Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us, Layton E. Williams. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.
Summary: Proposes that difference ought be viewed as gift rather than problem, that difference, and even disunity, as messy as it is in the church, can be a source of growth.
Within the Christian community, the existence of difference, disunity, and division is viewed as problematic. These seem to betray the oneness, the unity of the body of Christ of which scripture speaks. Layton Williams makes the argument that difference, disagreement, and sometimes even division, is a gift. She roots her argument in the Trinity where three distinct persons exist as one being. She argues that we do not create unity but that we are one, and this is a unity that does not obliterate difference but treats it as a gift.
Williams observes that often our strategy is to suppress difference and the undesirable in the various forms it takes, which she unpacks chapter by chapter: doubt, argument, tension, separation, vulnerability, trouble, protest, hunger, limitations, failure, and uncertainty. Often, our posture is to try to act as if these things don’t exist, or address them with over-simplistic solutions, or to normalize a certain position to the exclusion of others. Worse yet, we often marginalize, demonize, and dispel those who persist in honestly differing. By the same token, sometimes we sacrifice deeply held convictions and perspectives to “keep the peace.”
Instead, she contends:
We don’t have to fear difference. Difference–our own and others’–is how we know who we are. It’s how we distinguish ourselves. Our own unique place in this universe and the experiences and qualities that define us allow us to interpret the world around us and make our own particular mark on it. The world is the way it is–different from how it might otherwise have been–because of us. It’s also different because of others. The ways that others are different from us, their unique experiences and qualifications, expose us to new ways to understand the world.
Each of her chapters explore how the various facets of difference save us. Each includes a reading of a biblical text that develops her position. In the chapter on tension, she contends for the hard work of wrestling with tension with a discussion of Jacob’s night of wrestling with God in human form, emerging both blessed with a new name, and limping. Difference often means walking into hard things that both leave their marks on our lives and lead to growth and greater self-understanding.
There is an important autobiographical element running through the narrative that makes Williams wrestling with and embrace of difference significant. Williams self-identifies as LGBTQ, and with other “out” LGBTQ Christians. Her own perspective of the gift and “holiness” of difference emerges from her own experience of growing up in a home, and a church in the South where she both experienced deep love, and yet also deep pain as neither could fully embrace her LGBTQ identification. In a chapter on “the gift of separation” she writes movingly about what this has meant for her and her mother:
It isn’t that I don’t wish, deeply, that my mother and I could be equally at peace in the same church. It’s that I know that it takes at least as much love and commitment to look in the face of one of the people you care most about in this world, and to know that at this time you cannot be theologically reconciled, and to let them go to pursue faith in a way that doesn’t prevent you from doing the same, hoping all the while that your paths might one day come together. For all the ways we disagree, my mother and I have both done that for each other.
I was impressed with the perspective that allowed for the possibility of disagreement and even separation, whether of individuals or church bodies, while also allowing for the possibility of continued love and charity toward one another. It is a perspective that refuses to diminish or disrespect the theological commitments of either, without minimizing the disagreement, or allowing the disagreement to degenerate into rejection of, vitriol toward, demonizing of, or hatred of the other. This note is exceedingly rare and welcome in what has often been a hurtful area of contention within the contemporary church.
The question I might pose would be how far would the author extend her argument about difference within the church? How would she have responded to the differences in the church in the United States around the issue of slavery? How would she respond to an embrace by the church of a nationalism that diminishes the value and worth of other human beings and obligations as Christians to them, as occurred in Nazi Germany? Is difference always a gift? And if not, by what criteria ought such difference be deemed unacceptable; not a gift but a matter for repentance and re-formation?
At the same time, I found much that resonated deeply. Allowing room for doubt and dispelling the false god of certainty has been a vital part of ministry among university researchers. Getting further on in life, I recognize the gifts of limitations and failure. When people can be more vulnerable in a bar than among the people of God, this challenges the church with the question of what we must become to be places where people can truly disclose themselves. As a cis-gender heterosexually oriented male who might identify more closely with the theological commitments of the author’s mother, it was illuminating and important for me to listen to and sit with this LGBTQ woman’s journey and to see the church through her eyes. I needed to read of her fears and hopes, and to be challenged with the call to love across our real differences, and to believe with the author that even in the mess of the moment, “[w]e can trust that God is at work.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.