A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, June 10, 2018.
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. “
On June 16, 1858 more than 1,000 delegates met in the Springfield, Illinois, statehouse for the Republican State Convention. That day they chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. Senate to run against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas.
After his nomination, Lincoln delivered his acceptance address. The title of the address revealed Lincoln’s deep love for and reliance upon the Christian scriptures for guidance. “A house divided against itself cannot stand” is a direct reference to today’s Gospel from Mark which is also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Given the multiple appearances of this language in the gospels, the chances are very good that we are hearing the voice of Jesus in these words.
Morally Courageous but Politically Incorrect
Lincoln began his speech by laying out its context, the recent Dred Scott decision by the US Supreme Court requiring runaway slaves to be returned to masters in the South. Lincoln observed that the decision had been delivered with the promise it would end the agitation over slavery. In fact, it had only increased and Lincoln observed:
“In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.”
At this point, Lincoln references the Gospel for today saying:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
Even Lincoln's friends regarded the speech as too radical for the occasion. Many blamed his defeat in the Senate election to the speech. His law partner, William H. Herndon, considered Lincoln as morally courageous but politically incorrect. Herndon would later say that the speech did awaken the people, and despite Lincoln's defeat, ultimately it was this speech that made him President.
But the truth that Lincoln so clearly articulated would also prove correct. The nation divided against itself would dissolve into a bloody civil war whose scars still impact it today.
The analogies between Lincoln and Jesus are fairly easy to see. Both lived in perilous times. Both felt called to the role of the prophet - not those who purport to foretell the future but rather those who focus critically on the present with all its future implications. Both spoke out of a deeply held love for their nation and its people. And both saw only too clearly the disaster that would result if their people did not change their minds, their hearts and thus the direction their nation-state was headed.
Jesus portrays a particularly pathetic figure here. He sees what is coming. Like watching a train heading for a cliff in slow-motion, he feels powerless to stop its plunge to destruction but cannot turn away from the horror of it all. He stands at the steps of the Temple Mount and mourns for Jerusalem. And he is clear what the problem is.
The in-fighting within Israel will ultimately destroy it. In today’s gospel the scholars, the intelligentsia of his own tradition have come with the express purpose of discrediting his prophetic warnings. Jesus speaks to their agenda very directly here:
When a prophet is speaking under the influence of the Spirit, it is blasphemy to dismiss that prophet. Those inspired by G-d should at least be heard out.
But even as he is saying this, other elements of his tradition are already at work in their pursuit of sectarian self-interest in ways that will result in disaster. The Temple Cult feels threatened by Jesus’s teaching and preaching that condemns the exclusion of the poor from worship and critiques the privilege of those who benefit from the sacrificial system at their expense. The Temple guards are looking for ways to arrest Jesus and put him to death, plans that will eventually come to pass at a place called Gethsemane.
The Zealots are intolerant of the Roman imperial domination of their country. There are many who want Jesus to lead an uprising against their Roman overlords. They want a Messiah of classical Judaic understanding – a military leader who will restore the independence of Judea.
There is a reason Jesus is often resistant to being called the Messiah. And when he proves unwilling to play their role, the Zealots will rise up without him and the Romans will respond with a show of force. By 70 CE the Second Temple will be destroyed and by 136 CE, all Judeans will be exiled from their homeland.
A Divided House Sounds Familiar
Clearly Lincoln saw something similar happening in his own time and place. And there are many who see a similar situation occurring today in our own time and place. Cultural observers of our nation from the Pew Research Center to a wide array of American historians remark with disturbing regularity these days that our nation is more divided today than at any time since the days that Abraham Lincoln made his speech in the Illinois Senate race, mere months before the onset of the Civil War.
For most of us, the ideologies to which we subscribe, the understandings to which we pledge our loyalty, often prevent us from seeing the humanity of those with whom we disagree. We are prone to reduce them to mere labels we hurl with contempt. See if any of these sound familiar:
Libtards. Snowflakes. Baby-killers. Gun-nuts. Fascists. Anti-christs.
