In 1861, after the Southern States had seceded from the Union, but before the first shots of the US Civil War were fired, William Seward was searching for a way to unify the country. He was President Lincoln’s newly appointed Secretary of State. One of his ideas was to immediately declare war against France and Spain. His thinking was that Southern Slaveowners and Northern Abolitionists would set aside their differences if they had a common enemy. This idea was quickly dropped, but not before the French and Spanish governments heard rumours about it, which prompted some very nervous questions, followed by awkward apologies.
Ultimately, neither William Seward nor anyone else could find a way to avoid what was coming, and the Civil War turned out to be just as bloody and bitter as everyone had feared. Communities were shattered, and families were divided. Even the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, had brothers who fought for the Confederacy.
The point of this little history lesson is that unity is hard. Sometimes there is no good way to make people come together and forget their differences. Even if William Seward’s plan had worked, it would have only created a temporary unity. It wouldn’t have resolved the underlying problems. Eventually, Americans would have to settle the question of slavery, one way or another.
As we observe what is happening in the United States right now, and in Canada as well, we see the result of trying to avoid settling problems of racial injustice. For too long, unity has been achieved by ignoring internal conflicts, often in the name of facing down an external enemy. But the longer the internal conflicts are put off, the more illusory the unity becomes. Actual unity, the sort that endures, requires people to do the uncomfortable work of resolving disagreements and seeking reconciliation for past injustices.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told His disciples that He did not come to bring peace, but the sword. Now, in this passage, the sword imagery is not meant to encourage violence. It merely establishes the expectation that faithfulness will lead to conflict. And this conflict would not be about stirring up trouble where none had existed before. It would be about bringing truth and grace to bear on problems that other people wanted to avoid dealing with. This head-on approach to conflict would make true unity possible.
Jesus also spoke of bringing lost sheep back into the flock. Jesus’ instruction to His disciples was not to go out and win arguments. He wanted them to win people’s hearts. He wanted His disciples to create unity with their opponents, instead of writing them off as irredeemable enemies. So, as we strive for unity in our communities and our families, we should not postpone the step of actually resolving conflict. Nor should we aim to harm or humiliate those on the other side. We must accept that unity is hard, and that it requires uncomfortable work. And we should seek it anyway.