Peace or Division: What’s Going on Here?
by Timothy J. Mooney
Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Peace, be still. Your faith has saved you; go in peace. Peace be with you. If you, even you, had recognized on this day the things that make for peace! I have said this to you, so that in me, you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world. In the Gospels Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. The Apostle Paul mentions “the gospel of peace” and peace as a fruit of the Spirit. He begins every letter with, “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes that Jesus “is our peace … So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess: Jesus is all about peace. So I must admit, today’s Gospel lesson has me confused. It doesn’t sound like Jesus. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” What are we to make of this?
Jesus is quoting, here, from the Prophet Micah. The quote is not a prediction of a divisive Messiah. Instead, Micah is lamenting Israel’s corrupt ways. Listen to the larger quote from Micah. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household.
By quoting Micah’s lament, Jesus reveals that the same conditions in Israel back then, apply now. Jesus illumines the divisions that already exist in their lives. Often, after Jesus told a parable, the religious leaders and his disciples would ask, “Are you telling this parable about us?” Jesus would respond, “If you have the eyes to see, the ears to hear – yes.” Jesus’ words, love, and presence, illumine the very things we don’t want to see in ourselves. Jesus does not cause the division, the strife, the conflict; but his life and ministry is a mirror for us. Jesus reveals the division within us and between us.
And that makes for peace? In a round-about, paradoxical way – yes. Parker Palmer writes (p. 174, A Hidden Wholeness) “Violence of every shape and form has its roots in the divided life, in that fault line within us that cracks open and becomes a divide between us.” We must recognize that the division between us – the violence, injustice, conflict – is rooted in the division within us.
But there is something else we must recognize within ourselves. Thomas Merton said it well when he wrote, “there is in all things … a hidden wholeness” (p. 4). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” – and then he expanded the meaning to get at the root of God’s will, which to the hearer must’ve seemed impossible to do. The last of these sayings goes like this: You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be perfect? Impossible, right? But a much better translation of the words is, “Be complete, be whole.” Parker Palmer says this about wholeness: “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” (p. 5, A Hidden Wholeness).
Great, Tim. Let me get this straight. Jesus doesn’t cause division, he illumines it within me. But by “embracing” my brokenness I can uncover my hidden wholeness and that will help bring peace? Obviously Tim, you’ve been painting with oils and you’re high on the fumes. How does that work?
If the life and words of Jesus illumine the division within our hearts and between each other, his life and words will also illumine our hidden wholeness. That hidden wholeness is pictured in the story of Jesus’ baptism, and the way he treated others. As Jesus rose from the River Jordan, he heard the words, “This is my Beloved Son with whom I’m well pleased.” But I believe those words are for you and me as well. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” but he also said, “You are the light of the world.” In a similar way, Jesus might say, I am God’s beloved son, and you are God’s beloved sons and daughters. Look at the way he treated others. It seems clear to me that he believed that they, too, were God’s beloved sons and daughters.
If the life and words of Jesus illumine the division within our hearts and between each other, his life and words will also illumine our hidden wholeness.
The Rev. Janet Wolf tells a story about a woman named Fayette: In a new members class we talked about baptism: this holy moment when we claim who we are in God’s eyes. Fayette was there – a woman living on the streets, struggling with mental illness and lupus. She loved the part about baptism and would ask over and over, “And when I’m baptized, I am …?” We soon learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and then we’d go back to our discussion. The big day came. Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, “And now I am …?” And we all sang out, “Beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall. Two months later I got a call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. I went immediately. I could see her face from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard her say to herself, “I am beloved …” She turned, saw me, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and …” Catching sight of herself in the mirror – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and buttoned askew, she started again, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and …” She looked in the mirror again and declared, “… and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”
Life has a way of lying to us. That we are no good, damaged goods beyond repair, unwanted, unneeded, deserving of abuse, inattention. Or only good enough if we’re successful and good-looking and have lots of money. But Fayette got it right. Her identity was rooted in something that no robber or rapist could take from her. That no layer of sin and internal division could blot out. That no amount of possessions or looks or power could provide. She was, and you are, and I am – say it with me – “beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold.”
That’s how we embrace our brokenness, because it’s not the first thing about us. We’re beloved first, broken second. Jesus helps us see that we are divided and broken, and absolutely beloved beyond measure. Accepting that about ourselves, moves us toward a wholeness not otherwise possible, a wholeness that moves us towards peace within and with others despite the brokenness.
The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” He had in mind the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, but it works between liberals and conservatives, between Republicans and Democrats, between any warring factions. But it also must be said that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility in us, that is, the hostility we hold toward ourselves for our own brokenness, failures, and imperfections.
If we see ourselves and others as God’s beloved, and if, because of that love, we see the division and brokenness within ourselves and others and embrace it, we might find a way to move towards wholeness within and with each other. Derek Walcott wrote a poem that captures that sort of wholeness with ourselves, but it also works if we apply it to others:
Love After Love.
The time will come when, with elations, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome, And say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.
To embrace our belovedness and brokenness also applies to others. Walter Wink tells this story.
One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, AL, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle, a large crowd of black and white activists standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church was electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that police on horseback had just that afternoon ordered a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol to disperse, and then surrounded them and beat them at will. Ambulances had been prevented by the police from reaching the injured for two hours. The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the AL state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with a line, “Do you love Martin King?” to which those who knew the song responded, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Sheriff Jim Clark?” “Cer … certainly, Lord …” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord,” it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” The Reverend James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he said, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me Jim? – we want you converted.” And Jim Clark did change. Later he confessed that he had been wrong in his violence against blacks.
Living our faith may cause us to be at odds with family and church members and our culture, and we might even be persecuted for it. But we are never as Christians to think that Jesus is about division. Jesus broke down so many barriers between himself and others. It’s those of us who want to keep the barriers, keep the power structures, keep the us-vs.-them, keep the knowledge of our own dividedness and belovedness away from ourselves, who are at odds with Jesus. As Paul writes, as much as possible we are to live in peace with one another. It was said by Jesus too many times to ignore: Go in peace. Amen.