Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
In this remarkable passage from this Sunday’s Gospel, the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant, the nonviolent Jesus anticipates an aspect of the fruit of his ministry: fire and division. And, he says, this is why I’ve come!
Now, this is sometimes used for the purposes of holy war, or culture war, or to explain why the Church just needs to become more ‘masculine’ or more aggressive or be willing to pick up the sword. Given the rest of the Gospel witness, this cannot be what Jesus means here.
In a recent and fascinating article (read it all) on Pope Francis’ refusal of the provocations of Islamic State radicals, Austen Ivereigh writes:
For the radicals, violence is sacred, sacrificial, divinely-sanctioned – it is precipitating Armaggedon and the celestial triumph of Islam.
So when Francis declares that its violence is, as well as being evil and abhorrent, “senseless,” as he described the Nice massacre, or “absurd” as he said of the violence that slayed Hamel, he is dealing Islamic State a significant blow: the world’s leading religious authority has denied them the legitimacy of a religious justification.
This is a strategy, but it is, also, genuinely, demonstrating what true religion is.
God himself was the innocent victim of a religiously and politically sanctioned sacrifice; the Resurrection destroyed any idea that God is violent.
The power of God, then, lies not in violence, but in love and fraternity. With the shadow of Islamic radicalism over us, that is no longer an idea, but – as one of the French bishops put it in Krakow – a stark choice: Do we believe in God’s power, or the myth of the divine as a vengeful tribal deity?
We can – and must – refuse to make violence sacred. According to Catholic historian, literary critic, and anthropological philosopher René Girard, human society creates order by channeling violence towards scapegoats relying on common enemies. (We see this in our politics every day, although it might be a stretch to call them ‘orderly’!) Whether in standing up against violence against women or people of color or the unborn or other discarding of people in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture,” the ‘order’ of the world around us is imposed by exclusion and subsequent indifference.
So what happens the politics of death is interrupted by a politics of love? What happens when love comes into a world which does not receive him (John 1)? The reign of sin, death, and the devil begins to shake and the ordering violence no longer holds sway in the same way. Far from encouraging some sort of Christian violence, Jesus sets fire to a world ‘at peace’ with its violence and brings division to a world comfortable being united by violence, sin, and death.
Jesus frees us from death, not so that we can escape reality, but rather in order that we might move towards death without fear. In fact we can do it with great joy knowing that we are being united in Christ to the God of Life! As we hear proclaimed from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Brothers and sisters:
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-4)
Let us now be driven by a politics of fear, nor worship death, even when it seems expedient or works in the short run as a motivator (of course it works because that’s the way the old world is ordered!). Let us instead celebrate a politics of life, forgive and be forgiven, and walk with joy in the path that the Lord Jesus has opened up for us!
– Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice & Peace, Diocese of Orange