Reflections: The Message of Division

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51)

These words of Christ describe some of the trials of the earliest Christians. These earliest Christians were often divided by religion. For many Jews they were suspect because they did not follow all the dietary laws of Judaism and did not keep the Sabbath as rigorously as the Good Jew would. For the Gentiles the early Christians were considered atheists because they worshipped just one God not the many gods of the Greeks and Romans.

These divisions were not caused directly by Christ. They were a consequence of the rejection of many Gentiles and Jews. The earliest Christians who were Jews were often divided across family lines. This still applies today. Often the word of Christ cuts across family lines and can divide families.

Jesus doesn’t cause divisions; our response to the Jesus message does. The Church strives for the common good.

In the encyclical Charity in Truth Pope Benedict defines common good this way: “To love someone is to desire that person's good and to take effective steps to secure it.”

The common good at its most basic is the right to life. That is the reason that the Church opposes abortion. The Church’s opposition to abortion is very controversial and does divide families. Many people regard abortion as a woman’s right to choose. The Church doesn’t see that as a right and, in fact, emphasizes the right of the unborn child to be born.

The Church stands by this position not because it wants to promote division, but because it is in keeping with the law of love, the common good. The law of love includes both the unborn child and the mother. The Church’s opposition to abortion can be clearly seen in the Didache, a very early Church teaching. This opposition has continued through two thousand years of history.

A topic that is far murkier is the problem of war and peace. Since Vatican II the Church allows two positions on war and peace. The first is the Just War Doctrine which very tightly regulates when a Just war can be fought. The other option for the Catholic is Christian non-violence. This includes the use of persuasion, boycotts, strikes, or civil disobedience.

The problems of War and Peace are some of the most gut wrenching we face as Catholics and Christians. It is gut wrenching because both just war and nonviolence are acceptable in the modern Church.

Dietrech Bonhoeffer shows the complexity of this problem. Bonhoeffer was a well respected Lutheran minister who was an avowed pacifist for whom the hatred of war was a part of his being. Violence was against his moral compass. That is until he met Hitler. He tried every non-violent way to stop Hitler, until he finally became involved in a plot to kill him. This plot resulted in his death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s struggle with the problem of pacifism and how to deal with a tyrant is the struggle of us all.

It is important for us to know that those who choose the other path in war and peace are also sincere. The pacifist cannot call those who see the possibility of war as war mongers, and those who see war as a possible outcome cannot call those who seek the nonviolent route cowards. Both are brave and both hate war.

Christians also see how Christ views poverty as a possibly divisive issue. There is a passage in scripture that speaks to some of that divisiveness. When Mary of Bethany poured expensive perfume on Jesus while he was a guest at her house, Judas Iscariot, who was a thief, protested that the money spent on the perfume could have been given to the poor. Here is what Jesus said:

“Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)

Some people say that this proves that Jesus was not concerned with alleviating poverty. But what he is saying is that you will always have the poor to take care of, that you will always have those who are mentally ill, who are physically challenged, who have a series of challenges. These challenges have a hold on every Christian that cannot be disregarded. No Christian can say it is their fault, leave me alone and let me pray,

God does hear the cries of the poor. The more important question is how to help the poor. The Church doesn’t get into the how as long as the poor are taken care of.

Two modern models give us two options in handling the poor. One is the New Deal of the 1930’s put into place by Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal emphasized a large role for the government in helping the poor. From the New Deal we got Social Security. Some years later from people inspired by the New Deal we received Medicare and Medicaid. (On a personal note my 89 year old father would probably be dead or living in a much less supportive environment then the wonderful service he is receiving from St Dominic’s Village without Medicaid.)

Another model that is equally compelling is that of Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day was a radical young woman of the 1920’s who lived a wild life. She had an abortion which she later deeply regretted. At a certain time of her life she wanted God. She converted to Catholicism, and then, through a series of adventures, opened up the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality.

Dorothy Day was very much opposed to the New Deal and its emphasis on government intervention. She thought that the care of the poor was everyone’s responsibility, and would not accept financial help from the government.

Dorothy Day died in 1980, but her message lives on internationally. She has helped thousands of people.

I have enormous respect for Dorothy Day. I also see a government that is keeping my dad alive and happy. I personally don’t care how the poor are served as long as it is in keeping with basic Church teachings. I do care that they are helped.

There are three areas that cause division in the world today: abortion, war and peace, and how to address poverty. I ask you to follow the Church’s position on abortion, and I ask you to pray and discern about how you will address poverty and war and peace. I will be praying and discerning right along with you.

Father Mike Van Cleve

Father Mike is a priest for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.