A House Divided Against Itself

July 2, 2017

MARK 3:19b-35 How can Satan cast out Satan?

 Rev. Todd Jolly

 St. John’s Presbyterian Church

 

 

Paul Hanson, who retired several years ago from Harvard Divinity School, describes the period in Israel during which this morning’s Isaiah passage was penned:

 

The major portion of Isaiah 56-66 arose against the background of the severe hardships that prevailed in the time between [the] unsuccessful early attempt to rebuild the temple and its completion…in 515 B.C.E. These eleven chapters…describe bitter enmity between rival groups in Judah. They make reference to civil and religious leaders who looked only after personal gain and to a court system riddled with corruption. They reflect a low level of community morale and a vindictive spirit that excluded the other nations of the world from any participation in God’s plan save destruction.

 

In this context, then, the prophet writes,

 

Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.

 

In today’s Gospel account, the scribes, those populist teachers of the law, found Jesus troubling for the usual reasons. He was a maverick. Showing little deference to oral traditions and more than a little love of the spotlight, he represented most of what the scribes hated. It should come as no surprise that they would consider him in league with Beelzebul, the Devil himself. Their reaction to him was probably more visceral than rational. Perhaps their response was not so much because of his healing powers and authority over unclean spirits, but out of jealousy and suspicion that the crowd pressed upon him wherever he went. So it was that the scribes found themselves opposing health care for the poor, and in conflict with God’s Son. It would not be the last time the religious right found itself on the wrong side of the aisle.

 

Our habits in this country have shifted from relationship to politics, from negotiation to intimidation, from diplomacy to conquest. Not that there was ever a time in our nation when our motives were pure and our methods direct, but there have certainly been times in our history when we have been less antagonistic toward each other and toward our neighbors. Like the Jewish people during the reconstruction period, there is bitter enmity between rival groups in the United States. Our civil and religious leaders look only after personal gain, and try to rig the court system to support their agendas. Community morale is low, and a there exists a vindictive spirit that excludes the other nations of the world from any participation in God’s plan save destruction.

 

In his farewell address, George Washington expressed his deep concern about such a state of affairs:

 

In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.

 

In his “The Man with the Muckrake” speech, and more than a century later, President Teddy Roosevelt warned against tweeting falsehoods:

The material problems that face us today are not such as they were in Washington’s time, but the underlying facts of human nature are the same now as they were then. Under altered external form we war with the same tendencies toward evil that were evident in Washington’s time, and are helped by the same tendencies for good.

… The effort to make financial or political profit out of the destruction of character can only result in public calamity. Gross and reckless assaults on character, whether on the stump or in newspaper, magazine, or book, create a morbid and vicious public sentiment, and at the same time act as a profound deterrent to able men of normal sensitiveness and tend to prevent them from entering the public service at any price.

What does one do when there is an irreconcilable difference, when the opposing party refuses to negotiate, when the relationship has disintegrated to the point that no mutual respect remains and no good will for the other abides? It is tempting, as President Roosevelt said, to abandon the political sphere. Yet, there are causes for which we stand and cannot, as people of conscience, back down. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched the women’s suffrage movement in her Seneca Falls keynote address:

We have met here today to discuss our rights and wrongs, civil and political, and not, as some have supposed, to go into the detail of social life alone. We do not propose to petition the legislature to make our husbands just, generous, and courteous, to seat every man at the head of a cradle, and to clothe every woman in male attire.

None of these points, however important they may be considered by leading men, will be touched in this convention. As to their costume, the gentlemen need feel no fear of our imitating that, for we think it in violation of every principle of taste, beauty, and dignity; notwithstanding all the contempt cast upon our loose, flowing garments, we still admire the graceful folds, and consider our costume far more artistic than theirs. Many of the nobler sex seem to agree with us in this opinion, for the bishops, priests, judges, barristers, and lord mayors of the first nation on the globe, and the Pope of Rome, with his cardinals, too, all wear the loose flowing robes, thus tacitly acknowledging that the male attire is neither dignified nor imposing.

No, we shall not molest you in your philosophical experiments with stocks, pants, high-heeled boots, and Russian belts. Yours be the glory to discover, by personal experience, how long the kneepan can resist the terrible strapping down which you impose, in how short time the well-developed muscles of the throat can be reduced to mere threads by the constant pressure of the stock, how high the heel of a boot must be to make a short man tall, and how tight the Russian belt may be drawn and yet have wind enough left to sustain life.

But we are assembled to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed – to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such graceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty. It is to protest against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute books, deeming them a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century. We have met to uplift woman’s fallen divinity upon an even pedestal with man’s. And, strange as it may seem to many, we now demand our right to vote according to the declaration of the government under which we live.

