By Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary
In some parts of our country fire fighters refer to trees and underbrush as “fuel.” As dry as it gets, especially in parts of California, it only takes a lightning stroke or an electrical spark to set off a raging forest fire.
Our cultural moment feels ominous, as if we’re living next to a parched forest. In electoral politics we could scarcely imagine wider dissatisfaction – or greater gaps in perception. Our leading presidential candidates have earned unfavorable polling ratings among the highest ever reported. Partisan animosity runs at historically high levels: Democrats and Republicans regard one another more negatively than they have in twenty-five years. Almost daily our social media friends refer to friending and unfriending people over political disagreements. This combustible environment stresses us out.
Remember those bubbling test tubes from those old Looney Tunes cartoons? That menacing feeling defines our racial climate. African Americans and Latino/as have long suffered disproportionate police violence, but only recently has the problem captured widespread public attention. When we say “Black Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter,” we declare allegiance to a point of view within our nation’s racial politics. The murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have only increased our mutual suspicion. Please forgive me for one more reference to polls, but sure enough, Americans are currently less optimistic about racial progress than we have been in almost a generation. One researcher describes the current moment as “certainly the worst political climate that I’ve seen in my lifetime.” To put it directly, several of my black and brown friends have expressed a mixture of anger and fear more intense than any I can remember –with a cultural backlash just as intense.
In our own moment of cultural division, we encounter this extremely challenging passage from Luke. Here Jesus apparently revels in division. “I have come to bring fire to the earth,” he claims. “I have come” not to bring peace but division. If you’re one of those people alienated from a parent or sibling over your differences, you might feel like Jesus is talking about you. “Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.” And so on. If our lives resemble California underbrush, Jesus brings the match.
Lots of people have turned Jesus’ words into an excuse for their own obnoxious behavior. We’ve all seen zealots who push their fanatical agendas. When they experience rejection, they gleefully announce that of course the righteous should expect resistance. They’re persecuted, you know? Fred Phelps, who founded and pastored the Westboro Baptist Church, built his living on this pattern. His church protested gay pride events, picketed funerals for the victims of anti-gay violence, and even rejoiced in the deaths of American soldiers. The group has supported itself by filing lawsuits against communities that reject them. Eleven of Phelps’ thirteen children hold law degrees. Conflict does not lead the hyper-righteous to examine themselves. On the contrary, conflict merely bolsters their confidence. Didn’t Jesus say he came to bring division?
We try to wiggle out of Jesus’ words. Isn’t it Jesus who tells us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27)? Does not Jesus bless the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)? The divisive Jesus who sets the world alight scarcely resembles the Jesus of our popular piety. But an always-nice Jesus requires that we ignore significant chunks of gospel material. Jesus does bless those who endure persecution: “Blessed are you when people hate you” (Luke 6:27). He instructs his disciples to shake the dust from their feet when they encounter rejection (Luke 9:5; 10:11). Like it or not, honesty requires that we look this difficult Jesus straight in the eyes.
Like most interpreters, I believe that apocalyptic thought shaped Jesus’ vision. When he announced the kingdom of God, he meant it (Luke 4:43; 8:1). Jesus understood his ministry as God’s dramatic intervention into human history, a decisive moment that forced people to accept or reject what God was about. Yes, his ministry was meant to bring peace. But in an apocalyptic perspective, peace ultimately follows a period of intense conflict. The Gospels are full of conflict stories, in which various groups oppose Jesus and his teaching. The conflict escalates to the point of Jesus’ execution. Jesus indeed saw conflict as an essential part of his ministry – albeit a ministry of peace and reconciliation.
The Gospels associate Jesus’ ministry with both peace and conflict. Our task is to discern how we relate to this tension among Jesus’ teachings. Jesus calls us to lives of peacemaking, mercy, and justice – a call that sometimes leads us to face rejection. We are to discern when our commitment to follow Jesus requires us to take a firm stand and risk everything, even our relationships with people we love. Perhaps, as I hope, we reserve those moments for extreme situations. But we remember Dr. King, who called for “creative maladjustment” to injustice. In the face of deadly and entrenched racism the strategy of nonviolent direct action brought conflict to the surface, a fact for which Dr. King refused to apologize.
“Creative maladjustment” never defines Jesus’ followers. Disciples may meet conflict, but we do so in love. “Lambs in the midst of wolves,” Jesus characterizes his disciples (Luke 10:3). Matthew’s Jesus admonishes them to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16). If disciples rejoice in their persecution, they do so only after the fact, as if suffering were an end in itself. By no means are we commissioned to harm others, for the community of Jesus follows the path of reconciliation.
We might wish that Jesus would settle things for us. We might long for a clear word, a decisive saying that would provide the standard for our conduct. But that wouldn’t be Jesus, now would it? Instead Jesus challenges his followers to read the signs. If you know how to discern the weather by watching the winds, he says, “why do you not know how to discern the present time?” (13:56). Admittedly, I’m twisting Jesus’ words a little bit. In its proper context, Jesus is challenging people to recognize that his ministry has brought them to a decisive moment. With God’s help, it is ours to discern our current moments. Biased toward peace, we might also find ourselves called to clear, definitive witness. What time is it right now?
Bible Study Questions:
1. Can you recall an occasion in which you experienced division from people you love because you’d taken a principled stand? Looking back, would you handle things the same way again?
2. Identify an opinion to which you are passionately committed. Can you identify one compelling reason that other people might disagree with you?
3. How do you cultivate peace within yourself during divisive times?
For Further Reading:
Carey, Greg. The Gospel According to Luke: All Flesh Shall See God’s Salvation. Phoenix Guides to the New Testament 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012.
Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014.
Swartley, Willard M. Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006.
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