We prefer division. We prefer it because it’s so much easier to create and sustain communities of (presumably) like-minded people, so that we do not have to be with “them.” – Dn. Nicholas Denysenko

Division is always easier than unity. Denysenko is absolutely right. Division, reinforced by seeking shelter in homogenous communities provides comfortable certainty.

Love requires knowing another person, recognizing them, and acting accordingly. Division is all about knowing and recognizing. Our group, community or body tells us who we are (and who they are), and what we should do and what they should not do.

Division makes much more efficient the process of recognition which underlies love. Division is such a useful shortcut in getting to know (or precluding my need to know) and therefore love another person.

Take for instance, the division of age. If you are old and I am young, I should offer you my seat on the bus. This is because your aged bones tire more easily than my young body. Recognizing the difference age makes on a body is a way of showing respect, of loving the stranger in front of you. Of course, if I have been running around all day serving food in a busy restaurant, my throbbing feet may be less capable of supporting me than the muscled legs of a man who has spent the last 70 years hiking the mountains of the Pacific Northwest every weekend. My failure to offer the first seat I have had all day has more to do with the way my body has failed me in this moment than whether or not I respect your age. ‘Young’ versus ‘old’ does not necessarily tell us everything we need to know in this particular situation, with these particular people. But most of the time, this division works for us, it allows us to care for those around us according to a set of rules or practices that, mostly, result in genuinely respectful and loving behavior.

Dividing humans into male and female, feminine and masculine is a particularly convenient shortcut to ‘loving’ a person. I know that if you are a man and I am a woman, you will courteously open doors for me, you will protect me (unless you are going to rape me), you will function as the provider in our family, and likely, you will enjoy sports. I know all of this before I have even met you so if I want to show my interest in you, I can ask you about your job and what you thought of that football game (and I just hope I made the right call on whether you are a hunter or protector…or rather, that you know that I am not to be gathered in your hunt). Knowing that you are a man and men have particular interests and abilities allows me to immediately know how to relate to you. You (should) feel known by me, you should feel as if I see YOU. Knowing you is just easier because I know all about the group to which you belong, “men”.

If however, you prefer chess over football, or you simply don’t like competition of any kind, and you don’t have a job, suddenly, my assumptions about who you are based on your sex and gender do not help me know you. Rather, they expose that I don’t know you at all and that I have not really taken the time to really get to know you. Whether this results in you showing embarrassment for not fulfilling your role as a man, or if me wondering if you are really the man you appear to be, or us stopping and realizing that we (well, in this case, perhaps just me) entered into the conversation with a set of assumptions about one another that must be corrected with some laughter and asking of more open ended questions, all depends entirely on how comfortable we are in our actual skins, not our assumed bodies.

This awkward moment provides us a choice: to use our divisions as the lens through which we see one another, or to make the effort to come to know another as they are, unique and irreducible to any group, category or attribute.

The latter is much harder work. And so, we avoid it. Which leads to (at least) two serious problems:

First, we use our descriptions as prescriptions and proscriptions. We prescribe certain behaviors as particularly normal, healthy or representative, and we proscribe other behaviors or practices as not fitting, not natural, or not faithful. For example, because being a man is about strength, power and competence we insist that to “be a man” is to never show weakness, powerlessness or inability. Men who fail to follow the rules are emasculated (worse, they are ‘feminized’, since the opposite of masculine is, of course, feminine. We seem only to be able to think in binaries). We insist that unique individuals fit what we think they should be and do without bothering to get to know them, without making the effort to find out who they are, what they need, what gives them joy.

This leads to the second problem: division becomes self-righteous rejection. Deviation from the prescription allows me to condemn you while elevating my group, my practice, my obedience, my self. And there is nothing more appealing that the certainty of knowing I am ‘in’ and you are ‘out.’ Out of my family, out of my community, out of my church.

This is the irony of our preferential option for division. Division is a shortcut to love, the manifestation of love’s failure. It is a shortcut because if you fit my description, I already know how to love you without every having to really know you. It is a failure because it is simply not actually loving to treat a person according my description rather than who they are. It is a failure because your ‘refusal’ to live according to my description becomes an excuse to not love you at all. Instead, you are a deviant who fails to embody what is normal or natural.

If you think that I am only referring to gender and sexuality here, let me turn to the very division that Dn. Nicholas Denysenko was addressing: the division of Orthodoxy in North America. By deciding that the ’other’ group doesn’t attend communion enough, or perhaps too much, or that they don’t all come to vespers, or horrors, that they don’t even have a Saturday vespers service, or they call the Sunday morning Orthros ‘matins’ (note to non-Orthodox readers: this is NOT a charicature, these things really do come up in conversation) what I am really doing is engaging in utterly self-interested affirmations of my piety as holy and their piety as insufficient. Orthodox do not claim assurance of salvation through arguments over predestination and being chosen. Rather, our salvation is assured by being in the right group, praying in the right way, being the right sort of man or woman.

The only solution is, and Denysenko says, to have a preferential option for unity. But what this looks like is crucial. A preferential option for unity does not eradicate difference. Unity is not homogeneity. Rather, unity sees in difference an opportunity to stretch our ability to love, to recognize the presence and work of God in unexpected persons, bodies, orientations, communities and practices. It assumes not that I am right, but that our differences are the very ground in which new life is planted.

Denying difference, eradicating difference, excluding difference guarantees an easy path, a smooth road. Living with difference, and refusing to succumb to the self-righteous certainty that my way is not only the right way but the only right way, is the only path to any unity worth having. Unity is only be possible when we allow distinct ways of being Orthodox, or being male or female (or, gasp, neither or both!) to exist side-by-side.

It is a particular tragedy that we use our divisions, whether ecclesial or sexual, to justify not eating together. Eating together reminds us that our way of doing something is not the only way, and that God really is present everywhere and in all things, especially in the beautifully unique embodied image of God who is sharing this meal with us.

2 thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s