What traffic can teach us about unity

We all hate traffic.

Last week I had to drive my kids to Hampton for a party, and we hit light traffic.  As a string of us drove in the left lane to pass slower traffic, a blue sedan raced up behind me and tailgated only feet from my bumper.  There wasn’t anything I could do, but this didn’t stop the car from swerving into the middle lane and cursing out his window at us.

I think seeing my young daughter staring wide-eyed at him made him regret his decision; he pulled back and got behind us.  As soon as I passed the slower car, I got over and he passed me slowly without making eye-contact.  He did not race forward as his cursing would have implied, remaining only a few car-lengths ahead for miles… until he was tailgated.

A tan SUV did to him what he had done to me, and he wasn’t having it.  I watched as the two cars swerved back and forth across three lanes trying to block each other, nearly sending multiple cars off the road.  Later, the sedan was at it again with another car.

In this driver’s mind, no one should impede his journey.  He knew where he was heading and how fast he wanted to get there; he would do what it took to make it happen.

Sadly, this is how we — even believers — tend to go through life; we know where we want to go and how we want to get there, pushing against anything that impedes our plans.  To be fair, few of us are like this driver — willing to put others at risk to get what we want — but this does not mean our self-focus is not without repercussions.

“Phantom traffic” is a great example of this.  To study why traffic can seem to occur for no reason, researches placed drivers on a circular road with the instructions to keep pace with the driver in front of them; the idea was that if everyone drove the same speed in the same way, there should be no traffic.  What they discovered was intriguing:

Despite their best efforts, the drivers lost sight of the driver ahead of them.  Whether a result of distraction or unwillingness, the drivers failed to drive in unity, and the result was a perpetual traffic jam.  It’s likely the first driver to break unity didn’t do so intentionally, but the repercussion impacted every other driver nonetheless.

In the Body of Christ, disunity has frequently jammed us up.  While there are some like the blue sedan driver that are reckless, many more of us may simply be distracted from the frequent call in scripture for unity.  Honestly, it makes sense: we may genuinely desire unity, but life can hit us in hard and varied ways, taking our eyes off the other “drivers”.

I think our bigger issue, though, is this betrays a misunderstanding of our role in the Body.  More often than not, we function out of a willingness to get along with others, rather than recognizing we have a responsibility toward them.  Willingness is shaped by preference, responsibility by obligation, and both yield different results.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:12-15

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Romans 12:14-18

We are meant to function as one Body.  Consider a two-lane interstate with an accident ahead blocking a lane.  Normally, the sight of this would cause frustration, because we know how it goes: there’s going to be hefty traffic, merging is going to be messy as we get into one lane, and you know there are going to be those “selfish” drivers who zoom past the long line only to butt ahead of everyone else.

Interestingly, we’re the ones in the wrong:

While we think we’re supposed to merge immediately into one long line, the proper and efficient way is to remain in two lanes and work together to merge.  Our self-focus causes the traffic, and working in unity disperses it!  The former way of thinking betrays that we are still individually minded — thinking of how we need to merge and getting mad if another merges in front of us — rather than understanding our shared responsibility as drivers on the same road.

In other words: what if the issue is not the traffic, but our understanding of our role on the road?

On some occasions, I’ve experienced this interstate-unity.  An obstacle that should have caused annoying traffic didn’t because we all seemed to understand the situation, and worked together to move forward; instead of rushing ahead, one will allow the other to merge, and that other may do the same.  We may be very different drivers, with different destinations, but in that moment we are heading in the same direction and have a responsibility to each other; so it is with the Body of Christ:

There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ.  We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink.  So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.  You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:12-14,25-27

Scripture is not ambiguous: we are expected to pursue unity.  It may go against our instincts and pursuits, but we are to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)  We may be barraged by the troubles of life that lead us to turn inward, but we are to “be anxious for nothing,” as we trust God in prayer. (Philippians 4:6)  The call to unity is not contingent on our desires or capacity, and is a vital necessity to functioning as one Body of Christ.

If you are a Christ-follower, unity is not optional.  “You are the body of Christ, each one of you is a part of it” and so we must accept that reality; fortunately, we share one Spirit, who knows how to make us one.

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