Washington, Saint Paul, MLK, and the Challenge of Unity

It often amazes me how the Sunday readings line up with what is going on in th elarger world.  Here is my homily from this Sunday, January 22 2017.


When George Washington gave his Farewell Address as president in September 1796, it was printed for a newspaper rather than given as a speech.  Which makes sense; after all there was no radio, television, or other forms of mass communication for him to share his thoughts.  But he wanted to make sure, as he moved on to the next part of his life, that his beloved country remained vigilant against the forces that could threaten this fledgling republican-democracy.   In particular, Washington was concerned about the impact political parties would have on the ability of the American experiment to cohere.

As he writes, “One of the expedients of [political parties is] to acquire influence within particular [groups of people] [in order to] to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other [groups of people]. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”  In other words, Washington was concerned that the passions of political parties would blind us to the larger needs of the country.  That we would begin to look at those with whom we disagree as an enemy to be fought instead of a friend to stand aside. 

So it might be of some comfort to know that 2,000 years before the advent of cable news, we still encounter this problem of division. As we heard today in Saint Paul’s letter to the Christian community of Corinth, “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me... that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas.’”

And so Saint Paul, like George Washington, pleads for unity.  Whether we be early Christians living in Corinth or Americans divided within Red and Blue states, we humans seem to bounce back and forth between the ideals of "Can't we all just along along" and "fight the powers that be."
No matter what the community, the institution, the family, or the country, we all have disagreements.  We all get on each others' nerves from time to time.  We often not only NOT on the same page but are reading different books entirely.  Still, we have to admit, that there is something unsatisfying about just saying that its important to uphold the importance of unity.  Because there are situations, particularly ones involving the justice and dignity of others, when “going along to get along” does not feel like the right answer.

I can imagine that eight years ago when one person took office, many who actively seek to protect the lives and rights of the unborn—as we Catholics all seek to do—seemed unsatisfied with the idea of "going along to get along" in the face of an administration that did not hold those values.  I can also imagine that for many others today, calls for unity can sound hollow after a very nasty election in which the darker impulses of our psyche were regularly appealed to as opposed to the better angels of our nature.    An election after which many of the vulnerable in our society feel even more vulnerable now.  Those are concerns for the vulnerable walking among us are just as much a part of the Catholic tradition as those of the vulnerable-unborn.

Yes, we do need unity.  And yes, all of the problems and disagreements we encounter in this imperfect union and this imperfect world cannot all be resolved with satisfaction.  We cannot constantly live in a state of mutual animosity.  Yet just as Saint Paul went on in his letter to the Corinthians that they needed to stop neglecting the poor in their midst, as a community there are times in which we will have to stand up for what's right even if it risks division.  But when are those times?

Last week, both to mark the national holiday we celebrated last Monday and to prepare myself for the national events that happened this weekend, I found myself re-reading Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  Writing from his prison cell in 1963, he responds to another newspaper article written by eight white Alabama clergymen entitled A Call for Unity, in which they critique King and his group for disturbing the unity.  To which King responds that they did not do so lightly.  And that they only began speaking up after a period of self-reflection, self-purification, and prayer.  Thereby making sure that their actions of protest were not just forms of self-aggrandizement but were truly engaged to advance their higher calling. 

Not un-coincidentally, Saint Paul reminds all of those who have been factionalized in Corinth to their higher calling.  Like any good leader, Saint Paul keeps his perspectives straight by telling the faithful that they do not belong to him, or Apollos, or Peter, but to Christ.  And that is the same for all of us.  Whatever our political allegiance, our ideological preference, or whatever country we are from, we are children of the Almighty God first.  That at the end of the day, we are all one family.  And that is Good News! 

But if we're being honest, it is also a big pain.

Because one thing about our God, He usually asks us to check ourselves before we mess ourselves.  Our God usually has us look straight into the mirror before we start making comments about what is happening outside of the window.  Because it is only when we have removed the log from our own eye that we can see the splinter in our brothers and sisters.  This is tough work, because it often involves getting over our own egos.  because it often involves letting go of our own factions so we can fulfill His higher goals.  It is only by allowing God to lead us that we do not become what we abhor.  It is only by allowing God to lead us that we will ever be able to navigate the two poles of justice and unity. 

But as so many Christian witnesses over the millennia and American witnesses over the centuries have shown, witnesses like Saint Paul the Apostle, George Washington and Martin Luther King, it can be done.  And it is worth it.  When we keep God at the center of our lives, we can more work towards justice with a spirit of unity.  When we keep God at the center of our lives, we can more fully work towards the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth that Jesus leads us to.  When we keep God at the center of our lives, we can work more fully towards a more perfect union.