A powerful accusation coming at the end of a difficult passage. Luke 12:49-56 seems to fly in the face of our preferred image of Jesus as the advocate of peace.
Within the overall context of his ministry, Jesus preaches a message of peace. But in Luke 12 he recognizes that peace does not come without cost. Peace is never peace at any price. Jesus is recognizing that conflict – which may even spur some to violence – is an unavoidable outcome of the kingdom’s coming.
Jesus lived in a context riven by political and religious violence. The question of whether violence should be used as a tool to achieve social reform – let alone something that could hasten the coming of the kingdom – was a very poignant one for Jesus.
As it was for Jesus, so it remains for us to live in a world riven by conflict that feeds violence. The question remains – what is the appropriate Christian response when in the face of endless social conflict political violence is increasingly taken by some as a justifiable option while waving a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
In Jesus’ life and teaching we detect a complex interleaving of two related strands of nonresistance and nonviolence – two forms of protest against systemic evil.
Nonresistance not only rejects acts of violence but also rejects confronting those responsible for existing evils – seeking solidarity with the victims and offering no defense even if we ourselves become subjected to violence at the hands of the powerful. Practitioners on the path of nonresistance seek to change the world around them through sacrificial example.
By contrast, nonviolence seeks change through directly confronting the social evils of injustice and oppression. Nonviolence is the demand for change through confrontation that stops short of resorting to violence to win the argument. When faced with the prospect of violence, the path of nonviolence merges into the path of nonresistance.
In the larger frame we see both nonresistance and nonviolence as essential elements in the Christian path. Jesus’ journey from death to new life shows God taking the ultimate path of nonresistance. The new thing God does through Jesus is to bring about profound change through self-sacrifice. But in his teaching and ministry Jesus follows the path of nonviolence in his confrontation with the systemic evils of injustice and oppression.
The meaning of Jesus words in Luke 12:49-56 seem to be that conflict is the inevitable outcome of the kingdom’s coming. The kingdom’s message of peace and love will also require a nonviolent confrontation with systemic evil. For the kingdom’s peace is not peace at any price. As Christians we are called to engage in the conflicts of the present time while refuting the use of violence as an instrument of change.
Violence takes many forms. Which brings us to Jesus’ stinging rebuke – you hypocrites! We Christians are hypocrites when our pretense to peace and love is a fig leaf that conceals the violence we claim to reject.
For instance, as a gay man I experience it as the height of hypocrisy when the church teaches that members of the LGBT community are to be loved and welcomed while denying us the same God given rights to love and fulfilment enjoyed by heterosexual persons. Love the person hate the sin is a form of pseudo acceptance that continues to give aid and comfort to the forces of homophobic violence.
August 14th is the commemoration of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, civil rights martyr, 1965. When Calendar commemorations coincide with a Sunday, they normally transfer to the nearest weekday following. However, it seems consistent with Jesus’ message in Luke 12 to specifically honor Jonathan Daniels today.
Robert Tobin (son of parishioners Bob and Maureen Tobin) in his recently published book Privilege and Prophecy provides a narrative of the Episcopal Church’s evolving identity and social activism during the period 1945-1979. Drawing extensively on archival materials and periodicals from multiple sources, he provides an intimate picture of how Episcopal leaders understood their role and responsibilities during a time of upheaval in American religious and social life.
He places Jonathan Daniels (pp 125-127) against a background of Northern white Christian hypocrisy in the civil rights era. Tobin notes the white liberal romantic identification with Southern black suffering – as an avoidance of the violence of racial discrimination on their own doorsteps. So much Northern white Christian advocacy for racial equality was conducted from the safety and protection of positions of white privilege. As John Butler, a prominent Episcopal churchman of the time noted – demonstrating publicly in the South had required less personal courage that confronting the genteel racism of his parishioners while a rector in Princeton, New Jersey.
Tobin cites the great William Stringfellow who commented:
You hypocrates! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Jonathan Daniels was a young Episcopal seminarian at Harvard’s Episcopal Theological Seminary (ETS) struggling with the paradoxes and ironies of his horror of racial oppression from his position of white privilege. Like many others of his ilk, he joined the Selma marches. But unlike many, he took to heart Strongfellow’s rebuke. He not only marched but also felt compelled to remain afterward to register black voters, tutor children, and help integrate the local Episcopal church.
In so doing, he explained:
In mid-August 1965, Daniels was shot dead as he shielded a young black activist, Ruby Sales from the deadly aim of Tom Coleman – an unpaid special deputy -subsequently acquitted on the grounds of self-defense by an all-white jury.
John Coburn then Dean of ETS later confessed:
It took a long time to realize that Jon was a martyr. He was just a typical, questioning, struggling student, trying to make sense out of the issues, conflicts, and injustices of our society.
Tobin notes that over time, Daniels came to be revered in the wider church as a Christian martyr who gave his life in the cause of human dignity. (127)
In the memory of Jonathan Daniels, we honor an exemplar of the interleaving of Christian nonviolence and nonresistance. Daniels embraced nonviolent protest in the face of the evil of racism – and accepted the ultimacy of nonresistance because he had come to the realization that his possible death was the price that a Yankee Christian had better be prepared to pay if he goes to Alabama.
Once again, our nation roils in the tumult of inflamed hatred and manufactured grievance. The abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the recognition of a varied and richly human LGBT+ experience are milestones of achievement along a long and conflict riven march towards a future that will be better than our past. For progressives like myself, I count these milestones as signs of the kingdom’s coming. But as Jesus so rightly recognized not everyone does – bringing urgent poignancy to his words: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
We are living through another period when five in one household will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
In his 1838 Young Men’s Lyceum speech, in which he warned about mob violence and people who disrespected America’s laws and courts, Abraham Lincoln said:
Time to do more than interpret the appearance of the earth and sky – we must learn how to accurately interpret the present time!