Seven years earlier, Frederick Douglass in his speech, “The Church and Prejudice,” illustrated the way in which racism permeates our culture:

[A] young lady fell into a trance. When she awoke, she declared she had been to heaven. Her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others—and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, “Oh! I didn’t go into the kitchen!”

Thus you see, my hearers, this prejudice goes even into the church of God. And there are those who carry it so far that it is disagreeable to them even to think of going to heaven, if colored people are going there too.

The angry response to President Obama, and the willingness to follow the agenda of those currently in power to tear down everything he did during his time in office, is probably more visceral than rational. Perhaps Mr. Trump’s supporters do not oppose the Affordable Care Act because it offers health care to the poor, but rather because the person who brought us the Affordable Care Act is black. There are those in our nation who have been dismayed by the shift in culture over the past several decades. When I was born, interracial marriage was still illegal in many states. Only two years ago gay marriage was legalized across the nation. Some of the cultural changes that have happened during my lifetime and yours have happened only after years of resistance. There remain some who cannot reconcile themselves to these changes and they will, in all likelihood, continue to try to turn back the clock as long as they live.

 

Each side of each of these issues has been argued on a biblical basis, both those in favor and those against calling upon the name of God in support of their cause.

 

Sanford H. Cobb, the late nineteenth century religious historian, stated that the concept of religious freedom was “the most striking contribution of America to the science of government.” In his book, Protestantism in the United States, Martin Marty explains that the separation of church and state was a necessity in a newly minted nation where so many splinters of Christianity were represented, yet none had the numbers or political strength to become the national Church. There were, as well, a handful of Jews, and a sizeable number of dissenters who wanted nothing to do with organized religion. Following the Revolution, a smaller percentage of Americans attended church regularly than have at any time since; even now, it is estimated that nearly twice as many citizens of the United States take part in organized religion compared with postcolonial times.

 

Yet, that number is still less than twenty percent. Small as the minority is that attends church, synagogue, mosque, and temple, it is striking the way in which religion permeates our media and our politics. On the TV show “Blue Bloods,” the Reagan family, made up of police and attorneys, gathers once each episode around the family table to say grace, usually with a mention of the priest’s homily or some aspect of the mass they just attended. The series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the book by Margaret Atwood, takes place in a totalitarian theocracy in the near future, in what was once the United States. Snippets of scripture are quoted ritually to support the oppressive regime, but are gutted of their context and true meaning. History Channel’s “Vikings” spends a considerable amount of time contrasting the blood sacrifices of the northern peoples with the Eucharist of the English Christians. Even Star Trek explores boldly the frontier of spirituality and the unexplainable. Our media seems obsessed with religion and spirituality.

 

When was the last time a president of the United States gave a public address without closing with the formula, “God bless America?”

 

Apparently, although the majority of Americans is unchurched, religion remains foremost in our minds, as it did in postcolonial times. Given the fragmentation of religion in this nation, as well as the prominence of humanists, free thinkers, atheists, agnostics, deists, and other dissenters, it would seem that a separation between church and state continues to be important to the smooth execution of government. Those who seek to garner government’s official support for their own sect, whether by having the Ten Commandments displayed on government property, or restricting travel for Muslims, fail to understand and respect the complexities, indeed the beauty, of our culture. When there is no denomination that commands a majority of the population, the only way for one belief system to take charge is by subduing the majority who do not adhere to that system. How many failed examples around the world do we need to see before realizing that this is not a wise policy?

 

Going back to our original question, then, what does one do when there is an irreconcilable difference, and the opposing party refuses to negotiate, when the relationship has disintegrated to the point that no mutual respect remains and no good will for the other abides?

 

I do not know the answer.

 

However, to define the problem is the first step. What I have said is something I think a lot of people are afraid to say, that underlying the divisions in our society are the long-held sexism and racism that have recently been countermanded by laws that protect peoples’ rights. We need to speak the truth when we see these age-old demons rising up and cast them out.

 

For reasons I have already stated, I think we need to fight for a continued and strict separation of church and state. As Christians, we need this separation so that the Church can survive, in all its disparate forms.

 

As this congregation has done and continues to do, we need to shield the vulnerable and protest unfair laws.

 

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together,

 

God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

 

A divided nation cannot stand. May the travel ban on Muslims and the crude comments about women and the attack on the poor be a splash of cold water on our faces. It is time for us to be shocked out of our disillusionment. It is time to speak truth to power. It is time to shoulder the burden of a citizen of the United States of America. May God bless us, Muslim and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Buddhist and Confucian, atheist and freethinker.   May God bless that America. Amen.