Thursday, June 03, 2010

Is Christianity Divisive?

Before I give any answer, I shall make a specific point. 'Divisive' means 'having the quality of forcing apart, or of causing separation'. It requires that the target of this quality must already be divisible; i.e. it has discrete elements that maintain their individuality once separated, at least for a time.

Is Christianity divisive? The answer is yes. This opinion is arrived at by consideration of its basic mandates as set forth in the New Testament. Jesus himself says:

Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
(Luke 12:51-53)

The equivalent passage in Matthew's gospel (Matthew 10:34-36) says:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

In fact, the word of God is said to be "quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

The point, really, is discernment. Although there is to be unity among believers, each issue can cause division. Sometimes, this is a pointless division; sometimes it is useful. It can be pointed out that without the need for division, the epistles would never have been written; each of them is designed to give advice and argument against or in favour of specific practices and philosophies.

But since the Bible can be treated as a weapon, it must be used appropriately. That requires hermeneutic effectiveness and consistency — people who use the Bible as a tool for dividing X from Y must read it like any other key text: it is indeed possible to use analysis of the text to discard spurious readings, and it is something the conscientious user should do.

Christianity is inherently divisive; it says that some people will belong and some won't, it says that some will be on one side and some on the other, it acts in the capacity of a determining (i.e. a boundary-making, from Latin terminus = 'boundary') agent. It need not be so, but sometimes it needs to be so.

That said, there is another possible point. The act of creating meaning is perhaps itself divisive. To say that something is 'red', for example, is to assert that other things are not. If they were also 'red', 'red' would have no meaning.

Would saying that something is 'divisive' then lack meaning? After all, if all meaning divides, then 'divisive' has no meaning.

I think this argument doesn't work: when we say 'divisive', we mean actively so, dividing with intent or with built-in capacity for causing discord. That sense is attested from the 17th century. In that sense, not all things need to be divisive, although they may serve to divide. In Galatians 3, as well as in Colossians 3, St Paul points out that within Christianity, certain categories — race, social status, gender — cease to be relevant.

Christianity, it seems, may be divisive. But it can also serve to unite.

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