Is division a necessary part of being a truth-telling Christian? Some Catholics, including clergy, point to Jesus’ statement in Luke 12 as a clear indication that divisiveness is part of our calling as Christians:

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (vv 51-53)

Recently, Fr. James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was asked to resign because, his bishop told him, he was divisive and ineffective. He has stated “Our job is to divide,” that “the world will be divided by the truth,” and asked “why is anyone accusing me of being divisive, like as if that is a bad thing? If we know that the truth divides, exactly as Jesus said it did, and I’m speaking the truth, no one’s—in fourteen months—said I haven’t, then why is any good Catholic complaining about me being divisive?” (Homily, 5/23/21). Similarly, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò had responded to accusations of divisiveness, defending its validity: “Proclaiming the truth is necessarily ‘divisive,’ because the truth opposes error just as the light opposes the darkness. Thus the Lord has said to us: ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division’ (Lk 12:51).”

Since then, Crisis Magazine has published a piece called “In Praise of Division.” The author also starts with Luke 12:51-53 to make a case for division as something that is necessary for Christians.

This understanding of Luke 12:51-53—that divisiveness and division are good and necessary parts of speaking the truth—is not only bad exegesis, it is also dangerous exegesis.

I say it is dangerous because Luke 12:51-53 closely mirrors Matthew 10:34-36. In this latter passage Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” If Luke 12:51 means division is admirable and part of our mission, then it follows logically that Matthew 10:34 means that violence is also admirable and part of our mission. This interpretation of Luke 12:51-53 does not stand up to scrutiny, however. It is contradicted by Scriptural context, the Magisterium, and St. Augustine’s rule that one’s understanding of Scripture must always uphold the twin love of God and neighbor: “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” (On Christian Doctrine 1,36,40).

Scriptural Context

This passage in Luke is found in an apocalyptic monologue by Jesus, beginning in v. 49. He says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” This calls to mind John the Baptist’s words about Jesus in chapter three: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv 16-17). Fire is both purifying and destructive, and the imagery here is that of judgment.

This judgment is from Jesus, to be clear, not from us. Later in Luke, Jesus and his disciples are spurned by a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-53). When his disciples ask, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus rebukes them. It is not up to them to judge; God alone judges. In Luke 6:37 he says, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” We are imitators of Christ, but there are limits God has put in place. As Paul says, quoting Deuteronomy, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).

In the same monologue in Luke 12, immediately preceding his words about division, Jesus says, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (12:50). Here he appears to be using baptism as a euphemism for his death. Referencing his impending persecution, it is likely that the following verses envisage Christian persecution more broadly. Apocalyptic thinking often arises from being or feeling persecuted, and apocalyptic language is characterized by strong contrasts and a cosmic battle. In this case, the divide is not nation against nation but within households. It is scary and unsettling. Jesus is warning them that, although he is the Messiah, that doesn’t mean things are about to get easier. While he warns them that division is coming, it is because they will feel its harmful effects, not because they will be actively causing it!

Jesus’ statement about divisions within households alludes to Micah 7:6. This passage in Micah appears in the context of an apocalyptic depiction of God’s judgment. In Micah 6, God states that he is beginning to destroy Israel for its sins (6:13). The description concludes by indicating that the result of this destruction will be such chaos that one cannot trust even one’s own family members: “For the son belittles his father, the daughter rises up against her mother, The daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and your enemies are members of your household” (7:6).

When Jesus says that he has come to bring division in Luke, or the sword in Matthew, the immediate and broader context in these Gospels is clear: he is not saying that we should cause division (or violence) or that it is an acceptable companion to “speaking the truth.” Rather, he foretells the persecution he and some of his followers will endure at the hands of the state and foretells divine judgment.

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis speaks at length about peace and division. He speaks directly about the passage in Matthew:

These words need to be understood in the context of the chapter in which they are found, where it is clear that Jesus is speaking of fidelity to our decision to follow him; we are not to be ashamed of that decision, even if it entails hardships of various sorts, and even our loved ones refuse to accept it. Christ’s words do not encourage us to seek conflict, but simply to endure it when it inevitably comes, lest deference to others, for the sake of supposed peace in our families or society, should detract from our own fidelity. (240)

In other words, division is our cross, not our Gospel.

A Nuanced Discussion of Division in Fratelli Tutti

Divisiveness is often defended as a necessary byproduct of speaking the truth, but upon further inspection, this does not hold up to scrutiny. First, divisive people often say they are only “speaking the truth” when in reality they have selected a few true things that support their worldview or prop up their position in life, while ignoring a broader, less convenient reality. A few true statements, when selected to reflect a narrative that is untrue, is the opposite of “speaking the truth.” For example, if someone says that the majority of people survive Covid-19, that the measures taken by Church and public health authorities during the pandemic included limiting Mass attendance, that the vaccine is experimental, and that people have suffered being isolated during the pandemic, these statements are all technically factual. They selectively ignore other facts, though, such as the vast number of deaths and the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine. These facts together present a false reality and therefore are not “speaking the truth.”

