own way issue a strong call for unity. That these two men would take up the theme of unity at a time when their respective communities were facing such overwhelming obstacles is compelling.
Washington sounded his call by clarifying his concerns about political parties, a hot issue at the time of his writing. Of course, one is not able to predict the future. But by looking into the past, possibilities for the future can be imagined.
Washington looked into history and saw problems for an America with political parties. He anticipated geographical and ideological alignment along party lines, whose interests would eventually become stronger than national interests.
The apostle Paul issued his call for unity by looking into the situation regarding the church at Corinth. Factions were evolving, with individuals lining up behind good, well-intentioned leaders. Hard, firm lines about doctrine and worship were being drawn, while relationships were deteriorating.
Paul had received word that these factions were describing themselves as “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (I Corinthians 1). The more self-righteous ones were declaring “I am of Christ,” implying that the others were outside of Christ, non-Christian.
The situation described in Corinth reminds us that the failure to maintain unity in community is not new to us. Human nature means these struggles will occur.
We will always have good people who are divided by politics and religion. These differences are good for us. I have always said that when two people totally agree, one is unnecessary.
The question becomes not one of how to eliminate our differences, but how to maintain unity while benefitting from these differences.
How do we as a nation keep President Washington’s fears from becoming reality? How can churches avoid fractures such as the ones in Corinth? How can good people differ on religion and politics and, at the same time, maintain the unity of church and nation?
How can we be American first, then Democrat or Republican second? How can we be Christians first, then conservative, moderate, liberal or denominational second?
Jesus guides His followers to care for your neighbor as you care for yourself. People of differing faiths, or even no faith, can transform the words of Jesus into the Golden Rule. This seems to be a good starting point. I am to care for myself, and I am to care for you in the same way I care for myself.
Consequently, if I desire from you respect, understanding, dignity, and the opportunity to be heard, then that becomes the standard by which I relate with you. From this beginning point, we can create an environment in which we can think, converse and make judgments without fear of alienation.
Just maybe, we will get to know each other better, and we will begin to see that neither of us are as bad as we feared.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.