Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us by Layton Williams

Summary: Unity is important for Christians, but there are times when unity can mask issues of justice and legitimate disagreement.

I probably would not have picked this up if it has not been included in Audible Plus Catalog (which means it is free to listen to for audible members.) Generally, I am strongly in favor of ecumenical work and of the church as a whole recognizing itself. I am part of a group called The Initiative, designed to facilitate understanding and cooperation between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.

I am a part of several groups trying to build a similar understanding and cooperation among Christians of different racial groups. But you cannot seriously participate in groups like this without thinking about lines you will not cross. One of the significant and accurate charges in White Evangelical Racism by Anthea Butler is that White Evangelicals often claim to be against racism but rarely are willing to make racism a line which they will break fellowship over. One example in that book is MLK Jr directly asking Billy Graham not to appear on the platform with a noted segregationist in 1957, a request that Graham refused.

Not all unity is a positive unity. Unity can be achieved through various means, and sometimes the means to unity actually subverts the cause of Christianity. If visible unity requires suppression of people or their personhood, then that unity is a false unity. But even that is not nearly nuanced enough. There are times when it seems appropriate for a person to choose to voluntarily not exert their own rights for the sake of unity. It becomes more difficult when a larger group, especially a group of historically marginalized people, is required to not exert their rights as a Christian for the sake of unity.

Layton Williams is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. This book is filled with examples of disunity within her own life as an openly bisexual pastor, ordained in a denomination that has recently begun to ordain LGBTQ+ pastors. The examples of her life, including her discussion of the fact that she and her mother are theologically on different sides of the ordination of LGBTQ+ pastors and the fact that her mother left the denomination after it allowed ordination, shows exactly how personal many of these issues are. The personal largely adds to the nuance and helpfulness of the book. But I know that some who object to LGBTQ+ marriage or ordination or other nuanced issues may not want to pick up this book, but I want to encourage you to pick it up if that is your position. Listening to others is part of how we gain understanding and empathy and how we confirm our positions.

I also appreciate that, like many good discussions of intersectional issues, no one is purely oppressed or oppressor. No one is always right or always wrong. As an educated bisexual southern white woman, Layton Williams works through many issues where there are lines of whether she should or should not separate because of real social, theological, and practical disagreements. Others will come down with different lines they would draw, and they should. But what I think is a problem is if we do not explore why we join in unity, or not.

I regularly thought of Lauren Winner’s book The Dangers of Christian Practice as I read Holy Disunity. As Winner pointed out, spiritual disciplines are good. We should pray, and take communion and be part of Christian churches, etc. But because spiritual disciplines are good does not mean that we do good with those spiritual disciplines. Winner gave examples of Christians who enslaved people, praying for their slave’s deaths or for a segregated heaven. Other Christians have used baptism and church membership as a means of exclusion via racism or antisemitism. Because unity is generally good does not mean that unity cannot be misused, and Layton Williams gives good guidance on how to think about when unity may be misused.

Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us by Layton Williams Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

One Comment

Great insights, and a great takeaway about how willing we are to use our religious values–the ones we claim are central to our faith–as a means to change our behaviors when we simply want to continue doing what we want to do anyway.

It’s something for me to consider about myself, whether I am truly valuing the truths my religion proclaims or if I’m treating my religion like a cafeteria buffet.

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