Godtalk: Rationalising our Indignation


Image of Christ in Glory with flames. Photograph by Lawrence Lew OP at flickr.com

I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing. ...  Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three. (Luke 12:49, 51-52)

This saying of Jesus is often misunderstood. We may claim that our lack of charity, lack of respect, and the divisions we cause are the divisions to which Jesus is referring when he said he is bringing fire to the earth:  but we are mistaken.

The fire that Jesus longs to bring to this earth is not the fire of polarization, but the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of Pentecost, namely, the fire of charity, joy, peace, goodness, understanding, and forgiveness. And this fire unites rather than divides.

Jesus came precisely to bring peace to this earth, as the angels proclaim at his birth, as his entire ministry shows. So why does Jesus tell us that his person and teaching will bring about hatred, and division? If the fire that Jesus brings to this earth is meant to unite us, why does it so often divide us?

It is not Jesus' message that divides; it is how we react to that message that divides. We see this already at the time of his birth. Some react to Jesus’ birth with understanding and joy, while others react with misunderstanding and hatred.

That dynamic continues down through the centuries when Jesus is not only misunderstood and seen as a threat by many non-Christians, but especially when his person and message are used to justify bitter divisions among Christians and to justify the bitterness that invariably characterizes our public debates on religious and moral issues. 

Jesus still divides, not because his person and message are one-sided or divisive, but because we too often use them in that way.

In effect we have perennially used Jesus' to rationalize our own anger and fears. The effects of this are seen everywhere: from the bitter polarization within our politics, to the sour misunderstandings between our Churches, to the rhetoric of our radio and television talk-shows, to the editorials and blogs that demonize everyone who does not agree with them, to the judgmental way we talk about each other inside our coffee circles.  

The approach to difference and our rhetoric can often resemble that of a talk-show host who divides the world up too neatly between angels and demons, absolute right and absolute wrong, and has a too facile division as to who is on God's side and who is on the devil's.

That kind of talk is mostly bitter, one-sided, and highly divisive, but it justifies itself under the banner of sincerity, proclaiming itself as ‘valiant for truth’.

Granted, there is a kind of fire that divides, even while remaining the fire of love and Pentecost. But it is as fire that is always  respectful and charitable, never arousing bitterness, as does so much of our contemporary religious and moral rhetoric.  


Peter Knott SJ