Proper 15C / Ordinary 20C / Pentecost +13
August 18, 2013
Luke 12:49-56Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone. (Subdivisions) In the high school hall, in the shopping mall. Conform or be cast out!
– (Rush, “Subdivisions”)
Many people look back on their teenage years as “the best years of our lives,” wistfully wishing to re-live those care-free years of schools, malls and mayhem.
I am not one of them.
Oklahoma in the 1980s was not a fun place to be young, Gay and confused. Growing up in the “buckle of the Bible Belt” as an awkward, cerebral Catholic was even more harrowing. School (especially at around 13 years old) was the equivalent of a large detention center, patrolled by white Southern Baptist football thugs looking for the slightest sign of nonconformity or weakness. I have pleasant memories of being slammed up against a locker and having my book-bag dumped out, while being called (unjustifiably, at the time) “pot-head”. A friend of mine from an Indian family had to endure epithets like “camel jockey” and “towel-head”. There was no recourse to school authorities, of course, because “narking” (telling the authorities) was punishable by after-school “canning,” whereby the offender would be stuffed in a garbage can and rolled down the hill of the school.
In Ancient History class, we would learn that Greco-Roman society in the 1st Century – like Oklahoma – was also relentlessly conformist. Families were expected to model the neatly hierarchical Roman empire, with the pater familias at the head (like Caesar) and the wife, children and slaves neatly falling into line. Cities and towns were expected to cough up their taxes and contribute to the expansion of the pax Romana: “The conquered domains of agrarian empires belong to the rulers who can dispose of them as they choose. The payment of tribute is the basic recognition of this right … This is why such empires [as Rome] are ‘tribute-collecting machines'” (William Herzog III. Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God. 2000). Rome valued peace and order. However, this peace and order was obtained through the systematic subjugation and exploitation of Roman-occupied territories, and even in areas with some degree of autonomy and local rulers (like Palestine), the implicit threat of Roman armies perpetually hung in the air.
The indignities of middle-school were, of course, nowhere near the suffering experienced by populations that were “pacified” by Rome. However, pep rallies at school always struck me as being remarkably like Roman parades, with the football players (all members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) like conquering Roman Centurions at the center, in all their glory. We, the weak and conquered, got to sit in the sweaty stands and pretend to be appreciative. Again, I am sure someone looks back on those rallies with fond nostalgia. It just won’t be me.
The message of Jesus stuck out like a blast of the Clash in the middle of Rome’s global pep-rally (yes, I’m dating myself here). If we go back to Jesus’ inaugural sermon (see “Right Here, Right Now: Inaugurating the Jubilee“), His message was that He was the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s call for release, recovery and freedom for the oppressed Israel (Luke 4: 18-19). In this week’s Gospel, Luke’s Jesus points out that this call – if taken seriously – is not likely to have peaceful results: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three …” (Luke 12:51-52). The parallel verse in Matthew’s Gospel goes so far as to say “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword” (10:34).
This passage, by the way, is often used as a Biblical “clobber passage” against anyone who would advocate for non-violence in the name of Christ: “See? Jesus didn’t come to bring peace!” However, Luke and Matthew’s Jesus was specifically talking about pax Romana – Rome’s peace. This is not the peace at the culmination of the reign of God in Isaiah’s vision, where “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (65:25). This is the “peace” that is brought through silencing all difference and opposition at the point of a sword (or up against a locker). When this “peace” is disturbed by the voices of those who were silenced, chaos ensues, and the pep rally gets rudely – and loudly – interrupted.
The issue of school bullying has (finally) gotten attention (see the documentary “Bully,” 2012), but only at the cost of dozens of student suicides around the country (there were seven suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota School District alone from November 2009 to December 2010). There are critics of anti-bullying campaigns who protest that “boys will be boys” and that these measures are a rude interruption to student free speech that do nothing but create community division. However, the sub-divisions that may be created by the “controversy” of anti-bullying measures (or any other social justice activities) were, in fact, already there. They were just silently suffered by the young people on the wrong end of them. The “divisions” brought by the liberating spirit of Christ are not divisions, but the birth pangs of a new and hopefully more humane world.