Division in pursuit of justice

Text: Luke 12:49-56 (bringing fire on earth)

The Gospel passage we just heard is one that some ministers are reluctant to discuss. In it Jesus — the Prince of Peace, the one whom the angels say at his birth will bring peace on earth, and the one who greets his friends after his resurrection with the phrase “peace be with you” — says here he has not come to bring peace, but rather division.

Why does Jesus say this? Why does he say that he has come to bring fire on earth? Why does he say that his baptism of fire will pit children against parents and parents against children?

The passage seems to contradict much of what Jesus preaches, and so some ministers say that they are uncomfortable with it.

I don’t number myself among them. I appreciate the passage; and I think it can help us in this era of aggressive public debate.

Unity is a central value for faith communities and none more so than the United Church of Canada. But what kind of unity do we want, and how can we achieve it?

At the time of Jesus, the Mediterranean world was at peace. It had been united by the Roman Emperor Augustus under what came to be know as the Pax Romana. This Peace of Rome lasted for more than 200 years. But Rome’s unity was created by conquest and enforced by brutality. Rome’s peace was like the peace of a jail cell. The unity and peace of Rome were rejected by Jesus.

Jesus and his friends tried to live outside of religious and political control. They preached a message of Grace to poor and oppressed peasants.

Jesus told his friends that he had come so that everyone might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). This message was a threat to the unity and peace of Rome, which explains in part why the Romans executed Jesus.

Jesus wanted peace, but not under any circumstances. In opposition to the Pax Romana, he worked for peace with justice; and achieving justice sometimes requires division. Jesus and his friends split away from religious leaders who were afraid to challenge Rome. They lived with an awareness that as children of God they had nothing to lose, which allowed them to participate in a baptism by fire.

Their goal was to create the realm of God on earth. This meant division between those who clung to the past and those who were open to new ways; between those who supported the Empire and those who worked for a world without imperial domination; and between those who were fearful and those who had accepted God’s grace.

In 2016 with the rise of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, I hear Jesus’ words about division with a new sharpness.

Some people think that ministers shouldn’t concern themselves with political matters. But as you may have noticed, I am not one of them. I think religion has always been political and never more so than with Jesus. Today when Trump, a person whom I consider to be a racist demagogue, might become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, discussing political matters becomes even more a part of our work, I believe.

A lot has been written in the past year about the dilemma that Trump’s candidacy presents to churches in the United States. In the past few decades, the Republican Party has come to rely heavily upon evangelical white churches.

In the 2012 Presidential election, the Republican Candidate, Mitt Romney, received the overwhelming majority of votes cast by white males, people over 65, evangelical Christians, and people who go to church at least once per week. President Barack Obama won the election based on an overwhelming majority of the votes of Blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and people who never go to church, as well as a healthy majority of the votes of people under the age of 30 and of women.

As a party of older, white, evangelical Christians, Trump presents Republicans with a dilemma. Not only does he make frequent racist and sexist statements; not only does he often speak nonsense about economic and diplomatic issues; Trump’s personal life is a far cry from the puritanical ideals of evangelical church leaders.

Jerry Falwell Jr., the President of Liberty University in Virginia, got into hot water in June when he tweeted a picture of himself standing beside Trump in front of a wall of framed pictures of magazine covers with Trump’s picture on them because one of them was a Playboy magazine. As a twice divorced party-animal, Trump hardly presents the image of clean-living supported by Falwell and Liberty University.

Personally, I find Trump’s personal life to be the least of the reasons to oppose him. I am more dismayed by his intention to ban Muslims from entering the United States, his support for torture, and his proposal to deport millions of Latinos living illegally in the United States.

Trump’s campaign reminds me of the racist politics in the 1920’s and 1930’s. At that time, churches in Europe divided over whether to support fascist leaders like Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Mussolini and Hitler lived personal lives that were as far from church morality as Trump. But because many church leaders in Europe were anti-Semitic and fearful of communism, most of them either supported fascism or did little to oppose it.

I am pleased that some Catholic and Protestant church leaders broke with their churches back then and stood against anti-Semitism. I just wish the anti-fascist wing had been larger.

I don’t believe the church should pursue any particular political agenda. Instead, I believe we should be wary of political attachment to values other than kindness and love.

Racist politicians like Trump betray deep attachments to nation and tribe. I am dismayed that evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and televangelist Kenneth Copeland support his candidacy. This support exposes them as leaders who are more concerned about white supremacy, male dominance, and American military might than they are about peace with justice.

In the pursuit of peace with justice, we in the United Church of Canada stand divided from churches that support racism, sexism and war.

Since its founding in 1925 when it united two thirds of Canada’s Presbyterians and all of its Methodists and Congregationalists, the United Church has not had much further success in pursuing church unity.

We did unite with the small Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Then in 1975 after thirty years of discussions, the Anglican Church of Canada voted against merging with us. In 1988, with the church’s decision to allow openly gay and lesbian people to become ministers, our isolation from other denominations seemed complete.

This isolation has lifted in recent years now that many Lutherans and Anglicans welcome sexual minorities. But during its years of isolation, the United Church realized that our quest for unity would be less about working with other churches and more about working with people who were fighting for justice and equality regardless of faith.

As a church, we try to mend the world and tend to our needs at deep levels. This means uniting with people of goodwill from diverse backgrounds and dividing from churches that support racism, sexism, or war.

At the deepest levels, all people are already united as children of God. At the level of everyday debate, we are not united.

One of the many negative results of Donald Trump’s campaign is its effects on the nature of public debate. Trump is helping to normalize name-calling, the encouragement of violence, and the smearing of large groups of people because of religion, nationality, or race.

In this regard, I wish that today’s Gospel reading didn’t show Jesus calling those who see things differently from him as hypocrites. I prefer to avoid such insults and instead try to oppose other points of view with respect.

When I have talked about Trump in this sermon, I may not have followed my own advice. I find it a challenge to discuss his candidacy in an assertive but non-insulting manner. This is a problem that many of us face, I think.

As of today, it seems likely that Trump will not win the Presidency. Trump has achieved shocking success as a politician, but maybe his nomination as the Republican candidate will be the extent of it. But if a spectacular terror attack occurred in the weeks before the November 8 election, all bets would be off. On both sides of the so-called “War on Terror,” acts of violence have been damnably effective in reinforcing fear, nationalism, and xenophobia.

I hope that Trump loses the election and that public discourse in the United States becomes less aggressive and insulting next year.

In the meantime, I view Jesus’ words on division as encouragement to respectfully divide from those who support a violent and unjust status quo, even if such people are leaders of churches.

As followers of Jesus, we want peace, but not under any circumstances. We work for peace with justice. We want unity, but not at any price. We work for unity that brings oppressed people together with all who love God and neighbour.

Without attachment to a particular outcome, but in opposition to those who would bind their followers to one nation or creed, may we follow Jesus toward our own baptism of fire. It is a baptism that will reveal to us the beauty and power of the eternal over the fleeting, the human over the tribal, and the sacred over the profane.

May it be so.


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