Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Not Peace but a Sword

The popular notion that lemmings in the wild commit mass suicide by leaping off cliffs is a sixty-five-year-old lie that has attained the status of myth. So says the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The perpetrators were employees of the Disney Corporation in a 1950s documentary called White Wilderness. They staged the fake lemming migration with a combination of tight camera angles, judicious editing and a turntable, of all things. For the legendary cliff scene, they hurled lemmings into an Alberta river from off camera and captured them on film thrashing and drowning.

The reason? It made for good TV. Seriously.

Keep those lemmings in mind.

Dividing the Human Race

I have a favorite t-shirt I found online a while back. It features an impaled skull with the words “Not peace but a sword.” That’s not a sentiment most of us care to dig into too deeply. Swords symbolize war, hostility and division. They serve no peacetime purpose. They are too big and clunky to carve up your steak efficiently and too easily dulled to saw down a tree. Nevertheless, the sword is an important feature of both Christ’s advents: in the first, the sword symbolizes the spiritual division he caused. Next time around, the sword will be in his mouth as he comes to fulfill Joel’s prophecy to the letter.

The traditional rendering of our Lord’s birth announcement by angels reads “on earth peace, goodwill toward men”. My ESV offers a slightly different translation alternative. It reads “on earth peace among those with whom he [God] is pleased”. That may or may not be the most precise English way of expressing what Luke wrote, but it points to the correct understanding of the Father’s purpose in sending the Son. In his first advent, Jesus did not come to impose peace on all whether they wanted it or not, but to offer it as an option to those who were looking for it. “To all who did receive him,” says John, “he gave the right to become children of God.” To those who rejected him, he did not. Division. The sword.

Households in Halves

The Lord himself made this claim explicit:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

The natural mind wonders why. Why is Christ so divisive when unity is such a desirable goal? The scriptures are clear God would prefer all men without exception to accept his salvation. Peter writes that he does not wish any to perish, but that all should reach repentance. Paul tells Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all.” That is both God’s preference and provision. Ezekiel quotes him directly on the subject: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Moreover, God himself desires peace between brothers. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity,” wrote David. “Complete my joy by being of the same mind,” writes Paul. He reminds Roman Christians, “Pursue what makes for peace.” Ultimately, peace is God’s will, unity his desire, harmony between brothers his delight.

Why, then, did his Son come to divide families, co-workers, friends and lovers? Because a world unified on its way to hell would suit no one. Not God, and not man.

Unified Lemmings

Lemmings leaping off a cliff may be a fake metaphor invented by media manipulators, but it’s also an apt picture of the natural condition of mankind. God could not leave us the way we were. The breach between man and God was not his idea. It was ours. Eve responded to the serpent’s temptation to defy the will of God, and Adam ratified her sin on behalf of all their offspring. Born in sin, “by nature children of wrath”, we each take early opportunity to voluntarily affirm our association with Adam in his choice to defy God. As Paul puts it in Romans, quoting the Old Testament, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” John writes that leaping over the cliff en masse is the default destination for the human race: “Whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Paul says in one sense we were already there: “And you were dead.”

There’s unity for you, right? These lemmings all agree the cliff is a great idea. That kind of unity goes nowhere good. It ends in eternal estrangement from God for all. It ends not thrashing in a river but in gnashing of teeth in the lake of fire.

When Division is Better Than Unity

God had a better idea, so Christ came to divide. He came to allow each of us to choose. We are not lemmings. Nobody is hurling us to our deaths, and we have no obligation to hurl ourselves. Is division better than unity? Only when a grateful subset of the human race embraces the provision of God for our souls and turns aside from the seething mass plunging into the abyss.

That kind of division is just fine. One only wishes we saw more of it.

No comments :

Post a Comment