He is our peace (Eph 2, 14)
Maybe Sam Harris and others would point to the theme of “fire” and “division” as a candid confession that religion is violent and divisive. It is something that, in their view, we Christians do not admit, rejecting the evidence of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Wars of Religion.
But even in the face of the evidence of civil and world wars and other non-religious wars, the same proponents of the liberation of human beings from religion are not opposed to territorial demarcations, ethnic distinctions, political parties, forms of government, economic systems, public and private property. John Lennon’s “Imagine” has a bit more comprehensive list of things to get rid of.
But selective attention, or not grasping Jesus’ statement, does not characterize only those who take religion as something unreasonable that necessarily gives rise to fanaticism. There are not a few of us Christians who pick and choose which doctrines to keep and which to disregard. We still need the Spirit to guide us to all truth and enable us to bear all that Jesus has said.
And Jesus says he yearns for the full realization of God’s kingdom that he is announcing by deeds and words: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk …, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” This definitive Prophet appears like a fire to purify those who lend themselves to evil (Sir 47, 25 – 48, 1). His words bring comfort to the oppressed and discomfort to the oppressors, hurting these like a fire that burns and a hammer that shatters (Jer 23, 29). Jesus makes clear too that, in order to complete his salvific work, he has to go through a baptism, that is to say, a cruel death.
So then, the one who has come to set the earth on fire and to separate the good from the bad is the same one who has come to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all. Through his violent death, Jesus puts hatred to death and breaks down the wall that separates the circumcised from the uncircumcised, so that there will no longer be any stranger, but rather all are fellow citizens. He dies asking forgiveness for those who bear responsibility for his crucifixion.
Just like his Father whom he totally trusts, Jesus has no pleasure in anyone’s perdition; he prefers that the wicked return and live. The only mediator between God and human beings agrees with God, who wills everyone to be saved. Even if he who is a sign of contradiction reveals the thoughts of many hearts, he does so to foster, not destructive division, but rather constructive division, one that desires that those like the princes who wanted to kill Jeremiah in the name of national security become as merciful as Ebed-melech.
No, there is no accord between Jesus and destructive and violent divisiveness. The undeniable proof of this is Jesus himself, who “endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” If our attitudes and actions belie this truth, would it not be because we keep our eyes fixed on someone else, on somebody dressed up as an autocratic emperor, made according to our image, to the likeness of those of us who are prone to violence because of our selfishness?
Neither do the Supper of the Lord and divisive partiality mix. Where we gather in Jesus’ name, there is he, the one who has nothing in common with destructive divisiveness. And let us be careful even, advices St. Vincent de Paul, of violence in the form of “the contradiction that divides hearts,” which must be avoided “like a devastating plague,” if indeed we want to imitate the Son of God who “came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with his love” (Coste XII, 262, 267).