The call for unity in the West against the incessant and fatally intrusive scourge of terrorism is a couple of decades too late. We have lost unity and we won’t be getting it back.
There is no unity left in the West to call us to gather around. “Unity around unity” is as much as empty slogan as “Love is Love”. Both are mealy mouthed shibboleths devoid of any actual content. They mean whatever the placard holder intends them to mean. Actual content has been driven from the centre of our culture. We are not content because we are contentless, adrift on a sea of images, personal experiences beyond the critique of anyone else, and online shopping.
This is a worrying time. This morning The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen, and Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, both scorned the very idea of a call for unity, precisely because of what I just said above. There is nothing to be united around. That lack of unity, a deconstruction process by the old post-modern crowd (remember them?), was taken up and globalised in the West by the high tech whizz-kids who thought that technology would do what religion and patriotism had failed to do. Yet the purveyors of this thoroughly hypermodern technology have no control over its use by the most medieval terrorists the world has yet seen,
What was supposed to be the freedom of our culture, a disconnection from the old world and all of its dogmas, and a glorious utopian attachment to the new, has failed to materialise. We have a chimera of unity around glossy ads telling us about “being connected” and the “future is now”, and “imagine a world that”. It’s all nonsense. It’s hard to imagine a world that stubbornly isn’t, when you are confronted with the world that shockingly is, in the faces and names of young girls killed at a pop concert.
The problem is that there is no new framework to attach ourselves to. Technology overreached itself, seeing itself as an end in itself, rather than a means to a greater end. And we will pay the price for decades to come. There is no longer any commonweal to unite around; no common goal, no common idea of human flourishing; no common understanding of what is good or evil; no common understanding that there even is good or evil.
Well did Miroslav Volf say in his famous essay on human flourishing:
The idea of flourishing as a human being has shrivelled to meaning no more than leading an experientially satisfying life. The sources of satisfaction may vary: power, possessions, love, religion, sex, food, drugs – whatever. What matters the most is not the source of satisfaction, but the experience of it – my satisfaction. Our satisfied self is our best hope.
Volf nails it. If there is no source and only experience, then the call to unity is a waste of time. A source is outside of ourselves. It is a reference point, a lodestar. An experience? Well we all have those and they are as subjective, fragile and ephemeral. The last one is never as important, or as vital, as the next one (I did mention online shopping, didn’t I?).
So what is the West supposed to be united around exactly?
Both Albrechtsen and O’Neill have a point. You can’t take out of the bank what you have not put in. We are a fractured society in the West and a call to unity is not going to work if we have no idea what to unite around. The worries are that rampant nationalism, ironic nihilism, or sheer utopian denial will be the calling cards left on the West’s doorstep.
My worry about Albrechtsen and O’Neill, despite my admiration for their work in general, is that the unity they call for will first be around anger, then around vengeance. No doubt about it, it is a zero sum game being played out in the West.
The Left is at war with the Right. Populism is rife. A recent major study revealed that across the world trust in institutions has declined drastically, even over the course of the past twelve months. The graphic below is not exhaustive, but it is representative:
Along with this, the religious framework of our culture is under increasing strain (it’s unpopular or is in pre-persecution stage, depending on your viewpoint). Radical Islamists must not be able to believe their luck. The West is doing all the hard work for them through a process of slow, self implosion. And then we read that we will never let the terrorists win. What does that even mean to say that? If the goal of terrorism is terror (it pretty much says what it is on the packet), then they’re doing a pretty good job of achieving it.
For the people of God, the way forward must be unity, but not around anger. And it’s a unity that first we model among ourselves to a watching world, and then in light of that, offer it to the world. Remember the scriptures, Ephesians 4:3
Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Unity is not something attain, but rather maintain. True unity is a gift from God, not something we build from scratch. We can lose it and reduce it to nothing, but we can never build it from nothing – it must have a source, and a source outside our own personal experiences. It’s source is the Spirit of God, who it says, binds us together in peace
The unity of God’s people – locally and globally – is built upon a God who doesn’t allow us to take vengeance, but who says that we should leave room for vengeance, because it belongs to him (Romans 12:9). We should take no comfort in calls for unity around a desire for vengeance towards terrorists, because in the end such vengeance is uncontrollable by us, as nationalism and nihilism merely prove. Besides, we see the God to whom vengeance belongs, taking in on himself through His Son, all of the world’s injustices and hatreds. And that’s a huge safety valve. It’s a perspective on the world that Albrechtsen and O’Neill, despite their admirable call out on the vacuous nature of the calls for unity by our ruling elite, cannot grasp.
Christ is filling up, reconciling, the entire cosmos around himself. His presence and work means that there can be no true, lasting unity around anything else, nothing, at least, that will not morph into something even worse than what we already have.