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Making an Idol out of Unity

Writing in 1938, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about pursuing a purely human ideal of unity. According to Bonhoeffer, visions of unity which have no reference to God are like “rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream,” and are a “hindrance... and must be banished.” He goes on to say that the distinguishing feature of a human vision of unity is idolatry:

“Human love makes itself an end in itself. It creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal, it loves itself, and nothing else in the world. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons”

In recent years we have begun to believe that if we talk more, love more and commune more together as people, we will somehow reach an ideal state of unity. This dream is articulated in the rhetoric of world leaders. President Obama used the language of unity to great effect during the election in a speech in Berlin, the location of a once impregnable wall of division. The wall and its removal served as the metaphor for Obama’s vision for a new dawn in American and world history. He was seeking to unite because, he said, we can look at Berlin, “where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.” He saw a divided world which must be unified and tear down its walls of separation.

Bonhoeffer, who witnessed the worst of humanity’s treatment of each other in the abuses of Hitler and the Nazi project, had no such illusion. He was clear that when humanity trusts in itself for community, it is unable to find genuine community. Rather, he said that that way leads to hatred: “I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my human desires-all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ.” In the Christian community, we too can lose sight of the real basis for community and begin to trust in our own version of love for fellow man. Bonhoeffer makes the emphatic statement that “Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

If Bonhoeffer is right, we should take seriously our own limitations. History at least proves that humanity is capable of great displays of hatred. The last century was marked by unimaginable terror on the battlefield and, if we are honest, the record for human effort in resolving the human propensity to hate and kill is a little short on success stories. The problem, it seems, is not our desire for peace—we all hope for this—but our ability to put it into practice. For Bonhoeffer, we fall short because we suffer the same problem every human suffers – our separation from God because of our sin. Our chief sin being our worship of ourselves. Making human unity a kind of god is in fact making an idol out of ourselves. Bonhoeffer's cure for this ill? To do away with pride by responding to the crucifixion of Christ which “destroys all pride.” The cross reflects the true God giving himself up for the sake of us. He demonstrated supreme humility and sacrifice whilst at the same time defeating the power of sin in our lives, including our inability to love one another. When we enter into the same humility of Christ and join ourselves to him, we have our pride put to death and our idol along with it. Christ then offers us a new life with Him. This new life offers us a unity with others who have trusted in Christ, a life which can truly be lived together.