Unity and Diversity are Neighbors: and So Are We


Dear friends,

For new futures that make the best of our pasts, we must abandon the war-making violence of wanting others to disappear, whether by domination (fake-unity) or divorce (fake-diversity).

Against popular assumption, unity and diversity are not opposite but integral. This week, I’m sharing an article I wrote on the subject, published by Ethiopia Insight on April 26, 2020.

This article is a great place to start if you want to learn more about my work with the Neighbor-Love Movement.



Balinjeraye: Unity and Diversity Are Neighbors, and So Are We

Many people today assume that unity and diversity are enemies. For example, we often hear in politics and religion about the “pro-unity camp” and the “pro-diversity camp.” This binary metaphor pictures unity and diversity as armies on a battlefield struggling for domination.

But the truth is more interesting and challenging: unity and diversity are neighbors. They sustain one another and can’t live well without each other. Take a second look.

Unity requires diversity. Without diversity, unity becomes sameness and destroys itself, because there is nothing to unite in sameness. Only a monolithic mass remains. Diversity is the secret, sustaining ingredient of unity.

Diversity requires unity. Without unity, diversity becomes alienation and destroys itself, because everything is separate in alienation. Only splintered fragments remain. Unity is the secret, sustaining ingredient of diversity.

Against popular assumption, then, unity and diversity are not opposite but integral. They needn’t compete but instead can complement one another. In fact, I would go further: they require one another. There is no unity without diversity and no diversity without unity.

The implication is profound and practical: We cannot be for one (“us”) without being for the other (“them”). If we want real unity, we must also want robust diversity. If we want real diversity, we must also want robust unity. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood, “Life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”

The fact that some of us reject this truth and see unity and diversity as warring camps reveals something equally profound and dangerous. When we say we want “unity,” we really want sameness: we want the others to go away by being absorbed into us. Or when we say we want “diversity,” we really want separation: we want the others to go away by being alienated from us.

But as you can see, the core of sameness (fake unity) and separation (fake diversity) is actually identical: we want others to go away. The method is different: absorption or exile, domination or divorce. But the core is the same: “We alone must exist; otherness must be eliminated.” Emmanuel Levinas, the brilliant Holocaust survivor and philosopher, called this the logic of war.

From this perspective, we discover that the question of neighbor-love is at the heart of public discourse about “unity” and “diversity”: Are we equally precious neighbors who belong to one another, or are we enemies who must destroy one another? Are we created for relationship, community, and a common good—or sameness, alienation, and war?

The claim of Balinjeraye: The Neighbor-Love Movement, which I co-lead with Dr. Tekalign Nega, is that we are neighbors instead of enemies. We were created for life with one another and a common good—unity in diversity, diversity in unity—not domination or divorce.

Balinjeraye team, partners, and volunteers at the University of Gondar.

This is why we have a diamond in our logo. People are diamonds. They’re not less or unrelated to us, as forces of othering would have us believe. People are our precious neighbors—deeply related and fully equal with ourselves. Inspiring young people to see others this way is our single mission.

And this is why we have a compass around the diamond in our logo. When we see people as diamonds, we have the direction we need to live. We know where to go and what to do. We have our map and mission for life.

But the challenge is that the alternatives to neighbor-love are less demanding.

Fake-unity is simpler and easier: make everyone (not) like us (go away). Likewise, fake-diversity is simpler and easier: make everyone not like us go away. As societies around the world today illustrate, it’s easy to rally a base and mobilize the mass with this self-idolizing ideology. Claim victimhood, blame the other, and surge.

This war-making posture appeals to the lowest elements and darkest drives of human nature: superiority over others (pride), lust for domination (power), and the monopolization of resources (profit), which gives us a perverse pleasure. Sigmund Freud observed this insightfully in his Civilization and Its Discontents (1930): “The impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power, success, riches for himself and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things in life.”

By contrast, neighbor-love is complex and challenging, amidst its beautiful simplicity and joy.

Neighbor-love is complex and challenging because it requires moral transformation in our basic values, practices, and institutions. This transformation is marked by diverse but united commitments like empathy (caring about others), dialogue (talking with others), trust (believing in others), cooperation (working with others), accountability (questioning one another), and innovation (finding new solutions to old problems).

These qualities are the integrated outcomes of neighbor-love, which isn’t just fuzzy feelings and happy thoughts. Neighbor-love is passionate will and practical work for others’ wellbeing. For example, the Times of London has shown that neighbor-love added £3 billion to the UK’s economy in 2014. Research indicates that neighbor-love contributed $8.8 billion to the American economy in 2018.

Balinjeraye exists to cultivate this transformative unity and diversity rooted in neighbor-love among Ethiopian young people.

We promote a Covenant in which the signer commits to see and treat others as valued neighbors rather than strangers and enemies. A covenant is the core commitment that defines how we live and love. Over three thousand Ethiopian young people have signed our Covenant since November 2019. We are always so encouraged when Ethiopians— across ethnicities, religions, political views, regions, and ages—read our Covenant, smile, and say, “Yes! This is exactly what we need today!” You might be surprised by who has signed our Covenant.

We also promote seven Practices that train our bodies to live our Covenant in everyday life:

  1. Seeing others as precious neighbors with our eyes;
  2. Listening patiently to others with our ears;
  3. Speaking truthfully and respectfully to others with our mouths;
  4. Helping rather than harming others with our hands;
  5. Opening our hearts to others’ joy and pain;
  6. Moving our feet to cross boundaries and build relationship with others; and
  7. Engaging our minds to integrate our values and vocations for our shared flourishing.

These practices don’t require money, technology, or an Internet connection. They simply require our bodies energized with love.

