Which Side?

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7 or Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 80 or Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

They say in Harlan County
there are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
Florence Reece, “Which Side Are You On?”

Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.
1 Corinthians 11:19

Much has been written lately about the uncivil disintegration of contemporary American society, and for good reason; each day occasions new, often vicious spoken and written attacks calling into question the veracity, integrity, and intentions of those holding views different from the speaker or writer. Christians haven’t opted out of all the name calling, and have penned missives – some against their brothers and sisters – every bit as strident as those of our secular neighbors. I recently read part of such an exchange, which left me, as the news these days tends to do, despondent. And then I read the lectionary texts for this week, which offered a bit of perspective, if not consolation.

First, the news: A group of Christian leaders from what some call more contemporarily progressive strands of the tradition published a statement entitled “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” The statement rightly describes Christian Nationalism as the misguided merging of “Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” Such syncretism threatens always to corrupt Christian faith and practice – as one of my professors said, “Christianity is always tempted to go native,” – and the authors are correct to suggest that in the American context it “often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.” Beyond these important points, the brief document is theologically unremarkable. But its thesis is vitally important, and its signatories display great courage by challenging the most conspicuous idol threatening Christianity in America, namely America itself. Every American who aspires to be called Christian should give it serious consideration. Or so it would seem.

In an op-ed in the Washington Times, the conservative pundit Cheryl Chumley summarily dismisses the statement as the thinly veiled propaganda of “far-left types” who disingenuously use the language of the faith to advance a “very un-Christian” agenda that’s “as wicked as it is clever.” Chumley justifies her characterization largely on the basis of two criteria. First, she notes that several of the signatories have expressed various kinds of support for members of the LGBTQ community, which she cites as evidence they don’t truly respect scripture, which she says clearly states that “homosexuality, to God, is an abomination.” Second, she takes exception to the statement’s implicit critique of the current administration’s immigration policy and its treatment of those immigrants who seek asylum or are undocumented. To oppose these policies, she says, is to disrespect the rule of law of a nation “founded on Judeo-Christian principles.”

Rather than spend time addressing Chumley’s bad faith invective or her problematic account of American history, I want instead to look briefly to this week’s lectionary texts to try to make sense of a world where such tirades have become normative. Each of the texts, with the possible exception of the epistle, have something to do with the juxtaposition of faithfulness and unfaithfulness and the division that often ensues. There’s not much here for the troubled reader looking for comfort, but the texts’ power to speak in different ways to disputes like the one over Christian nationalism is significant.

The passage from Isaiah 5 offers an especially poignant parable, in which God’s people are compared to a vineyard, planted and lovingly tended. To the dismay of the owner, the vineyard yields only wild grapes, shriveled, sour, and useless for winemaking. The story concludes by making clear what the reader has come to suspect; the vineyard represents God’s people, Israel and Judah, and the wild grapes the “fruit” of their unfaithful common life: “he [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

The Psalms and the passage from Jeremiah have similar themes, but it is the gospel lesson, from Luke 12, that is starkest and most discomfiting. Toward the end of a series of lessons and parables about the nature of God’s reign, Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” declares that discord and strife, presumably among those who identify themselves as God’s people, are an inevitable byproduct of the gospel he embodies and proclaims. At the end of the passage (vv. 54-56), he suggests that such division will be a “sign of the times,” analogous to clouds in the west being a harbinger of rain or a south wind of extreme heat. He minces no words for those of us whose averseness to conflict leads us to wonder why we can’t all just get along instead of following him; he calls us hypocrites.

This isn’t especially reassuring, nor does it provide much in the way of a handbook for negotiating the troublesome places where the life of the church intersects with the culture wars. Yet there is instruction to be received here. While Christians should desire and strive for unity, we should not expect it to come easy. The story of Christianity is a story of conflict; indeed, there has never been an undivided church, nor is this strictly speaking a bad thing. As Paul told the Corinthians, even as he lamented their dividedness, “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine” (1 Cor. 11:19).

But what does such genuineness entail? Psalm 82 (the week’s alternative Psalm) tells a story that may be helpful in this regard. The setting is the “divine council,” a heavenly courtroom where the God of Israel presides. The proceedings begin with a challenge, addressed to Israel: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” The question is apparently rhetorical, given that it is quickly followed by an admonition: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4).

When occasions for division arise, we do well to recall that the God we worship is a liberator of the oppressed with a decided partiality for those at the margins, and to bend our lives in that direction. Yes, the rule of law has its place, but among Christians it must remain forever subordinate to Jesus’s proclamation that the kingdom of God has come within our grasp. History is replete with examples of Christians who defied the rule of law in service to the gospel vision of a united people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).

The gospel of the kingdom is always good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed; it will always take the side of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. There are important conversations and legitimate debates to be had about how best to enact this gospel, but to abuse or even to deny hospitality to those whom Jesus called “least” – including those interred at the southern border – for the sake of our own comfort and security is to risk standing against God. To borrow from Saint Paul, may it never be so.

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