Fire on Earth
August 19, 2007
There are difficult words from Jesus in today’s gospel. He wishes to set the earth on fire. He speaks against peace. Our favorite images of Jesus are peaceful images: Jesus surrounded by children or holding sheep which had gone astray. These peaceful images attract us. So what sense can we make when Jesus says his coming is to establish division and he desires to set our world ablaze? Have we perhaps misunderstood Jesus’ message? Are we wrong to say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace? We are not. Jesus will bring peace. But his peace will not be complete until the last day when Jesus establishes God’s kingdom. Before that time, the role of peace must be more carefully considered.
When we follow Jesus getting to peace is not always peaceful. True peace is more than the absence of hostility. It is a life that is built on goodness and justice. As long as we live in a world where injustice and evil are present, opposing that evil and injustice is necessary. And opposing evil is hardly peaceful. Jesus does indeed call us to peace, but getting to peace is often disturbing and painful.
As we try to make sense of Jesus’ words in the gospel, an important distinction should be held in mind: the difference between keeping the peace and serving the peace. Christians are called not to keep the peace but to serve the peace. If we make keeping the peace our highest priority, we will never allow ourselves to upset or disturb anyone. We will always be inclined maintain the status quo and afraid to rock the boat. Such an approach runs the risk of covering over the injustice and evil that are present among us. When it tolerates evil, keeping the peace is contrary to God’s kingdom.
If we make keeping the peace our highest priority, we will never permit ourselves to say that a particular relationship is abusive, and we need to change it. We will never face the reality that our marriage is destructive and walk away from it. If keeping the peace is our highest priority, we will never have the courage to confront a family member about his or her alcoholism or speak out about verbal or sexual abuse in the workplace. It was a misguided desire to keep the peace that led certain bishops in our church to cover over the sexual abuse of children by priests. We suffer to this day from their decision to keep things quiet.
We are not called to keep the peace. We are called to serve the peace. Now of course this does not mean that making people angry is somehow valuable in itself. Upsetting people is often unwise and counter productive. But in a world where evil exists, opposition and confrontation are sometimes necessary to serve the peace. We might be called to serve the peace by marching against an unjust law or an unjust war. We might be called to serve the peace by standing against someone in authority who ignores the rights of another. We might be called to serve the peace by speaking the truth in our family, in our workplace, or in our church–even if speaking the truth makes waves and risks division.
Are you serving the peace or are you keeping the peace? That is a crucial question. If we end up covering over evil in an effort to keep the peace, we will in time be living a lie. And that lie will in the end destroy us. But if we can, with prudence and strength, oppose the evil that surrounds us, we will be serving the peace. Our efforts to confront evil are, of course, playing with fire. But when we light a fire to destroy the forces opposed to God’s Kingdom, Jesus would say, “Let it burn!”