Such labels may make us feel good for the moment, superior, even righteous. But in the process of dehumanizing the other, we not only lose sight of their humanity, we also lose sight of our own.
Can a nation divided against itself stand? Can we step back from the ledge? Can we hold together our country? Do we still want to be a people? Do we have the wherewithal to weather this period of polarization and mutual anathematization?
I’d like to make a few suggestions on how we might undertake that task.
Filling in a Blank with Deadly Results
The first is an observation I once heard Eckhart Tolle make: We are not our thoughts. We are not born members of political parties or religious traditions. We did not come into the world thinking any of the things we see as self-evident today. And all of us are capable of changing our mind. We aren’t what we think.
We’re a lot more.
There are two reasons that it is important to learn to separate people from what they think.
First, we need to be able to confront ourselves and our brothers and sisters when our thoughts harmful to others. All ideas are not born equal. Not all opinions are equally respectable. The ability and willingness to engage in critical consideration of ideas is an important part of what makes us human.
The second reason we need to learn to separate people from their ideas is that reducing them to a given understanding makes it way too easy to simply dismiss them as fellow human beings entitled to respect and dignity.
Anytime you complete this sentence you have begun down a slippery slope:
Just a _____.
Whatever we use to complete that phrase, to fill in that blank, its purpose will be to dismiss the other as a human being. And when you no longer see the other as human, there are no limits to what you might be willing to do to them. Consider how Jews were depicted by the Third Reich’s propaganda machine: Just a rat. Consider how the Tutsis were depicted by the Hutus on Rwanda’s state radio system: Just a cockroach.
The second suggestion I would offer comes from Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame. Sister Helen has ministered to the inmates on Louisiana’s Death Row at Angola Prison as well as the families of the victims of those inmates for many years. Her wisdom is worth hearing:
“People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”
Bear in mind that when we engage in reductionism of the other, it is almost always in self-serving terms that emphasizes their worst characteristics – at least in our eyes – while affirming our best. This is a common practice for all of us. But it is not honest. And its results can be catastrophic.
The third suggestion I would offer is the one Jesus and Lincoln are pointing toward in their reference to the house divided. We all bear the image of G-d from the moment of our Creation. The very instant we lose sight of the humanity of the Other, we have already begun down that slippery slope that ends in places we shudder to remember bearing names like Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib. As both Jesus and Lincoln recognized, the stakes are very high in a house divided against itself.
The Rend in Social Fabric is Closer Than We Think
So what happens if we don’t find a way to get past our divisions? We’ve already seen two possibilities presented to us today: The Judea of Jesus’s day crumpled from within and was completely destroyed from without by an occupying empire. Its people were exiled to become the infamous “wandering Jews” of history.
In Lincoln’s day, the US Civil War became our nation’s deadliest war of all time and its unhealed scar tissue remains some of the primary points of contention in our nation today.
But we don’t have to go that far to see why we must learn to heal our social fabric. For the past two years I have been working on the commemoration of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre with the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization which just opened the museum on lynching in Montgomery. In 1920 black veterans were returning from WWI unwilling to submit to the humiliating aspects of Jim Crow.
When a black man sought to vote in the 1920 presidential election in Ocoee, then a small agricultural town just west of town, he was pistol-whipped, ultimately taken into custody, broken out of the Orange County jail by a mob at midnight and lynched. The same night, bands of Ku Klux Klansmen descended on the North Quarters of Ocoee and burned it to the ground, killing up to 63 men, women and children and leaving no trace of what had been a prosperous up and coming town.
These memories live just below the surface of our local collective consciousness. It is a Shadow with which we must come to grips. Now is the time to redeem this atrocity and to pledge ourselves to learn from this deadly thinking. And it is precisely this kind of difficult work that confronts all of us across this nation, this house divided.
I believe we are up to this task even as I am not certain we will choose to undertake it. Like Lincoln, I do not expect our house to fall but I also do not believe it can continue divided. A people as talented as our own has the ability to solve its problems and heal its divisions. The question is whether we will find the will.
What is clear is that we cannot do it alone. And so I conclude this very unsettling sermon with the collect appointed for these lessons:
O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018