Many years ago, a retired priest friend of mine offered me this blessing: “May the Spirit disturb you.” I was caught off guard, but on the other hand I also got it. The work of the Spirit can be at times unsettling, scary, disturbing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because it can shake us and wake us up from our spiritual complacency.
During my trip to the Holy Lands in 2007, while receiving a blessing from an Ethiopian priest, he ended with a hearty slap to my shoulder. I didn’t understand his Coptic language during that blessing as he pressed his large hand-held silver cross onto my heart and then my head, but I understood everything he was doing – blessing my heart and mind – and then came that unforgettable slap. It stirred me so deeply, sometimes I feel like the spirit is still reverberating in me from that slap.
Today’s Gospel message can feel a bit like a slap – a wake-up call, a splash of cold water to wake us up from our spiritual slumber. Jesus’ warning that he came not to bring peace on earth, but instead division among family systems, and the accusations of hypocrisy can seem sharp and hard to accept.
Jesus often taught in analogy, symbolism, metaphor, and parables. But this seems a bit more literal, more direct, striking at the heart of the matter. Maybe he meant it just in the way he said it.
It’s important to consider the context from which these words come. The Roman empire of the time was fiercely hierarchical patriarchal based on domination and subordination, which trickled down to the family units. Jesus comes along to tear these oppressive systems apart. His counter-cultural movement against the normalization of such systems of dominance were a threat to the status quo, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Roman powerbrokers were not having it – not for a minute. So, considering the political setting of the time, I would venture that Jesus meant exactly what he was saying, and that he should be taken at his word.
How do we interpret his proclamation of division in our own time? I think we can all agree that we have experienced division over these past few years unlike anything we have seen since the civil rights movement of sixty years ago. Most of it has been fueled by a hierarchical, patriarchal system of government like the one Jesus opposed. The backlash against movements striving for equal rights for the non-dominate class has been severe.
The call for racial equality and protection has been met with an escalation of racial brutality and hate driven by white supremist actions endorsed by the highest office in the land. Women’s voices of truth in confirmation hearings have been met with ridicule and resistance that allows male dominance to be seated on the highest court in the land – the same court that just struck down a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health care choices. Children, Black people, and people of faith traditions other than that of the dominant class are being slaughtered by the thousands by military-style assault rifles because politicians bow to the gun lobby that is driven by predominately white males who worship their addiction to guns more than they value human life. Our LGBTQ sisters and brothers are increasingly uneasy knowing that the same dominant class will have them in their sights next. And we are in an unparalleled environmental crisis, while these systems of domination and oppression claim denial as their justification to make more profits from our addiction to fossil fuels.
There is absolutely no doubt on what side of these issues Jesus would stand, and no doubt what he would condemn. I prefer to stand with Jesus, and I think you do too. If that causes division, well, so be it. Maybe in the long run that’s a good thing. Maybe it could ultimately lead to a coming together in unity, who knows. God works in mysterious ways. But for now, I think as followers of the way of Jesus it requires courage and allegiance to Truth, even if it causes division.
The problems that spring from male-dominant systems of oppression are not limited to Capitol Hill. The propagation of hierarchical and patriarchal structures is also, and may even originate, as Walter Wink says, in the family systems of our own homes. Just so, our institutional church structures are prone and guilty of the same abuses. We need to take a long, hard look at it all, and be honest with ourselves about the causes and conditions that have brought us here if we have any hope of liberation anytime soon.
There is no peace without justice. There is no justice without truth.
When Jesus looks government, religion, or society squarely in the eye and says, “Something is wrong,” we too can never accept the status quo if others are being injured or treated unjustly or marginalized because of national, societal, or religious interests.
All of this is a revolutionary act of love. And that might be hard for some to swallow. It might even create division. But it is a divine division and one that can lead to a freedom that can never be matched by the old ways of playing follow-the-leader with those of the hierarchical, patriarchal dominant class. Jesus asks us to follow him in a new direction – a way that leads to care and freedom for the non-dominant class – the strangers, those starving for food and water, those who are sick, homeless or in prisons, and those who are marginalized in any way.
This is the divine dividing line. We know were Jesus stands. The question is whether we are willing to take a stand with him.