Unity in diversity: Challenge for the ages

“Keep an open mind,” he exhorted couples and families in “The Joy of Love,” his 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life.

Aug 12, 2017

By David Gibson
Do you know any wife and husband who hold identical views on every practical concern in their lives together? Typically, spouses differ to some degree about the best ways of spending their free time, or raising and disciplining children, or planning for the future. Pope Francis believes something good can come of this.

“Keep an open mind,” he exhorted couples and families in “The Joy of Love,” his 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life. “Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions but be prepared to change or expand them,” he advised.

Even in marriage, he suggested, the unity “we seek is not uniformity but a ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘reconciled diversity.'” Combining two “ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches” each spouse. “We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike,” he said.

Yet, as is well-known, creating unity in diversity can pose real challenges, whether in a marriage, a parish, a city, a nation or in the international arena.

Most people know this challenge from experience, perhaps the experience of seeing that their finest, best-honed talents or insights were overlooked in certain situations where gifts and insights of another sort were sought and celebrated.

This is an age-old issue for Christians, familiar to them from their faith’s earliest days. St. Paul addressed the problem in his first letter to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth.

The diverse Corinthian Christians, it seems, were not getting along particularly well. “I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it,” Paul wrote (1 Cor 11:18).

But all were “baptized into one body, whether Jews, Greeks, slaves or free persons,” Paul said. Their community indeed had “many parts” but was “one body,” he stressed (1 Cor 12:13; 20).

In Paul’s letter, “we read about a small church in a busy city, made up of folks living less than a generation after Christ. It is a community torn apart by its differences,” according to Edward P. Hahnenberg, a theologian at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.

He noted in a 2009 speech that the Corinthian Christians were “bickering over their interpretations of the Gospel, their differing moral codes, their rival leaders.” When they gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, “deep-seated biases based on class and social status (were) on ugly display,” Hahnenberg said.

Paul approached this community with a message in First Corinthians’ often-quoted Chapter 12:1-31. He spoke not only of the importance, but the necessity of affirming each member’s value in the body of Christ. There are different gifts, but the same God “produces all of them in everyone,” Paul clarified.

Noting that a single body is made up of many parts, Paul put things this way:

“If an ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”

Continuing this imagery, Paul cautioned that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.'”

When one part of Christ’s body suffers, moreover, “all the parts suffer with it,” he emphasized. “If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”

Today, when members of a parish community are sent after a Sunday Mass to bring Communion to the sick at home or when its youths labor during a summer work camp to aid struggling people, they are putting into practice Paul’s teaching in First Corinthians about the body of Christ.

Think, perhaps, of these Sunday Communion ministers as the body’s “ear” and the work camp youths as its “hand” or “feet.” The point is that each is needed to do the work of Christ’s body in the world. “God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended,” Paul explained.

His teaching makes room for diverse talents, interests, insights and gifts within a church community to come to the fore. Thus, as Pope Francis suggested, in diverse ways the members of a faith community can enrich each other.

But there are two temptations to contend with in all of this, he pointed out on Pentecost this year. “The first temptation,” is to seek “diversity without unity,” while the second temptation seeks “unity without diversity.”

In the first case people “take sides.” Becoming “locked into (their) own ideas and ways of doing things,” they “choose the part over the whole,” he said. In the second case, “unity ends up being homogeneity and no longer freedom.”

So, creating unity in diversity constitutes a necessary Christian challenge today, as was true in Corinth so long ago. It is a challenge, Pope Francis remarked during a 2015 visit to the Central African Republic, that “demands creativity, generosity, self-sacrifice and respect for others.”--CNS

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