Unity Within Diversity

April 20th, 2010

circle

“Multiplicity without unity is chaos; unity without multiplicity is tyranny.” Blaise Pascal

Unity requires the deft balance of a tight rope walker. If you tip one way, you end up wishy washy and pliable, terrified of conflict and unable to take a stand. If you tip the other way, you end up hard and inflexible, terrified of diversity and unable to bend your perspective. Somewhere in the middle, with the pole of discernment held firm, rests unity. Herein lies the delicate balance between self expression and social harmony, individualism and diversity, your own convictions and other people’s insights.

Maybe you have, on occasion, had to discern when to stand alone on principle and when to find common ground for the sake of a group or relationship. Anyone who has coordinated a group of free thinkers knows the challenge. It can be like pushing frogs in a wheelbarrow.

Rabbi Bloom was conducting his first service at one of London’s oldest synagogues. All was going well until he got to the prayers, and half his congregation stood up. Those still seated started yelling ‘sit down’ to those standing and those standing started yelling ‘stand up’ to those sitting. Although Rabbi Bloom was knowledgeable, he didn’t know what to do. He thought it must be something to do with the synagogue’s tradition.
After the service, Rabbi Bloom consulted Abe, the synagogue’s oldest member. “I need to know, Abe, what the synagogue’s tradition is with regard to the prayer. Is the tradition to stand during this prayer?”
Abe replied, “No, that is not the tradition.”
“So the tradition is to sit during prayers?” said Rabbi Bloom.
Abe replied, “No, that is not the tradition.”
“But,” said Rabbi Bloom, “my congregation is impossible. They yell at each other about whether they should sit or stand and …”
Abe interrupted, exclaiming, “Aha, THAT is the tradition!”

Now that’s my sort of congregation. I’d rather herd cats than lead sheep. All that bleating and conformity is unoriginal and uninspiring. I’ll take the unbridled freedom of frogs in a wheelbarrow any day. Religion, which you would expect to bring tolerance and respect to the table, seems to be one of the greatest impediments to unity. Catholics and Protestants battled for decades in Northern Ireland and now have an uneasy peace. Hostility between Jews, Muslims and Christians in The Middle East continues with no end in sight. Centuries old disputes between Hindus and Muslims continue in South Asia. This is just a sample of the multitude of religious wars that devastate the world.

If war is an impediment to unity, peace is only a stepping stone. There may be an uneasy peace in Ireland, but it is more tolerance than it is a celebration of diversity, more accommodation than it is unity. Until the relationship between Britain and Ireland is clarified unity will be fragile. Until Ireland is truly independent, and her unity includes political, social, cultural and economic equality, the work is not done.

Unity is not to be confused with uniformity. Equality is not to be confused with sameness. Unity celebrates the core differences and works towards a common purpose. It doesn’t drown difference in a sea of conformity. Unity is a tough act to pull off. It can sometimes be a justification for not rocking the boat. Unity that compromises principles and core values is dull, insipid, and largely irrelevant. This sort of unity will eventually destroy vision, not to mention break your spirit. Mahatma Gandhi did more for unity than most. Even he said, “Performance of one’s duties should be independent of public opinion.”

Unity is not something that can be enforced. It is by nature a persuasive energy rather than a coercive force. If unity is legislated, it can fragment groups who are unable to toe the line but may have some essential wisdom for the whole. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote, “The majority is never right. Never, I tell you!” His argument was that the majority of people are fools, so the majority can’t be right. I have more faith in the majority than Ibsen, but he raises a fair point. Unity doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority are right. Unity, at its best, holds in balance personal freedom and social order. There are churches that refuse to allow gay and lesbian leaders for the sake of unity. This is fear masquerading as unity.

Diversity is the essence of humanity. There is an ancient Jewish saying that ‘When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they are all the same. God makes every person in the same image, God’s image – and they are each different.’ The challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in your image. Unity is the celebration of common humanity in the midst of great diversity. Diversity is unity working itself out in a community of respect.

Osho said, “Divided you suffer; united, you dance, you sing, you celebrate.” I say yes to this if unity is oneness that doesn’t squash diversity. Jesus described this as a vine with many branches. They are all part of the one vine but at the same time they are distinct and diverse. Stand by your truth as one amongst many truths. You have a perfect, partial and passionate truth. So stand up and be counted. Just don’t be dogmatic or else you might fall off the tight rope.

Seed of Community
Everyone you meet is part of a circle, a symbol of connection and equality. The circle is always able to grow and expand to include new people without losing its shape. May you celebrate your circle of friends as a beautiful unity without uniformity. May you be open to new friendships, and show gratitude to an old friend today.

Say to yourself; I am part of a beautiful circle of companions

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