Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us is a phenomenally timed book that speaks to members of the wider Christian community, regardless of denomination. Layton E. Williams takes on the challenge of redefining what could quite possibly be the most difficult and aspirational word for Christians — unity. Traditionally, unity is what our churches hope to attain, while disunity is considered to be the greatest threat against the body of Christ. But, in just over 200 pages, Williams does what is counterintuitive to most Christians: she makes a case for disunity in Christian community.
In a brief introduction, Williams clearly tells readers the purpose of this book. She writes, “This book is an argument for how disunity can be holy, and how we can faithfully coexist without being united, at least in any earthly way.” The contrast between earthly unity and holy disunity is the primary distinction made throughout the book. Earthly unity is “the unity we attempt to create when we think it is in our power is a broken, hollow, and false unity.” This is the unity that Williams believes “becomes for us an idol — a distraction from the greater unity that comes from God.”
If unity is not the goal for Christian community on this earth, then what is our goal? The next twelve chapters propose that our goal is relationship, and relationships can thrive when we no longer cling to earthly unity.
In each chapter, Williams highlights various “gifts” of disunity. Most readers will initially balk at the idea of argument being a gift, or doubt, or uncertainty, but Williams makes the case that these gifts to community are actually what saves us. Each chapter begins with a personal story that connects with the topic at hand. Williams draws from years of experience in parish ministry, as well as her time growing up in the South, to frame each of the gifts. Her experiences serve as case studies that help readers draw practical applications for how to utilize these gifts in community. The middle of each chapter asks and answers three questions:
1. How does this gift separate us?
2. What does the Bible say about this gift?
3. How does this gift save us?
The first chapter, “The Gift of Difference,” pushes against the ways in which our communities categorize individuals into “normal” and “different,” with normal being the preferred category. Williams challenges how churches handle diversity and pushes readers to intentionally honor difference in community. Chapter two, “The Gift of Doubt,” acknowledges doubt as a key component of Christian life and as a way to discover God in new and extraordinary ways. Chapter three, “The Gift of Argument,” questions the core of “civility” in our systems, calling out civility as a way “to maintain the existing system of power” and to silence those who do not comply with the system. Williams proposes replacing fear of argument with trust in members of the community who are traditionally silenced.
Chapter four, “The Gift of Tension,” recognizes the complexity of our convictions and asks readers to lean into tension by moving past binary thinking. Chapter five, “The Gift of Separation,” helps readers to realize the moments where separation can be necessary to remain in relationship. Chapter six, “The Gift of Vulnerability,” calls us to steward spaces of vulnerability. Chapter seven, “The Gift of Trouble,” invites us to sit with all that is troubling in the world and join the holy work of healing. Chapter eight, “The Gift of Protest,” confronts the tendency of Christians to shy away from protest by asking “What truths are we afraid to hear?” Williams writes, “To be a faithful Christian in a broken world is to live in protest of what does the breaking and what is broken…”
Chapter nine, “The Gift of Hunger,” delves into the common hunger we have for belonging and community and posits that what connects us all is our hunger, and only relationship can fill that. Chapter ten, “The Gift of Limitations,” reminds us of our humanity and that we need relationship because as individuals we are limited. Embracing limitation helps us to see the capability of others and ultimately learn to lean on one another.
Chapter eleven, “The Gift of Failure,” points out that fear of failure is at the center of the other fears discussed in this book. Our communities fear failure, but Williams imagines what it would look like if we took risks together. Finally, chapter twelve, “The Gift of Uncertainty,” breaks down the illusion of certainty that so many of us rely on and calls it out as the opposite of faith. When we cling to certainty, we attempt to do what humanly cannot be done. We cannot know all the answers or understand every truth, but we can trust God, and believe that there is holiness in the midst of uncertainty.
This book is an easy read that unpacks necessary truths. Over the past few years in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, calls for unity and compliance highlight how our church community dwells in spaces of fear as we seek to create earthly unity under the guise of God’s call. This book is a challenge to our church to renounce our idols and lean into holy disunity. The real question each reader must internally answer is are they willing to lean into difference, protest, argument, tension, failure, and even separation for the sake of relationship? Layton Williams hopes the answer is yes. This is a yes that could save us.
Notes & References:
Danielle M. Barnard currently works as a Legal Advocate for sexual assault survivors at the Cora Lamping Center in Benton Harbor, MI. When she’s not working, she’s finishing her research for her MS in Community and International Development at Andrews University.
Book cover image courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.
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