“Love, love will tear us apart again.”
We expect to hear it from Joy Division, but not from Jesus.
Yet, “I come not to bring peace but division,” Jesus told his disciples (Luke 12:51). He is drawing a line in the sand.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha and the Cross. He knows that trouble will find him there, whether he goes looking for it or not. He can read the signs on the wind, in the air. He is giving his followers fair warning that what is to follow will be painful. It will cost some of them everything. Is he looking at Judas when he comes to that line?
This is really not what we want to hear from our Jesus. We have seen him in the manger, meek and mild, the Christ-child pouring light from his cradle into the world, so that the stars themselves come to pay homage. We have seen him wise in the temple, weary in the desert, prayerful on the mountaintop. We have seen him heal the multitudes and feed the hordes with manna from heaven. In all of this, we never suspected that he would ask us to risk anything in return, least of all an argument, least of all division.
But Jesus is simply reading the signs. He knows that the Cross will split open the earth and divide the depths of Hades. He knows that his disciples will make hard choices, and that not everyone they love will understand, or agree, or go along with them.
Jesus is not afraid to draw the line. Elsewhere, he says clearly, “Those who are not with me are against me, and one who does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23). Another time he admonishes his would-be followers to make sure that they are all in before they get out of their depth: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Once, he literally drew lines in the sand, writing in the dust with his finger while the crowd silently dropped their stones and drifted away, after he challenged them on their administration of the death penalty against a woman allegedly caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).
We have heard that we are living in the most divided times in America, which seems unlikely given the history of colonization, not to mention the Civil War; nevertheless, we are advised to be very careful not to give further offence to anyone already on edge, not to say or do anything that would increase our divisions; to make nice, and not to draw lines between right and left, nor even between right and wrong. “There are good people on both sides,” we are told.
But our souls rebel. We cannot accept that the cost of loving our weird uncle with his racist views and snide asides is to betray the love that Jesus has for children in cages and people with brown skin like his. Will we stay silent for the sake of an unquiet peace, or risk dividing the family for the sake of the gospel? If it will offend my brother to tell him to leave his guns at home, unloaded and locked in a safe, and that he, but not his weapons, are welcome in my house, should I draw that line, even though it may cause offence?
I am not going to pretend for a moment that family quarrels or rifts are easy. The people closest to us leave the biggest scars when they tear away from our side. And of course not every battle has to be fought at once, and sometimes talking across difference can build bridges to peace. But sometimes we leave parts of the gospel outside for the sake of a quiet life. And is that where the gospel belongs?
The last time my parents came to visit us in England before we moved to Ohio, my mother and I got into a fight. The news of the day called into question the dignity of a gay man nominated to become a bishop, and denigrated into the withdrawal of his name by those with no respect for his ordination, nor for his person. When my mother repeated some of their talking points, at my table and in front of my children, I objected. It escalated into tears and locked doors. I was clumsy. It was painful.
The next day, when the air was calmer, my mother asked, “Why would you ruin our last visit before you leave us with an argument?” She had a painful and poignant point. But she forgave me, and later, the day would come when she, too, would refuse to sacrifice the dignity and respect she had for a boy she loved who grew up a gay man.
Sharon Risher’s family was torn apart in the worst way when her mother, Ethel Lance, was murdered at bible study in Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston. It is easy to say that the violence, vitriol, and White supremacy that drove Dylann Roof to such an extremist atrocity have no place in Jesus’ preaching. But the division of Risher’s family did not end there.
In her book with Sherri Wood Emmons, For Such a Time As This, the Rev. Risher describes the moment when her younger sister, Nadine, addressed Roof in court, and forgave him.
True to her reputation, she said something totally unexpected, just what would be expected from her. “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her every again – but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
I started screaming again. Nadine’s words went through me hard, like an electric shock. I wasn’t ready to forgive. Did she think she was speaking for the entire family? How dare she?!
Earlier in his ministry, when his mother and siblings came to find him, horrified at the tales they had heard of his wild works and outspoken preaching (Mark 3:21), and they could not reach him, Jesus refused to come out to them where they were, saying “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
Later, at the Cross, his mother was still with him, and he handed her into the care of his friend, drawing the circle wider, keeping the love unbroken.
Risher has written a whole book about her journey to forgiveness of her mother’s murderer, including her shock at the early and impetuous statement of her younger sister. She concludes,
I disagreed with Nadine. I had not forgiven Dylann Roof, but I respected my sister’s position. She had a right to her own emotions and grieving process …
I allowed myself the time it took. I don’t feel like I’m any worse because I didn’t forgive this man instantly. I haven’t found a scripture that lays out how much time it takes, or how much time God allows us to forgive. I knew I would get there someday – because, as a Christian, I have no other choice.
Jesus follows the prophets in being unafraid to draw lines between right and wrong, faith and weakness, fear and uncompromising love. Such uncompromising love takes courage and kindness. It takes humility. It takes practice. It takes time. It isn’t easy. I’m not great at it; my children are better and braver and set an example for me.
It is easier to heal divisions and to risk drawing lines in the sand if we have already built our lives on love. Relationships can withstand disagreement if they are already practiced in grace and mercy. Even fire can clean the way for something new to grow.
The divisions that Jesus describes among his disciples, at their best, are not permanent, but they are growing pains, signs of the emergence of the kingdom of God among us. Discipleship stretches our souls to love God more deeply, to forgive more recklessly, and to love more broadly the children of God. It shakes up old boundaries and breaks down cherished biases. Discipleship should change us, stretch us, grow us, and there will always be friction as we rub up against the tolerance limits of the structures that have formed us so far.
These are the signs of the kingdom, Jesus tells us, so do not be afraid, little flock. God is willing and waiting to restore all things in God’s mercy, risking everything alongside you on the Cross, transforming its hard lines into new life through the Resurrection.
God’s love is unbroken.
Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart, 1980
Rev. Sharon Risher with Sherri Wood Emmons, For a Time Such as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre (Chalice Press, 2019), pp. 6, 108-9