Unity, Not Uniformity


by Dale E. Lehman
Appeared: 08/30/2002

It is the simplest of principles, it is the most difficult of principles.

No, I'm not rewriting A Tale of Two Cities. I'm talking about what may be regarded as the cornerstone of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings: unity in diversity. It sounds very simple on the surface. Humanity is one. In times past this may not have been so obvious, but today only the most prejudiced would fail to acknowledge that there is only one human species and that variations in the human family are of little fundamental consequence.

And yet, where is the evidence that humanity has truly accepted this concept? Racism and inequality still run rampant in many parts of the world. Warring ethnic groups see no hope of ever learning to live together in peace, and instead seek to carve out separate homesteads (big homesteads called nations) for themselves. Different religious groups claim monopolies on truth and regard anyone of a different faith as spiritually lost, if not an actual disciple of Satan. And of course, the divide between rich and poor grows ever wider.

So what gives? Is humanity evolving towards unity or not? Does it even comprehend what unity means? I think the answer is: Yes it is, but no, it doesn't, or at least not very well. Clearly we are in certain key senses evolving towards unity. For example, we have largely abandoned the concept of race as a dividing factor. Indeed, in some circles race is regarded as little more than a once-convenient fiction whose utility is rapidly fading. Of course racism and prejudice still exist, and of course the situation is better in some parts of the world and worse in others. But the direction in which humanity is moving is clear: racial differences are coming to be seen as of no real consequence for human capacity and fundamental human rights.

We are also moving away from gender-based stereotypes and prejudices, nations are being knit ever more closely into a global commonwealth by market forces and political necessities, and high-speed travel and communications between all regions of the world are affording us a real sense of global unity. Should these trends continue, it's not hard to envison that they will indeed lead us to an age of global unity.

But we are still living in this moment, not in that future age, and it's hard to imagine what such a unity would be like. So we might well ask: What does unity really mean?

Let us first be clear on what unity does not mean: it does not mean uniformity. Unity is oneness. Uniformity is sameness. Bahá'ís do not seek uniformity, but rather unity in diversity. Diversity lends strength to any group of people. Unity binds together diverse elements so that, by virtue of their many strengths, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When a town wishes to build a road, it doesn't hire a hundred surveyors and nobody else. A hundred surveyors might well do a great job at laying out the path for the road, but they won't be able to build even one foot of it (or one meter of it, if you're metrically inclined). A wide variety of skills are needed to build a road. When people with these diverse skills are brought together and focused on the common objective of building a road, the end result is virtually guaranteed.

Likewise with humanity as a whole. Unity doesn't mean that variations in the human race will disappear. Rather, it means that such variations as exist will be brought together, harmonized if you will, under a common understanding. A peaceful global civilization will then be possible, with all people playing such roles as they are equipped to play, all different yet all supporting and advancing the fortunes of humanity.

So how do we get from here to there? First, we have to accept that it's possible. Once we accept that it's possible, we have to live like it's possible. That's the really, really hard part, because we have not grown up with the idea in our heads that unity is possible. We have a lot of habits--ways of thinking and ways of acting and reacting--that are based upon prejudices and "us vs. them" politics. As if that weren't enough of a hurdle to jump, while we are busy trying to live in unity, there will be many others who will refuse to join the effort.

All things considered, it's obvious we aren't going to get from here to there in a single generation, which is why it's also important to teach our children about unity. It will be an uphill struggle, but when we consider the trends, the path that humanity has been treading for the past century or two, it seems almost certain that in due course our goal will be achieved.

An article from Planet Bahá'í