The Kind of Peace that Brings Division


A sermon on Luke 12:49-56.


[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Michelle on Unsplash.]


I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the gospel we just read doesn’t make it onto any of our top ten lists for favorite Bible stories.

Even those of us who like it when Jesus gets a little gritty – flipping over tables and confronting oppressors – are probably squirming at least a little bit at the kind of language Jesus is throwing around in this scene:

Proclaiming that he came to bring fire, and he wishes it was already kindled!?

Declaring that he came NOT to bring peace, but rather division!?

Prophesying intense familiar conflict and throwing in an accusation of hypocrisy for good measure!?

Whoa there! Isn’t that going a bit far, Jesus?! It’s fine to light a fire to get us moving, but don’t burn the whole thing down!

Not only does all of this divisive, destructive imagery make us uncomfortable… worse it seems to contradict the central themes of Jesus’ message and ministry.

Why is he rebuking us for thinking that he came to bring peace? That’s LITERALLY what the heavenly choir proclaimed to the shepherds at his birth.

And Jesus claims the word as well, repeatedly telling those he has healed to “go in peace.”

How does this claim about bringing division even make sense?

The only way it can make sense… the only way that we can believe that these words came from the mouth of the Prince of Peace, is if we recognize that there are different kinds of peace, and they are NOT equal.

In this gospel Jesus rejects the idea that he has come to bring εἰρήνη (eirḗnē) peace, the kind of peace that is characterized by lack of conflict.

While this word can be used for the state of peace with God (the way in which Jesus seems to mean when he tells those he has healed to “go in peace”), its more common meaning is primarily temporal: a state of national peace (as in, the absence of war) or interpersonal peace (as in, relational harmony).[1]

And in the context of Jesus’s ministry, I think it actually does makes sense that Jesus did NOT come to bring a lack of conflict, because there is a different kind of biblical peace that is much more powerful than εἰρήνη peace, but that often cannot be achieve without some conflict: the peace of shalom.

Shalom is an idea that Jesus would have been very familiar with, since it is a core teaching of the Hebrew scriptures, and even one of the names for God (Jehovah Shalom).

Shalom can be translated into English as “peace,” but it means peace in the sense of wholeness, of completeness, of everything being as the Creator intended it to be.

And that means, when the current reality is NOT one of wholeness in God’s perfect intention, the current reality is going to need to get disrupted to achieve shalom. Achieving shalom-peace might require conflict, even “division.”

In other words, conflict is not the enemy of the deepest, most profound peace. Quite the opposite. It might be a necessary component.

The reason for this necessity is expressed, for me, to the famous James Baldwin quote about the conditions under which it is (and is not) possible to still love each other while disagreeing. Baldwin said,

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Shalom-peace is a peace that is about love, rather than harmony. So, it is not threatened by disagreement. But it cannot exist if the disagreement undermines the wholeness of the other. In that case, to push for “peace” in the sense of playing nice, or avoiding conflict, is to actively undermine shalom and love both.

Harmony-peace becomes the enemy of shalom-peace if it refuses to confront behaviors or beliefs that are doing harm.

I suspect that Jesus would have agreed with Baldwin in all but one detail. Balwin talks about “my humanity” and for good reason…. As a black, gay man growing up in this country in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and then returning to work in the Civil Rights movement, he experienced many assaults on that humanity.

I know Jesus would have defended his humanity, but I think he would have framed the nadir for loving disagreement more broadly; Jesus would have gone further. Love and shalom cannot coexist with a disagreement that assaults any other person’s humanity.

This distinction is important because the individualism of the “my humanity” framing fails to get to the wholeness of shalom.

What is more, it is ultimately a focus on the rights of the individual that lies underneath the conflict-avoidant instinct to make space for everyone to believe what they want.

For the past thirteen years our denomination has tried the harmony-peace approach to one of the most volatile “divisions” in our family of faith – the question of full inclusion for our LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ.

We have done this through a policy known as “bound conscience.” When the Churchwide Assembly passed the church’s social statement on human sexuality in 2009, it acknowledged the divided reality that different people and leaders in the church come down in different places on whether scripture affirms or rejects the full acceptance and celebration of LGBTQ+ people.

