We tend to mistake uniformity for unity.
Uniformity is about looking the same, while unity is about actually being one.This means that unity is internal: it begins with agreeing on some fundamentals as being most important and then working together to build in alignment with those fundamentals. Uniformity, on the other hand, is external: looking similar, and even acting similarly, but without that internal agreement actually present.
Uniformity, in other words, often looks like unity. Except it’s not.
Even worse, uniformity can kill the possibility of unity.
That’s partly because uniformity is low-hanging fruit. Unity is incredibly hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. So it’s simply far easier—and therefore more tempting—to simply look alike rather than be truly one. The problem with low-hanging fruit is it can be filling enough that you stop feeling any hunger for more.
But there’s a more sinister way uniformity kills unity.
To explain this, I’ll borrow from a favourite metaphor that explores the difference. It’s from Paul the Apostle as he compares the then-new community of Christ-followers to a body. He argues that a body functions as well as it does precisely because it has so many different organs each responsible for their unique functions.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
At one point he contrasts uniformity with unity by asks his listeners (his letters were read out loud) to imagine a body comprising only one organ.
If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?… If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
I imagine it would have come across as funny to picture an ear rolling about. I used to find it funny, too. But now the image also fills me with dread because it brings cancer to mind: the malignant growth of one kind of cell at the expense of every other. Of course, given knowledge available at the time, it’s unlikely Paul had cancer in mind when he conceived the metaphor. He just wanted to convey the uselessness of a single organ compared to a multifaceted body. And his intent was most probably to evoke laughter.
But that’s why it’s such a rich metaphor: it works all the same.
So how does it apply here? Well, it offers a way to think about that’s going on when we’re looking at uniformity: one way of being forced on an entire community and destroying other ways of being. That’s what makes it malignant: not just the spread but the destruction. But just like an eye or ear alone cannot self-exist, and just like a cancer is self-destructive and lays waste to the body it lives off, forcing uniformity is erosive to community.
That’s why diversity matters. It’s also why diversity is not enough.
Because while diversity is a great pushback against mere uniformity, it’s only a halfway point.
Unity is where we should be aiming for: all of us, with all our differences, finding not just common ground, but working together for each others’ interests.
All passages taken from the first of two preserved letters of Paul to the community of Christ followers in Corinth, from the section commonly known as 1 Corinthians 12 (as translated from the Ancient Greek text in the English Standard Version).