As I was going over St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church for the homeschool church history class I teach to some Orthodox youths, St. Cyprian’s use of the passage about Christ’s seamless garment, for which the soldiers cast lots at the Crucifixion, struck me in a surprising way.

St. Cyprian: Do not rend the garment of Christ

Here, I thought, is a reference to the “seamless garment” in its proper theological and specifically ecclesiological context, as St. Cyprian compares schismatics to those who would not only cast lots for His garment, but actually rend the garment they have received:

This sacrament of unity, this bond of a concord inseparably cohering, is set forth where in the Gospel the coat of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at all divided nor cut, but is received as an entire garment, and is possessed as an uninjured and undivided robe by those who cast lots concerning Christ’s garment, who should rather put on Christ. Holy Scripture speaks, saying, “But of the coat, because it was not sewed, but woven from the top throughout, they said one to another, Let us not rend it, but cast lots whose it shall be.” That coat bore with it an unity that came down from the top, that is, that came from heaven and the Father, which was not to be at all rent by the receiver and the possessor, but without separation we obtain a whole and substantial entireness. He cannot possess the garment of Christ who parts and divides the Church of Christ. On the other hand, again, when at Solomon’s death his kingdom and people were divided, Abijah the prophet, meeting Jeroboam the king in the field, divided his garment into twelve sections, saying, “Take thee ten pieces; for thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten sceptres unto thee; and two sceptres shall be unto him for my servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen to place my name there.” As the twelve tribes of Israel were divided, the prophet Abijah rent his garment. But because Christ’s people cannot be rent, His robe, woven and united throughout, is not divided by those who possess it; undivided, united, connected, it shows the coherent concord of our people who put on Christ. By the sacrament and sign of His garment, He has declared the unity of the Church.

It then occurred to me that the conventional, almost entirely political usage of this phrase nowadays was shockingly inappropriate, not to mention the product of rather confused exegesis. Though this sort of usage began among the religious supporters of the political left as a way for them to claim to be comprehensively pro-life (and thus to make supporting abortion rights more palatable for religious Democrats) because their policies allegedly defended the sanctity of life more thoroughly and more often, the “seamless garment” rhetoric on matters of human life has overtaken people across the spectrum, some of whom embrace the logic of the argument and some of whom reject it, to the point where I sometimes wonder whether the people using the phrase can entirely recall where it comes from. On the other side, supporters of the death penalty might make and have made clever arguments about “rending the seamless garment” in a way that makes the rending desirable.

But it seems clear to me now that using the language in this way is confusing at best and probably alien to the mind of the Church. Rending that garment is never desirable, because that garment is a symbol of the Church. Thinking of the garment as a metaphor for an abstract principle of life is hardly any better, when the significance of its seamlessness is not the arrangement of policies or the consistent maintenance of a “principle,” but a representation of unity in Christ.