Growing up in the country there we several things one had to do to be considered a part of society; play football (whatever brand that was dominate locally), play cricket (or tennis), drive a car, drink, have a girl/boyfriend (or at least say you were in a relationship) and get married before you were 25! There were others but these were the primary ways people could use to see whether you conformed or not, whether you were fitting in or not. Fitting in was all that mattered.
So you did some or all these things even though you hated sport or were not good at it, hid your love of the arts or books or preferred lemonade to beer! You simply had to conform, for conforming preserved the family’s esteem in the community so they too conformed as a good family raising “good” children who always fitted in. Some of us did, others didn’t, some of us were black sheep and others simply wore white coats for the occasion!
Today’s gospel reading is countercultural for modern society. Jesus challenges the concept of belonging and being with the idea that he and God are one and we are or can be one with Jesus and God. Oneness challenges the modern idea of the autonomous self and conformity to societies conventions on the one hand and oneness or unity with God on the other.
Jesus completely ignores the individual as we know it – and directs his remarks to the communal – unity in community. His comments could be interpreted as a direction to conform to the will of God, to act without will or mind, simply surrendering self to the dictates of tradition and interpreted scripture, law and rules.
Conformity is different to unity.
We have all conformed, fitted into our surroundings, become a part of a group or a pervading attitude just so we get along. Children at school have to work hard at conforming to join a social group, be a part of the in crowd, to be accepted. Teenagers appropriate behaviours, fashions, ideas, music styles and more to fit in with friends, classmates, peers. Somewhere out there are photographs of your Vicar with long hair and bizarre outfits. I hope they stay hidden!
Adults are not immune. We accept certain ideas and behaviours from ourselves and others as being ok, to do otherwise would mean we stand out, are ostracised and, even, persecuted. We do this politically allowing practices and ideologies to continue to dominate even when we know they are immoral, inappropriate, illegal.
Psychologist Hossna Sadat defines social conformity “as a phenomenon that occurs when an individual’s values, beliefs, behaviours, and attitude are influenced by either one person (minority influence), or by a group of people (majority influence) who establish norms. During conformity one changes the way they behave in response to social pressures. We have all encountered social conformity in life, whether it has been consciously or unconsciously, by accepting the dominant culture’s expectation of us. What people say and how they behave are vastly influenced by others.”
Conformity is not always a negative, but it is when it leads to a turned blind eye and the failure to engage with the negativity loose in the world. If we conform just to avoid diversity and difference then we find ourselves giving way to power and control, allowing those with the power and control to avoid confrontation, change and reconciliation.
Unity, on the other hand, speaks of integration, oneness and can, and usually does exist without conformity. Diversity is not the enemy of unity. Diversity is adds the light and shade to oneness that is missing from conformity. Integration does not mean an absence of difference; it stands for the ties binding diversity together.
Duane Olson suggests, “Given the widespread recent interpretation of this passage, it is necessary to state at the outset that the unity of which Jesus speaks here is not organizational unity.” This is not orthodoxy or the dumbing down of hard won positions just to keep the peace. That’s conformity. Here we are speaking of essential unity, the unity found in relationship with the transcendent and lived out in relationship with others.
The Trinity is the pinnacle of unity in diversity. Within the Trinity we understand each as having diverse roles and responsibilities yet a unity of purpose, the reason for each to be is the same, how they fulfil that reason is dependent upon who they are. They are not diminished but enhanced by difference.
Jesus looks at the community who have grown around him, conscious of the incredible diversity of personalities, ideologies and passions and calls for unity, for a oneness in purpose which draws each together as a unified body of believers. It is interesting he doesn’t seek conformity without diversity. He disputes ritual laws, ideologies that exclude and people who seek power for powers sake, yet he tolerates within his community people who are zealots, conservatives, power-seekers and more. A quick read of the Gospels tells us that Jesus draws together diversity and builds unity not conformity.
Jesus holds out the possibility of unity with God, not as exceptional, but as normative. Just as he and God are different in their roles they are one in their being. We can be too.
What is this being we share, unifying us and making us one? Love in its expanded form of unfailing compassion, the unfailing faithfulness of God to humanity. Our oneness is found in our desire to live out such a love in the world for the world and for the one who gives this capacity.
We may differ on how we treat refugees, homeless, exploited, oppressed and victims of all kinds of persecution, yet we are to remain faithful to be the compassion of God loose in the world. We are not expected to conform to a certain line of thought of action but we are expected to allow the overriding demands of compassionate faithfulness to keeps us together.
We are one because of whose we are and what we hold in common, our experience of the faithfulness of God. We are to live out our unity in diversity in defiance of the pressure to conform to the faithless response of the world. Whatever our position maybe it finds its rationale in the compassionate love of God. We may express it in different ways but that is our cornerstone uniting us.