After the Sermon: Unity is not uniformity

Paul employs “armor of God” imagery in both Colossians and Ephesians. It has been a staple of Christianity since the inception of the faith. This Sunday in worship, after we heard Ephesians 6:10-20, I brought an easel with a pad of flip-paper into the aisle running between the pews. I then asked the following two questions in turn: who has a positive reaction to this terminology, and who has a negative reaction?

The congregation was split, interestingly along gender lines, at least as represented through those who spoke openly. I imagine if I could read minds, that division might not have held. But if you go by crude gender stereotypes and assumptions, you know who fell where on the spectrum. I’d be one to defy said exceptions: I generally do not like the armor of God imagery and do not find it beneficial to my own spiritual walk. I’ve had to frame it up differently.

This is largely because I understand the historical milieu in which Paul operated. He believed that the Parousia–the second coming–was imminent. He eschewed the very religious laws he once helped enforce as a Pharisee because he felt that time was short and grace was all-sufficient. Paul really only had one message; it was fairly nuanced and systematic but had Saul of Tarsus been in the Beatles instead of Paul of Liverpool, the famous would song something like, “All you need is Christ, doop-dadooby-doop.”

This is not insignificant. Paul wrote to a people who were living under a powerful and capricious empire. Persecutions depended upon who was in power, and Paul had to contend with Nero, perhaps one of the most batshit crazy emperors in history. There are compelling reasons to regard Nero as the antichrist mentioned in Paul’s writings. Paul was clear that he meant a spiritual armor for a spiritual war, but that has not been the prevailing understanding throughout history. In fact, the image is one used by white nationalists. Paul believed that demonic forces were behind the brutality of Rome and that these were unleashing themselves upon the bodies and spirits of Jews and Jesus believers. Paul was waiting for a celestial clock to run out.

Paul was wrong.

I can’t throw away Paul completely, as he is vital to Christian theology. He’s in the canon whether I like it or not. So, here’s how I frame it up: We don armor when we feel the need for protection from an expected assault. Our cultures have largely regarded those wearing armor as brave, but I submit to you that armor is used primarily when one feels fear. War is always the result of fear, and some fears are good. We should fear white nationalists, but they only exist because of fear. They fear that others might do to them what white people have been doing to the rest of the world for centuries. This doesn’t mean other nations and races have not committed atrocities; such objections are simply obfuscations to distract from facts. We wear armor because we are afraid. I think to deny this is to deny something basic about the purpose of armor.

In this week’s worship, I asked the congregation to be honest about their fears regarding our future. Some voices shook, some contrary opinions were offered, but everyone was engaged. After the Spirit had moved us on that question, I asked the bigger one: what are your hopes?

Because that is how I ultimately frame up the armor of God: it is, as my fellow United Theological Seminary alumnus Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has written, the audacity of hope. I choose not to give in to fear. That doesn’t mean that I ignore it. Not at all. I am well aware of that which frightens me, but the armor of hope is what helps me remain at the proverbial table. The armor of God can help protect us from the allures of greed, avarice, envy, covetousness, and other myriad sins. But it is up to us as individuals to get to the point in which we no longer need the armor because those weapons can no longer hurt us. I’m hoping to get down to a light chain mail, myself; this bastard sword is getting too big to carry around, too.

This Sunday’s worship, as on each first Sunday, we shared the Lord’s Supper. All are invited, none are compelled. We share a common cup, all receive the same amount of bread. We dwell in unity, even if we have different fears and different hopes. We stay committed to one another because that is what we believe God calls us to do. The failures of white nationalist “theology,” along with myriad other reasons, is that it holds that purity is racial and that everyone must look the same, act the same, think the same, be the same. That is not Christianity, even for Paul. His entire ministry was literally race-mixing.

Unity doesn’t mean we all think the same thing, it means that we don’t walk away from the table when we don’t get our way. Unity means the courage to speak your heart, but also to listen to others, as well. It doesn’t mean, though, that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, or any other accidents-based phobia should be respected in-and-of themselves. Christians have a primary call to seek out those on the periphery and then to ask them what being at the center might look like; it means listening and then acting appropriately. It means hearing how we have been complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in structures that keep others oppressed.

Unity is nigh impossible if we do not prioritize the pain and needs within our immediate communities. Unity is not saying that all fears and experiences are equal. They are not. It is binary thinking that gets us into trouble, though; if someone else’s pain is deemed more profound or immediate, too many of us respond as if the claim is that our pain does not matter. Emergency rooms prioritize people by the severity of their injuries and needs. Churches should do that as well instead of setting up triage for people who aren’t bleeding.

I do not accept the notion that somehow it is inhospitable to take a stand against prejudice. The idea that the feelings of the oppressors are more important than the pain of the oppression is perhaps one of the most dangerous circulating today. Racism is not a matter of opinion upon which we can agree to disagree. At least it isn’t for me. It does not mean that I will automatically walk away from a racist, but it does mean that as a spiritual leader I am clearly going to say, “if you want to work through your prejudices and start developing healthy relationships with those you claim to hate, I can help. This church can help. But if you want to dominate the space and conversation, accusing others of intolerance because they call racism what it is, then I think there are some churches in the surrounding towns that are more your speed.”

When I first heard Queen Latifah–we so close I just call her Queen now–and the song “Unity,” my already inbred racism and misogyny kicked it. It was still so unusual to see and hear a black woman speaking out and not backing down. Luckily, I had several female mentors who lovingly, but forcefully helped me guide through it. A few years later I had to do the same thing with Arab men and Islam. I don’t point fingers at anyone I don’t point first and most emphatically at myself.

But I can say that it is better on the other side of those prejudices. I have many powerful female friends and colleagues, specifically women of color. I have learned and continue to learn from them, but more importantly, we share our lives. Same with Muslims and Arab men. Unity means that we bring the whole self to the table and are honest about our fears because we believe there is hope. That’s the only armor I need.