This saying of Jesus is one of the most misunderstood teachings in all of scripture and, because of this, from the time of Jesus’ birth until this very day, we have been able to cloak a lot of our lack of charity, lack of respect, bitterness, and hatred inside the mantle of prophecy, claiming that 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 wrong. Why?
First, the fire that Jesus passionately longs to bring to this earth is not the fire of division and 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. Moreover, in answer to his question: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth?” the answer is: absolutely, without doubt. Jesus came precisely to bring peace to this earth, as the angels proclaim at his birth, as his entire ministry attests to, and as he powerfully witnesses to in his death. Jesus came to bring peace to the world; no one may doubt that.
Then how does division enter? And why does Jesus tell us that his person and teaching will bring about polarization, 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. Jesus is born, and some react with understanding and joy, while others react with misunderstanding and hatred. That dynamic has continued down through the centuries to this very day 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 and hate-filled 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, divisive, or hate-filled, but because we too often use them in that way.
In effect, from the time of his birth until today, we have perennially used Jesus’ to rationalize our own anger and fears. We all do it, and the effects of this are seen everywhere: from the bitter polarization within our politics, to the bitter misunderstandings between our churches, to the hate-filled 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. We are all venting, mostly unhealthily, but forever under the guise of bringing the fire of love and truth to the planet. However, if the truth be told, more often than not, the fire we are bringing is more the fire of Babel than of Pentecost. Our moral fevers invariably bring about more division than unity.
Several years ago, for example, I was at a clergy meeting at which each of the priests present was asked to state publicly what he felt was the salient gift that he brought to his ministry. One of the priests, who had a long history of being a problem-child to both his bishop and his parishioners, self-confidently described himself in this way: “My gift is that I’m an agitator! I stir things up! I don’t let people get comfortable. I bring Christ’s fire! I’m prophetic!” He was certainly right about the agitation, the discomfort, and the fire. His bishop had no end of phone calls attesting to that. But there was a lot of skepticism as to his being a prophet. His approach to things and his rhetoric too much resembled that of an ideologically-driven 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 side. That kind of talk is mostly bitter, hate-filled, one-sided, and high divisive, but it justifies itself under the banner of truth and love, self-proclaiming itself as prophetic.
Daniel Berrigan rightly suggests that a real prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation. It is easy to get this in reverse, and we frequently do.
Granted, there is a fire that divides, even while remaining the fire of love and Pentecost. But it is as fire that is always and everywhere respectful, charitable, and inclusive, never enflaming us with bitterness, as does so much of our contemporary religious and moral rhetoric.