This post is from Joe James, at Southside Church of Christ in Rogers ARK
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. –Mother Teresa
The root of all division is fear. – Thomas Merton
God is not the devil. This seems like an obvious enough claim. Let me tell you why I am saying it. When I take a stroll through our world news, I see division everywhere. I see racial division, political division, national division, economic division, religious division, gender division, cultural division, generational division… division, division, division. We are divided.
And as far as I can tell from reading my Social Media newsfeeds, it appears to me that most Christians seem to think that the role of God in all of that is to pick a side. But it seems to me there is a fundamental theological problem with that. God doesn’t pick sides – the devil does. And I think the times we are in call us to a sense of urgency about knowing which is which. God is not the devil.
So the word “devil” is one of the many words Scripture uses to name the force of evil that exists in our world. Scripture is careful about which “name” it gives evil depending upon what Scripture is trying to say about evil. For example, Satan means accuser. So any time Scripture wants to talk about evil as a wholesale condemnation of humanity, and all that goes with it – guilt, shame, despair – it reaches for the word “Satan.”
There are other words too. In his book, “The Subversion of Christianity,” Jacques Ellul names 6 evils:
2. The Prince of this World
3. The Prince of Lies
5. the devil
So this word “devil” – what does it mean? If Ellul is right, the Greek is Diabolos and it means divider. That is what the devil does. He divides. All of the division we see in the world is, theologically speaking, the work of the devil. And a quick stroll through my Twitter feed tells me that Christians are confused. We seem to be using God to deepen the divisions that exist in our world, having Him choose sides (conveniently it is always “our” side). This concerns me.
In the First Century world, the dominant “way” of being Jewish was the way of the Pharisee. Pharisees get a bad reputation in contemporary Christianity. We sort of paint with broad strokes and say, “They were legalists.” Yes and no. The main reason Jesus is in conflict with the Pharisees is not necessarily that they are legalistic or rigid in their interpretation of the law. I think it is more that they use Torah to divide people rather than using it to transform God’s people into a “light to the nations.”
There is a helpful little religious word for that – Sectarian.
Sectarianism is simply the use of faith, religion, or God in a way that divides people rather than reconciling them. And here is what we need to know about this, something we learn from Jesus – Sectarianism makes God furious.
And whenever we use our faith in Jesus, or religious language, or “God-talk” in a way that creates Us-verses-Them categories, we are not embodying the work of Jesus. We might actually be doing something much worse. We might be ministers of Diabolos. We might be Sectarians.
I cannot help but think that all of our confusion is rooted in a weak understanding of what God has done for us on the cross.
If you were to ask your friends the question, “What did Jesus do for us on the cross?” I suspect you will get a reply like this, “Jesus died for my sins so that I can go to heaven when I die.” To be clear, the cross certainly offers us forgiveness of sins. The cross definitely offers reconciliation between us and our Creator in a way that offers hope.
When we seek to ground this understanding of the cross in Scripture, we reach for texts like this one: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26).
There you have it. Atonement means Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins so that we can stand justified with all those who have faith in him. Yes. That is, of course, true.
But what happens when that is all? What happens when you neglect other important texts (including some big ones in the same chapter of Romans!) that seem to indicate even more than this is accomplished on the cross?
My hunch is that if this is all we can say about the cross, that it leaves us seeing the world through the lens of “faithful and wicked” which is just a short step from “Us-verses-Them.” And I want to argue that a full biblical picture of what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross challenges that worldview head on.
Why do we reach for the Romans 3:25-26 text and not Ephesians 2:11-22? Ephesians 2:11-22 claims that on the cross Jesus destroyed the dividing walls of hostility that exist between ethnic groups. Are we listening carefully? The devil’s job is to divide. Jesus’ job involved bringing together again all that the devil has divided.
Or what about Colossians 1:15-20? In this poem of Saint Paul’s, he claims that Jesus is “reconciling all things to himself, whether things on earth, or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Are we listening carefully? The devil’s work is to divide. Jesus’ work involves reconciling “all things” to himself.
And what about 2 Corinthians 5:16-21? In this text, Saint Paul says that Jesus’ own work on cross was a model for us who are “ministers of reconciliation, not counting humanity’s sins against them.”
You see, when we reach for texts like this when we think about “what Jesus did for us on the cross…” we come to understand that the work of Jesus, and therefore the work of Christians, is to reconcile, not to separate and divide. It involves a future hope, but it is more than only future hope.
Think about the story of salvation that is told in our sacraments.
Baptism tells a story of salvation from slavery. It is a story of redemption. It is the work of God on earth. Baptism is about heaven and earth coming together. And baptism is about the creation of a new people. So when Saint Paul reflects on Baptism he says, “… for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Communion tells the story of fellowship. The setting is a dinner table. At the famous “last supper” scene in the gospels, Jesus reclines at the table with an unlikely crew. James and John were Zealots, which meant they would sooner kill Matthew (a Jewish tax-collector employed by pagan Rome) than to eat with him. Except that… except that Jesus was with them. Jesus brought them together. He washed them. He repurposed their lives for this new kingdom He was ushering in. A kingdom where tax-collectors and Zealots eat together and love one another.
Ministry is the place where someone(s) intentionally make themselves last and offer life to others. Ministry is about loving your neighbor by actively working for their good. And the human impulse is to ask, “tell me who my neighbor is, so that I can serve them.” And Jesus spends an entire public career trying to make it painfully clear that our neighbor is everyone… yes… everyone. Even our enemies.
You see, our Scriptural story as Christians is one of unity and peace and love and reconciliation. The devil’s story is one of division and violence and hate and estrangement. And the basic practices of the Christian faith are about bringing things together: heaven and earth, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, zealot and tax-collector, saint and sinner, white and black, democrat and republican.
So here is a reminder to Christians everywhere. We believe that Jesus is the perfect representation of the living God; that Jesus is reconciling all things to himself. And we believe he has called us to participate in that mission and work. So when we are tempted to use God to divide or estrange, let us remember… God is not the devil.