Balinjeraye’s Covenant and Practices; available in Amharic, Afaan Oromo, and Tigrigna. See www.balinjeraye.org/sign

People who commit to Balinjeraye’s Covenant and Practices become Ambassadors of Neighbor-Love. They are ordinary people who model an ancient and innovative way of being human in everyday life. We are honored to have Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, founder of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, as our inaugural public ambassador. Many other emerging and influential leaders have made this commitment to embody neighbor-love in their personal and professional lives.

In addition to the core pillars of our Covenant, Practices, and Ambassadors, we have designed several “Next Steps.” These include a 30-day Mindfulness Exercise to expand who we see as neighbors, the first Amharic and English video courses on the Christian ethics of neighbor-love (our Islamic course is forthcoming), a groundbreaking book on the same topic written by Dr. Tekalign, and an informal Neighbor-Love Coalition for individuals and organizations who want to centralize love, justice, and flourishing in their vocations.

We lead Neighbor-Love Dialogue events at Ethiopia’s regional universities with hundreds of students in which we invite these young leaders to become Ambassadors of Neighbor-Love. The Guardian has noted our work for its peacemaking potential as 35,000 students have fled their campuses amidst conflict in recent months. After seeing over eight hundred students enthusiastically raise up their Covenants at the University of Gondar, a representative of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education told me, “I hope you will take this Movement to all 45 universities in Ethiopia! I have never seen anything like this!”

800 Gondar university students raise their Covenants and declare, “Today I say Yes! I am an Ambassador of Neighbor-Love!”

Jigjiga University’s External Relations Officer, Mr. Kemal, declared after University President Dr. Abdi Ahmed and five hundred students signed our Covenant, “Today we have taken vaccinations of love!”

We have also led dozens of smaller events in Addis Ababa with diverse organizations. We are now preparing Neighbor-Love 101 events in Addis focused on public conversations with inspiring leaders about how our professions can embody neighbor-love across sectors and disciplines. We dream of university campuses and local dialogue platforms that promote rigorous learning, practical service, and human dignity, again, in unity and diversity.

We also produce daily social media content to inspire young people, and our platforms have attracted millions of views. We engage with local and international media like Ethiopia Insight, Ethiopian Herald, Addis Maleda, Fortune, Addis Standard, the Voice of America, The Guardian, and The Economist.

Our dream is to open a Neighbor-Love Embassy (Center) in Addis Ababa that will constantly cultivate critical thinking, creative imagination, and committed action for love, justice, and flourishing in Ethiopia. Our center will offer weekly, if not daily, public dialogues, lectures, short courses, mentorship, fellowships, and service projects to inspire and energize our young people and emerging leaders. Astonishingly, no such center exists in Ethiopia’s capital city and Africa’s diplomatic capital. We want to pioneer this work.

Former Czechoslovakia President Vaclav Havel powerfully wrote, “Identity is not a prison but an appeal for dialogue with others. Love for one’s fellow humans is the central commandment of all of our contending cultures.”

Havel was right.

Moses taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself… Love the foreigner as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, 34).

Jesus taught, “Love your enemy, and do good to those who hate you ” (Luke 6:27).

Mohammad taught, “Be good to neighbors near and far” (Quran 4:36) and “forgive those who wrong you” (Hadith At-Tabarani, 282).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, “Love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation… More than ever before, people of all races and nations are today challenged to be neighborly. The call for a worldwide good-neighbor policy is the call to a way of life that will transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment” (Strength to Love).

Jews, Christians, Muslims, supporters of democracy—in neighbor-love, we find profound unity in diversity and profound diversity in unity. These traditions represent 98 percent of Ethiopia’s approximately 110 million people.

Imagine that: 98 percent of Ethiopia! It is hard to imagine a richer unity in diversity. As Havel said, neighbor-love is “the central commandment of all of our contending cultures.” It is our shared moral vision for the good life—our most basic responsibility and highest hope for meaning, purpose, and prosperity as persons who are diverse and united in our neighboring humanity.

We believe it is time for individuals and society to embrace afresh the inspiring challenge of neighbor-love: passionately willing and practically working for our shared wellbeing. This is the way to real unity and real diversity rather than the hopeless zero-sum game that sets us at war. Diversity and unity are neighbors, and so are we—all of us.

For new futures that make the best of our pasts, we must abandon the war-making violence of wanting others to disappear, whether by domination (fake-unity) or divorce (fake-diversity). In reality, we are not enemies but neighbors. Without one another, we destroy ourselves. We are the secret, sustaining ingredient of each other’s flourishing.

As the brilliant Harvard professor Henri Nouwen showed in his book The Wounded Healer, “Every human face is the face of a neighbor.” Each one of us is the embodiment of our unity and diversity in microcosm: all neighbors (unity), all uniquely so and each never the same (diversity).

We are excited for Ethiopia’s future and her 110 million neighbors.

With Mahbub ul Haq, we believe, “The real wealth of a nation is its people.” How rich Ethiopia is, especially with her 70 million young people! Imagine Ethiopia’s future if her youth are mentored and inspired to pursue vocations that honor the diamond that is each one of us.

Also with ul Haq, we observe, “This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” Something better is possible and stands right in front of us: each neighbor more fully alive in loving diversity and unity.

Today, whoever you are, wherever you live, we warmly invite you to sign our Covenant, embody our Practices, and become Ambassadors of Neighbor-Love. Join our movement and combine your passion with ours for an Ethiopia and a world of love, justice, and flourishing for all neighbors.


NOTE: This article was originally published by Ethiopia Insight on April 26, 2020.

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