Speaking the truth, including the truths of our reality and its injustices, is part of the work of peace and unity. The pope explains this in Fratelli Tutti by quoting his own earlier address:

Truth, in fact, is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy. All three together are essential to building peace; each, moreover, prevents the other from being altered… Truth should not lead to revenge, but rather to reconciliation and forgiveness. Truth means telling families torn apart by pain what happened to their missing relatives. Truth means confessing what happened to minors recruited by cruel and violent people. Truth means recognizing the pain of women who are victims of violence and abuse… Every act of violence committed against a human being is a wound in humanity’s flesh; every violent death diminishes us as people… Violence leads to more violence, hatred to more hatred, death to more death. We must break this cycle which seems inescapable. (227)

Truth should lead to justice and reconciliation, not division. As Jesus says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

In Fratelli Tutti, the pope also shows the importance of a nuanced understanding of peace and reconciliation, conflict and division. Some think division is a fact of life that cannot be avoided, so we should just embrace it. Others attempt to have a false “peace” that is really about maintaining the status quo despite injustices (see 236).

The work of peace and unity, while avoiding both of these destructive extremes, is constant and difficult. Here are some examples from Fratelli Tutti that can guide us in the pursuit of real unity and peace.

Unity is about purpose

“The path to peace does not mean making society blandly uniform, but getting people to work together, side-by-side, in pursuing goals that benefit everyone” (228). Unity is not about uniformity—it is not about being the same, but working together with the same purpose. Paul provides the metaphor of a body to explain this in 1 Corinthians 12:12: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” Like the parts of the body, diversity is not just tolerated but vital to the functionality of the Church. And if I may take the metaphor a step further, this includes tension and disagreement—our “opposable thumbs” are to our advantage if coordinated properly with the rest of the hand. One example of this is the importance of illuminating injustices and real-world experiences, especially of the marginalized.

Open Dialogue and Compromise Is Key

“The path to social unity always entails acknowledging the possibility that others have, at least in part, a legitimate point of view, something worthwhile to contribute, even if they were in error or acted badly” (228). This is in contrast to those who take the opportunity to correct or even “speak the truth” in a way that is only about slamming others who have opposing, even objectively wrong, views. Similarly, he states, “Negotiation often becomes necessary for shaping concrete paths to peace” (231). Although some decry compromise as ceding ground to falsehood, it is in fact an essential component of unity and peace.

Tolerance is Good

It is important to remember that the earliest Christians lived in a world with many of the same evils we have today. They had no political voice, yet, “Reading other texts of the New Testament, we can see how the early Christian communities, living in a pagan world marked by widespread corruption and aberrations, sought to show unfailing patience, tolerance and understanding” (239). Tolerance is good; it is a Christian virtue, including toward those who sin. While divisive attacks on one’s opponents are sometimes described as necessary “fraternal correction,” the instructions we see in the New Testament depict something else: “[you] should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness” (2 Tim 2:24-25).

The Struggle for Justice Is Not Divisive

The pope also explains the way that forgiveness can be weaponized to undermine a victim’s opportunity to call for justice from their oppressor—sometimes victims are unfairly accused of divisiveness, sometimes called “calumny,” for doing just this. He states, though, “The important thing is not to fuel anger, which is unhealthy for our own soul and the soul of our people, or to become obsessed with taking revenge and destroying the other” (FT 242). The acknowledgement and struggle for justice of existing divisions is not in itself divisive, but the opposite: “Authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest and patient negotiation” (244). The issue here is how it is handled and to what end. Is the conflict used to push people apart, or is it an opportunity to promote open dialogue that will lead to tolerance and understanding?

In his letter to the Romans, Paul warns, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who create dissensions and obstacles, in opposition to the teaching that you learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites” (Rom 16:17-18). How much more would he warn us about those who take pride in creating division? In Titus we are similarly urged, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 3:10). The New Testament shows that Christians must work toward peace and reconciliation with everyone. For now, it is clear that the Church in the U.S. is deeply divided. Reconciliation is messy and difficult. But we should take strength in Jesus’ own prayer: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).

Image source: Fire, Elena Penkova, Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/126710094@N04/16767529578

Scripture quotations 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.

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Angela Rasmussen has a Ph.D. in biblical studies. She teaches at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. She is married with three daughters.

Is it our job to divide?
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