Journalists, scholars, and politicians have been speculating about the likelihood of a second Civil War in the United States. Our divisions have deepened over the past decade. They were on appalling display in the insurrection of January 6, 2021.
We differ sharply over ideology, race, economic justice, and, increasingly, over devotion to or aversion to a personality. Even more troubling, violence has become an all-too-common strategy for resolving our conflicts.
Researchers who have studied how civil wars have developed in other countries identify “major armed conflict” and “minor armed conflict” as precursors to violent national implosions. These armed conflicts don’t involve armies facing off against one another. They’re more like insurgencies by smaller armed groups of radicals.
A major armed conflict kills at least 1,000 people annually. When at least 25 people die each year scholars classify the violence as a minor armed conflict. In both 2018 and 2019 54 and 45 people were killed in such clashes involving (mostly right-wing) extremist groups.
In other words, America appears to be already in the grips of a minor armed conflict. A civil war is not inevitable. Nevertheless, our own attitudes and actions—or those of our fellow citizens—contribute to the real potential of nation-wide upheaval.
At the heart of our troubles lies an abuse of power. And while we can point to such abuses by various elected representatives and appointed officials, in what follows I won’t be asking you to join me in pointing out the failings of others.
Instead, I’m inviting you to look in the mirror. Examine along with me your own relationship with power. Let’s ask ourselves if the way we exercise power in our daily lives resembles the example set by the one we call our Lord.
We can glimpse how Jesus will exercise power at the very beginning of his ministry. He receives John’s baptism. (Luke 3:21-22)
The Church initially struggled to get its collective head around Jesus’s baptism. After all, John’s baptism was about repentance of sin. It was meant to cleanse its recipients of the stain of wrongdoing. Jesus had no sin to repent.
But we should remember that Jesus has a way of redefining or refocusing rituals and traditions. Think, for instance, of how the Passover became for us the Holy Eucharist.
John the Baptist gives us a clue to what Jesus is up to when he tells his own listeners, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” (Luke 3:16) So, in his baptism Jesus offers us a look into the nature of his power. And the kind of power he teaches us to exercise in our daily lives.
By being baptized, Jesus is submitting to God’s desire to make the creation whole. His power—to teach, to preach, to heal, to forgive—begins by saying “yes” to love.
And the first step in saying “yes” to God’s love is to say “yes” to dwelling among God’s people. To embodying that love in a very real, very messy community.
And part of what makes that community fractious and beautiful, heartbreaking and hope-inspiring is that each individual is both free and responsible. Free to say yes or no to love and responsible to each other for the choices they make.
Jesus teaches us unequivocally that the path to our full humanity is the way of love. Period. To follow Jesus is commit to that way in all of our relationships. At home and at work. At school and in the marketplace. In the ballot box and in the private chambers of our heart.
The way of love insists on and works on behalf of the dignity of every human being. To follow Jesus means that the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of all is the central concern of each.
Not every American is or ever will be a Christian. But followers of Jesus do in fact commit to the core values of what it means to be American: the freedom and equality of all. That is part and parcel of the way of love.
And here’s the hard and baffling truth. Not everyone will agree with us on this. Even some who call themselves Christian. And they may adopt coercive means to pursue their own ends.
In other words, we will have conflicts with those who demean others, who unapologetically resort to intimidation and violence, and who strive to purchase their own advantage at others’ expense.
Jesus was not a doormat. And he doesn’t expect us to be, either. Nevertheless, the means by which we resist prejudice or hate or selfishness must never take the form of the very thing we oppose.
We cannot coerce someone else into choosing love. This is what Paul meant when he famously wrote that love “does not insist on its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13:5)
The power of love—the power that Jesus and his followers exercise—does not seek to control. It guides. It challenges. It enables. But it is never coercive. Never violent. And it never gives up. Ever.
I suppose that love is a paradoxical kind of power. To many of the rulers of this world it just looks like weakness. But for followers of Jesus, it looks like salvation.