Flames were leaping from the windows, spilling out the front door, and ripping through the roof. Typical of shotgun houses, this one had been built entirely of wood.
Decades of sun and weather had stripped the exterior walls of their paint, leaving the wood to slowly deteriorate. The porch sagged in the middle. Neither the roof nor the windows offered much of a barrier to the elements. Before the fire, you might have taken it for an abandoned building.
No wonder this house—like many of the others in this neighborhood—was a tinderbox. It took only the tiniest spark to ignite a withering blaze.
A family had slept in these bedrooms, shared meals at the kitchen table, and passed evenings chatting on the porch and playing in the scrubby yard. By the time Joy and I got there, it was an inferno. The outer frame of the building still stood, but the inside of the house was a tumble of burning debris.
Firefighters no longer sought to save the house. They focused on preventing the blaze from spreading to the surrounding properties. Neighbors stood silently with that suddenly-homeless family as the fire consumed all that remained of their former lives.
Fire can be savagely destructive. Utterly indifferent to the misery and chaos that it leaves as its aftermath.
So, you might not hear these words as especially Jesus-y: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) Take a poll. Not many people would identify Jesus as the burn-it-all-down kind of guy.
Nevertheless, Jesus was moved by the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the ill-clothed. Had he staffed an outreach center to help with utility bills or opened a food pantry or built a homeless shelter in a sketchy part of town, people would have applauded him or benignly ignored him.
But, no, he wasn’t content with temporarily reducing the suffering of a few individuals. He asked the sort of question that makes people nervous. Even angry. “Why are there so many hungry people? So many homeless people? So many untreated sick people?”
Instead of blaming the poor for being poor and the homeless for being homeless, Jesus came to believe that we have organized the world the wrong way. In a way contrary to God’s own dream for us. We can—and God repeatedly teaches us that we must—work toward a world in which everyone has enough. Enough food, shelter, education, and healthcare.
Let’s face it, Jesus learned about this sort of thing pretty early. His mother was a force to be dealt with. Even before Jesus was born, Mary was saying stuff like this about what God would be doing in and through her boy:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
Once Jesus could speak for himself, he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) And later in the same sermon he said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (Luke 6:24-25)
In other words, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30) Jesus has come to change the deep logic of the world. And only love will change that logic. Love is the fire that Jesus has come to bring to the earth. Love will burn away the kind of thinking that drives wedges between us.
You see, some people grow anxious when they hear talk about changing the world to ensure everyone’s well-being. Curiously, they seem never to attribute that sort of talk to Jesus, even though he preached and taught about it at length. So they assume that a political rival wants to make sure that those other people have enough by taking something away from them.
They worry that, if those other people get enough to eat, then they can’t dine in the way that they prefer. When those other people get a roof over their head, then they won’t be able to afford the sort of house that they want. Health care coverage for those other people will cost them their preferred insurance. In other words, somebody is out to burn it all down.
Richard Rohr calls this dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinking asks, “What’s in it for me?” The Other is a competitor or a rival with whom I compare myself. If they get ahead, I fall behind.
For instance, I once had a conversation with a church-going white lady here in Louisiana. With a warm smile she explained that she had never had any problem with any other races. In fact, as a child she had lived near and regularly played with black children.
And then she added this, “I have no problem with anybody climbing. I just don’t want anybody going past me. Everybody needs to wait in line.” When others get more, she will probably get less than she deserves. Their gain will come at her expense.
As it turns out, Jesus does want to burn something down. He wants to burn down dualistic thinking and replace it with love. He taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves. To stop seeing others as competitors and recognize them as an integral part of our own lives. Our own well-being cannot be separated from our neighbor’s.