A Divisive Prince of Peace

Luke 12:49-53

The author of the Gospel of Luke sure picked a strange place to put our scripture for today. Our text is situated between Jesus giving a teaching on the importance of integrity and taking responsibility for our actions and a teaching on restoration for those we have wronged. It’s placed between a lesson on accountability and one on reconciliation — things associated with coming together, unity, peacemaking, mending relationship. Such teachings seem pretty on par with the Prince of Peace, who holds love as the greatest commandment. It’s curious, then, that Jesus would give a lesson in favor of divisiveness in the middle of it all. It’s curious that Jesus would make the claim that he has not come to bring peace, but division — even between those closest to us.

It’s a peculiar passage and a shocking assertion that the Prince of Peace comes to divide. So what’s so divisive about the Prince of Peace?

Congregational Response

  • Christ came to transform the world, disrupt status quo
  • Jesus wakes us from our complacency
  • The divisiveness of an unexpected incarnation
  • The abundance of the Holy Spirit as controversial for those who want to limit God’s accessibility.

Theological Reflection

It’s 1860 in the American Midwest, and Elizabeth Packard will spend the next 3 years confined behind the locked doors of the Illinois Hospital for the Insane. Involuntarily committed at the behest of her husband, Theophilus — a Calvinist minister and close associate of her Calvinist minister father — Elizabeth’s forced psychiatric stay was not due to being out of her mind but, rather, due to having a mind of her own. Born in Massachusetts in 1816, Elizabeth Packard received an education at the Amherst Female Seminary and was exposed to thinkers and theologians of various bends and backgrounds — igniting a thirst for knowledge and independence that she would carry with her for the remainder of her life.

When she was 19, Elizabeth suffered from an illness termed, “brain fever,” which brought upon elevated fevers, painful headaches, and disorienting delirium. When she did not recover immediately following initial medical intervention, her father had her committed to an asylum to receive more extensive care. However, in reflecting upon her experience, Elizabeth recounts that this first stay at a psychiatric facility caused far worse symptoms than her original condition in the first place and that her recovery was due to her body simply having the time to recuperate rather than from the treatments she received against her will. Naturally, along with her recovered health, Elizabeth would also gain a healthy distrust and disdain for the medical system from this first institutional stint — something that will deeply influence the course of her life to come.

She married Theophilus in 1839, and the couple had six children before moving to the Midwest in 1854. After settling in Manteno, Illinois a couple years later, Elizabeth began to enjoy a greater sense of independence now that she was free from the familiar confines of her conservative New England roots. This independence, paired with challenging her Calvinist upbringing, resulted in an ever decreasing interest in conforming to the traditional values and roles forced upon women at this time. As Elizabeth’s sense of independence grew, though, so did her husband’s anger and efforts to try to control her — and try he did.

Knowing that Elizabeth had previously spent time in a psychiatric facility, Theophilus used that as false evidence of her propensity for insanity. In 1860, Theophilus had Elizabeth committed to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane under claims that she was neglecting her duties as wife and mother, when, really, she was simply thinking for herself and refusing to be subjugated by her husband. But one word from her husband, and that is all it took for Elizabeth to be forced from her home and cloistered away in an asylum for three years. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Packard’s experience is a reflection of a common theme in 19th century America: husbands having their wives committed for being anything other than docile, domestic servants. Whereas men were entitled to due process in order to be deemed in need of psychiatric care, for women, the only requirement was the testimony of a man.

While unjustly institutionalized, Elizabeth did not bide her time quietly but protested the injustice of her committal ceaselessly. In fact, Elizabeth was so persistent in her disruption and resistance that, in order to not have to deal with her anymore, the hospital deemed her “incurably insane” and released her at the request of her adult children also advocating on her behalf. When Elizabeth was released, though, her husband imprisoned her in their home on the grounds that she could not care for herself. That is, until she was finally able to stand trial for her freedom in 1864, and a jury declared her sane after deliberating for only 7 minutes.

Elizabeth and Theophilus remained married but lived separately for the rest of their lives. For Elizabeth, she spent hers fighting for women’s rights and the rights of individuals navigating mental illness and institutionalization. Despite pushback and threats from the powers that be, Elizabeth was a divisively disruptive advocate — determined to hold the medical system accountable and protect others who found themselves on the receiving end of unjust and inhumane treatment. She did so until her death in 1897.

For those on the receiving end, especially individuals who identify as female, the message from the hierarchical higher ups is clear: don’t rock the boat. When someone comes along and does exactly that, they are guilt tripped, suppressed, and sequestered out of sight for their efforts to stand up against the status quo — labeled disruptive and divisive because they are “disturbing the peace.” However, peace for the oppressed often looks like division to the oppressor. The message of “don’t rock the boat” is really “don’t mess with my privilege and control, which I have at the expense of others.” “Don’t trouble the waters because I’m not the one that is drowning.” What Elizabeth Packard’s story and Christ’s claim teaches us is that true peace for more than the privileged few oftentimes requires a righteous divisiveness, a daring disruption, a courageous calling out that envisions a different status quo where unity and peace are not a mere silencing lip-service but the standard by which we all coexist.

Change, though, changes things. And for those who are already comfortable in their power, change means giving up some of that power and making a choice about what side of the divide to be on — comfort and control or equitable relationship. Don’t rock the boat because doing so pulls me outside of my position of comfort and forces me to confront my own participation in injustice. Don’t disturb the peace because I might realize that things aren’t actually very peaceful after all. Oftentimes, those in positions of privilege and power want peace and unity without going through the baptismal fires of justice, but unity without justice is not peace but coercion.

If Christ were a housewife in the 19th century, she would be on the other side of the padded wall — committed for her determination not to let divisiveness deter her from speaking up for just and loving treatment. I have not come to bring peace, but division — not for the sake of division itself but for the sake of justice, for the sake of ushering in a kin-dom of God where love, not coercion, holds all relationships accountable. And accountability can be divisive. Christ has come to bring division in order to call out, confront, and cast aside what is inhibiting true peace, true unity, true justice for all.

For Jesus, there is no relationship exempt from love’s accountability — even when it is divisive. When we fall short of anything but love or witness such falling short, we must be willing to risk divisiveness, risk disruption, risk discomfort for the sake of relationship. But the ones who are silenced and suppressed, who are dismissed behind bars, who are oppressed by systems stacked against them cannot be the only voices speaking up. Peace requires us all to risk vulnerability, not just the vulnerable, and to realize that no one is truly at peace until we are all at peace for peace means nothing unless it applies to everyone.

In our pursuit of peace, may we dare to be divisive when love is on the line, only ceasing our disruption when love has finally won.