“Not Peace, But a Sword”: Jesus’ Call to Have Uncomfortable Conversations About Race

Just one third of the way through Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 10, Jesus sends out his newly gathered disciples and prepares them to go out to the lost sheep of Israel, to their own communities and their own people, and preach the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the first half of this commissioning Jesus spoke to them about where to go, what to bring and not to bring, how to engage in dialogue with different households, and how to move on from dialogue. In the second half Jesus shifts slightly in his instructions to them, and gives them a look at the depth and dynamism of the conversation into which they are entering, the tensions that will certainly be produced from those conversations, and the call for them to persevere through these tense moments of dialogue in order to prophetically witness to the Good News that he has been preaching and they are being called to preach.

Jesus tell his disciples, “have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” In the 10 chapters before this commissioning Jesus has revealed to them, uncovered for them, whispered to them the world altering secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and thus the disconnect between the realities of the world they are living in and the promises of the Kingdom of Heaven to which they are called. To which, Jesus tells them, God desires all of creation to embody.

Like the disciples, we have had this disconnect revealed to us is many ways, and people, and places in these last months, at a rapid and extreme pace. Starting in March, as the reach and intensity of the Coronavirus increased at an exponential rate, the systemic imbalances of our present reality which had previously, though no completely, been covered, were uncovered, specifically the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on communities of color, as well as the underlying realities of education injustice, food injustice, healthcare injustice, housing injustice, and employment injustice.

Then in these last days, an even deeper and more ingrained reality of our systemically oppressive society was revealed in the dark. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, all murdered, all as a product of the violent undercurrent of oppression and racism in our country. But this time has been different. What has been for too long left in the dark, has been brought into the light. What has too often been covered up has been exposed. What has for too long been silenced to a whisper is being proclaimed from the housetops of the capitol, and thus Jesus’ words ring in our ears in a way they never have before:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34, NRSV)

We see the protests, the unrest in the streets, the violent convulsions of a community, a nation, that is simultaneously dealing with a coronavirus that limits people’s ability to breath freely, and a system of violence and oppression against persons of color that has done the same for over 400 years. When we survey the landscape of this upheaval it is easy, especially for those in positions of power, to decry this moment as a disruption of our peace. That these protests and calls for justice have taken away the peace that we, up until now have enjoyed, but Jesus’ words call us back to the reality that this is not an interruption of peace. To the contrary, there was never really any peace to be interrupted. This moment of upheaval, the voices in the streets, the open wound of our nation and our communities, this is not a detour on our way to peace, this is the pathway to peace. Every protest, every fist in the air, every Black Lives Matter sign, every cry for freedom and justice, is a brick laid in the unfolding road to the peace that Jesus proclaims, that which is not “peace, but a sword.”

And this is true not only in our communal and national life, but in our personal lives as well. If we are going to witness to the truth of the kingdom of heaven, we don’t get to keep that unrest, that discomfort, at arms length. We have to be willing to live with that tension in some of our most intimate relationships. There is a reason Jesus doesn’t just stop with “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” As a person of privilege, I can watch this kind of unrest happen out there in the world without it really affecting me and my personal life. But Jesus, like he is so good at doing, makes it very personal:

“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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” 
(Matthew 10:35-37, NRSV)

Jesus asks us, especially those of us who are white, the pointed question, “What is more important to you, your own comfort, or justice?” For those who love father, or mother, or sister more than me, more than my movement, more than the kingdom of heaven, are not worthy of the kingdom of heaven. We are being called into conversations about race with members of our families and our communities that disagree with us, that will lead to tension, that will lead to us being in opposition to one another, but the silence of white people for the sake of there own comfort in these relationships has been the cornerstone on which systems of oppression have been built for over 400 years in our country.

I imagine the disciples looking at one another during this extensive set of instructions, as they realize what Jesus is asking them to do, and whispering in hushed breaths, “But we’re not ready yet. We still don’t know everything we need to know in order to do this. We need more time.” Of course, all of these things are in large measure true, but Jesus invites them to lean into the discomfort of not having all the answers, of having some conversations fall apart, of saying the wrong things, and then shaking the dust off their feet, and moving on to the next conversation, taking with them everything they have learned along the way, and humbly being open to growth in the process.

They have, of course, only been with Jesus for a short time, and they will still have much to learn from Jesus once they return from their mission, but Jesus also knows the greater truth of the kingdom of heaven, that outweighs all of their fears and uncertainties and reservations, that the justice of the kingdom of heaven cannot wait. It cannot wait for those who can make a difference to feel comfortable doing so. It cannot wait until we know everything we think we need to know. It cannot wait until we’ve gotten everyone on the same page. The disciples have learned enough from Jesus to go do the next important step, which is to engage in dialogue with people in their communities about the truths of the kingdom of heaven, about justice and its great urgency. About all those things they learned about in the sermon on the mount. And these truths will not be met kindly, nor will they lead to a great deal of comfort for the disciples, but it will lead them to actually be taking part in the mission of God.

As the realities of racial injustice in America continue to be exposed in greater and greater depth, we have to take these questions from Jesus seriously, and be honest about the fact that we may feel like we are still not ready. That we haven’t learned enough. But at the same time, just like the disciples standing before Jesus that day, we cannot unlearn the truths that we have learned, we cannot unhear the witness of those too long oppressed, we cannot unsee the murders of Philando Castile, Ahmad Arbury, and George Floyd, no matter how ill equipped we feel may to respond. We do, though, have a choice. Will we choose comfort masquerading as peace, or will we choose life that at first glance looks like death?

And so Jesus turns to us, and asks the question of our age, “who is willing to live with the tension and discomfort of talking about race with those you have never met and those you have known your entire lives. Who is ready to be ostracized and critiqued for demanding justice, freedom, and equality? Who is willing to break the white solidarity that has been build up for too long in their closest group of friends, and risk that awkward silence, that sideways glance, that not so subtle roll of the eye, the possible disruption of relationship with friend, and mother, and brother, and father, and father in law, and mother in law, in order to take part in the mission of God, the work of Justice, the global outcry for liberation?”

And so we must ask ourselves today, and every day, are we willing to lose that life to which we have so desperately clung, to find our deepest identity in God, as speakers of truth, bringers of justice, bearers of Christ, as Christians?

What conversations are you having, and what actions are you taking to move toward antiracism? Share in the comments below.

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