One paradox in good liturgy is the way old practices make things stunningly new. Songs, spoken words and actions buoy our restless spirits and channel our distractions into contemplation, sending us like streams into a great river toward new knowledge, toward the unknown. Among their metaphors for worship, Quakers talk about entering a stream, tapping into a source, which then carries us forward. Even when we haven’t truly been to that river in years, the grace we encounter in worship can always be found in the same places, if we’re open and patient, and through a million cities and woods it only travels one way. All grace takes us toward a deeper knowledge of the beautiful, the good and the true, though without mastery.
God is somehow the ground of all goodness, beauty and truth, especially in our most private estimation of those things. Cultivating our sense of ‘sweetness and light,’ as these things used to be called, is a sacred practice. But so therefore is stumbling on what’s wrong, boring, and false. Our aspirations to be open-minded can obscure the truth that we do, in fact, think some things are just wrong. The waterlike force of deep contemplation takes us through rough terrain as contemplation of the good sometimes forces contemplation of the worst. You could say the grace we encounter in worship is divisive in that way, though without the connotation of meaningless antagonism we usually hear in words like division and divisiveness. At its most extreme, you could say that grace is even violent: not physically, but intellectually, for instance in a moment of painful realization. But there is violence and division for the sake of violence and division, and then on the other hand there is constructive criticism, temporary divisiveness for the sake of wholeness, and the struggle for lasting peace.
"Did you think that I came to bring peace on earth?" Jesus asks. "No, I tell you, but rather a sword." And yet Jesus is never tries to harm another person, meanwhile recommending such non-violence in the Gospels. And the earliest Christian theology (also non-violent) calls this same man the gateway to peace that passes understanding. But in practice, it seems, that gateway tends not to open its doors to such things as peace without agreement, peace without honesty, peace without love. The only way not to become enduringly violent is not to accept its terms or become supple in its hands; one has to challenge it.
This challenging divisiveness is the opposite of staid divisiveness; Jesus works in the opposite way of something like pro wrestling. Pro (meaning fake) wrestling, we remember, is violent for the sake of keeping us watching. There's a hierarchy to the wrestling calendar, laying out a sort of progress, as all the minor weekend events prefigure a huge yearly cage match, with 10 or 20 leotards living the dream. That sort of ridiculous, aggressive chaos is roughly what one of my friends pictured when she first read that Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword on the earth. In the text, though, his “sword” has just the opposite effect.
Jesus is looking ahead to his own crucifixion when he says speaks of bringing division to the earth, and without that context his words are also falsely confusing. He’s very afraid, and speaking to his closest friends. He’s done some arguably criminal deeds, saying revolutionary things that could be spun by a good attorney as a challenge the pagan imperial state. At the root of that state and all oppression there are thousands around him relaxing from the effort of loving God and each other, and Jesus had also tried to disturb that relaxation. Now he’s about to pay for all this, and he’s scared. He’s shaken by faith in this love for the world as it might be, because that love is about to get him killed by the world as it is. Dorothy Day liked to quote Dostoyevsky’s about this: "Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams."(1) This is the context in which division presents itself as a necessity.
Wherever a forced, contractual peace has been propped up to enable illusions or cover lies, wherever peace is not guided by love, and wherever there are knowing or unknowing supporters of that forced peace, Jesus says we need to follow our consciences against the grain. In reality, wind against grain will mean mother against daughter, brother against brother, in more than the usual adolescent way. As the rest of his teaching bears out, the peace he wants to disrupt was never capable of enduring. This is not peace from free agreement but the always tentative peace of repressed hostility, obscuring a deeper unrest. That unrest cries out to be tapped into and healed, a process which will be like a stream leading through brambles and rocks into a wider, stronger river. In the life of Christ as well, grace travels toward beauty, goodness and truth by a singularly narrow, uncomfortable route.
But comfort isn’t the immediate goal when a fractured bone has to be re-set. Is grace taking us in similar rocky places these days, en route to unseen sweetness and light? There are surely arenas in our lives and our world where a superficial peace needs to be broken, for real healing to take place. What relationships do we need to flood with new care even if it'll make things unpredictable? If you’ve messed up like I have in the past, you know what a poorly constructed peace feels like. What, then, can be done about it? This is one of the things the mass, if fact, forces us to consider, by knocking us in various ways out of the fog of rationalization and back to reason. Faith itself can return us to reason, if we’re talking about faith in the right things.
I know it's been a few years, but this subject reminds me of Sgt. Joseph Darby and the way he was treated after blowing the whistle on a particularly egregious form of so-called peace and order, namely the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Four years ago Darby was still on good terms with his fellow soldiers, family and friends back in the Allegheny mountains of his home. But for letting light shine on the things going on in that prison, he's since been shunned by many in his home town, his Army division, and even some in his family. Members of Darby's community were recorded saying he didn't deserve a hero's welcome at home, but that he'd better ‘sneak in through the back door at midnight’ to escape what he had coming. He was called a "rat." One of the only voices of praise the newspapers could dig up among his neighbors was: "That boy's got a lot of courage, but when you go against your fellow man like that… I don't know. Some people won't like it."(2) Once upon a time Darby could have just dropped the issue entirely, allowing the torture to continue. Life would have gone on, and life back home wouldn't have changed much. Instead he "went against his fellow man." It's odd to put it like that, of course, as if the Iraqi detainees weren’t his fellow men. Although abuse was still being reported at Abu Ghraib just last year, the cases have apparently stopped at the moment, and it's likely that men who would otherwise still have been tortured or killed have been spared. That’s because Sgt Darby went against some of his fellow men, again to use his neighbor’s words. That's the sort of division the Messiah provokes. Some crooked situations make division unavoidable if any path is to be made straight. "Love in action is a harsh thing compared to love in dreams."
There are dire situations like that where a poorly-working peace blocks the possibility of free and lasting peace. There are also many smaller blind spots in our lives, little blindnesses we’ve allowed ourselves not to question, which hold us back. There's a dull sort of peace that comes with leaving things unexamined for months or years on end. But there's good news there, too, because if we feel that dullness, it means there’s new freedom and peace waiting for us. It means we’ve discovered a rock covering a spring. Even if it's messy at first, breaking things open allows light to fill the cracks, showing us back to the depth and spontaneity we remember from earlier days. That’s our goal, where the river meets the sea.
If division itself were the goal, pro wrestling would be a lot more telling of God than a High Mass. Instead this mass leads us to a different sort of wrestling, by way of the stream where Jacob wrestled, the stream where through struggle he learned his true name and its meaning. Well, guess what? There’s hidden meaning and truth in us as well, waiting to be named. We can learn these things, we can go these new ways, not by ‘learning’ to love struggle, but by struggling instead to love, even when it hurts. Let the match begin.
(1) The Brothers Karamozov, ch.4
(2) Rosin, Hanna, "When Joseph Comes Marching Home," Washington Post, 5/17/2004.
By the Rev. Paul Francke, 19 August 2007