And the church decided to just accept that disagreement. To create space for every person, pastor, congregation, and synod to follow whatever direction their conscience bound them to. Inclusion and affirmation is an option, but not a policy of our denomination.

For those anxious not to split our national church this has felt like the best solution: to “disagree and still love each other.”

The problem is that this disagreement allows decision-making bodies within our denomination (like Synods and Candidacy committees) to undermine the full humanity of non-cis, non-straight people, and to undermine their right to exist in their God-created wholeness in this denomination.

Under the policy of “bound conscience,” a portion of our national church goes unchallenged in asserting that a significant number of our siblings are NOT, in fact, whole and reflections of the image of God as the person they know themselves to be.

And this effort to keep the peace and avoid division has painful consequences.

I confront these consequence every time I am in a national forum on social media and someone shares a story about being shamed or excluded from their original faith community because of their gender identity or sexuality.

When these resilient souls ask about what welcoming denominations they might seek out, I always have to qualify by words about the ELCA with a caveat.

Due to bound conscience, I cannot be sure that one of my beloved siblings in Christ, a person who is desperately seeking to live a life of faith and to connect with God and God’s church DESPITE traumatic experiences of rejection and shaming, won’t be told that WHO THEY ARE is fundamentally wrong or sinful.

This is the danger of seeking to hold together a “big tent” that makes room for everyone. When some of the people in the tent demand the right the reject the belovedness of others in the tent, there isn’t really room for everyone… at least not in a way that looks anything like wholeness, like shalom, like the ability to disagree and still love each other.

And I think this is exactly the kind of challenge Jesus is confronting when he tells his followers that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division.

As commentator Debie Thomas explains, “(Jesus’s) words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace. The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal.”[2]

For these reasons, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA voted this week, overwhelmingly, to re-open the conversation on “bound conscience.”

It is an action that only opens the door to change. Over the next three years a task force will research, interview, and explore in order to bring a new proposal to the denomination’s next national assembly in 2025.

In a way, this means that our national church is now on a similar road as our congregation, as we at Abiding Peace move through the RIC process.

On both levels we are contemplating what would it mean to say, unapologetically and unequivocally “we affirm the full inclusion and celebration of all people, including LGBTQ+ people, as an essential part of our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Here at Abiding Peace, we are taking our time so that people can ask questions and understand why this matters, and raise true questions of conscience. I am grateful that we can have those conversations in ways that are genuinely loving and that I think are truly moving us closer to the peace of shalom-wholeness. I am also grateful that we haven’t had a reactionary push to clamp down and keep the peace of the status quo.

At the churchwide level, I expect that there will be plenty of pressure to protect the status quo and preserve the illusion of “peace.”

There will be concerns about how many members and congregations, and how much money we will lose because people’s “bound conscience” requires them to reject the affirmation of LGBTQ+ people.

But there is a contrasting warning that we need to hear from the lips of Jesus today: the reminder that he came to DIVIDE us from the kinds of keep-the-peace strategies that stand in the way of wholeness.

And while the language of division is scary, there is a flip side in hope for all those who have already been divided.

As I was researching James Baldwin this week, I learned that early in his life he had a vital and dynamic faith. At the age of 15 he started preaching in his church, and that was actually what unlocked his awareness of his ability to connect and to move people with his words.

But he walked away from the church, because the church told him that who he was, as a gay man, was wrong.

Speaking years later about that rejection, Baldwin said, “It was really a matter between me and God. I would have to live the life he had made me to live. I told him quite a long, long time ago there would be two of us at the Mercy Seat. He would not be asking all the questions.”[3]

Imagine if Baldwin’s church – instead of telling him that God would judge his identity – had affirmed the life God made him to live. And then imagine that we can do that now. Imagine that we can be part of building a community of shalom that bears the cost of some division, in order witness to the wholeness of Jesus’s will for the world.

Thanks be to God.

[1] See the expanded definitions from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g1515/kjv/tr/0-1/ [2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2305-disturbing-the-peace [3] James Baldwin in an interview in The Village Voice, accessed July 12, 2022: https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/06/22/james-baldwin-on-being-gay-in-america/

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