What hath Confucius to do with Lambeth?

Homily for Sun 14 August 2022

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division,” says the Lord (Lk 12:51).  But wait – isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? Doesn’t he spend most of his final sermon in S John’s Gospel talking about unity: his unity with the father, and how we are all meant to in unity with one another, ut unum sint?

“From now on, a household of five will be divided,” says the Lord. Can this be the same Jesus who said, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them?” That not a “jot or tittle” would “pass from the law until all is accomplished?” (Mt 5.17-18.) How can Jesus set “son against father” and “daughter against mother,” when the Ten Commandments include “honour your father and your mother?” When He was Himself “obedient” to Mary and Joseph (Lk 2.51)? 

It’s as though we have two different Jesuses. One is the loyal son of a Jewish mother who raised Him in the faith and who sees the natural family structure as being in harmony with the divine law. The other is a revolutionary who wants to overthrow the most basic social bonds. One Jesus calls for unity, the other calls for conflict. 

I wonder whether the second Jesus has anything to do with Christianity’s unpopularity in Japan. It’s well known that Confucius has a strong influence on society here, especially in his emphasis on “filial piety,” both towards one’s literal parents and elders in general. We have seen the terrifying results of rejecting that influence in society very close by, in Confucius’ own homeland of China. His thought, which formed Chinese society for two millennia, was exorcised during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. To make the point, his ancestral home, long venerated by the Chinese people, was destroyed by the government. The State was now to replace parents, and if one’s father or mother or teacher said anything which defied Marxist orthodoxy, it was the child’s duty to denounce them, or even to beat them. Children were taught that they should not respect their parents. In fact, they shouldn’t even trust them. 

The West managed to achieve similar results, albeit through less dramatic means. Also beginning in the 1960s, the mantra of “think for yourself” encourages suspicion of the past, especially of anything done or dreamt by “dead white men.” Children are taught that war, discrimination and environmental damage are all the crimes of their elders, and that they are innocent victims who should rise up in angry resistance. Old institutions such as nation, church or family are merely “social constructs” which have evolved to oppress individuals. The only permissible social entities are the individual and the state. 

So is this what Jesus taught? Is this what Christianity has to offer the world? 

There are plenty of Christian theologians who think so: followers of the “revolutionary” Jesus. They include bishops at the recent Lambeth Conference, which has sadly not proved to be a great example of church unity. We have also heard from those who oppose them. In the press, this is usually portrayed as a split between “liberals” and “conservatives” – but I don’t think this is quite right. The real split is between those who see divine revelation and natural law as being in harmony, and those who see divine revelation as something which overthrows the natural law.

For the first group, the social hierarchies of the family, Church and nation are a reflection, albeit an imperfect one, of the harmony of the heavenly kingdom, and the grace of God’s Kingdom can restore them to perfection, “to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). 

For the second group, the social hierarchies of this world are totally broken, and need to be demolished to make way for the Kingdom of God – if necessary, by force. “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)

The first theological view is the older one, and reflects the teaching from the time of the Church Fathers right up to Aquinas in the 13th century. After him, the second theological view began to dominate. It came to full fruition in the theology of John Calvin, whose 20th century disciple Karl Barth continues to dominate Protestant theology today. The Calvinists radically oppose nature and grace. But their skepticism of social institutions and hierarchies also informed the thought of Karl Marx, and the 20th century Catholic Liberation Theologians. Hence, the members of this group include not only “liberals,” but also socialists and even radically individualist libertarians. They may not admit it, but all of them follow the example of the second, “revolutionary” Jesus. 

Where does this leave us Anglicans, as we look at the aftermath of Lambeth? Some are dismayed that the Conference conceded too much to conservatives; others, that it conceded too much to liberals. Some, that it ignored the Law-abiding Jesus’ biblical teaching on the family and sexuality; others, that it failed to interpret the Bible through Jesus’ radical and revolutionary lens. So will the real Lord Jesus please stand up? 

The reality is that He is already standing up, in plain sight, before our eyes – upright on the wood of the Cross. The Cross is the “baptism” He was waiting for, which set him free from all that “constrained” Him (Lk 12:50). And on the Cross, we see that Jesus is neither one nor other of the “two Jesuses,” but both at the same time. 

On the one hand, He did not come to effect a coup d’état against Rome or to overthrow the Law of His people, the Jews. He mounts the Cross in obedience to his Father, from whom all fathers take their name. He submits to the unjust political structure which executes Him even though He is blameless. He refuses to call down armies of angels to destroy his persecutors, and tells Peter to put away his sword. 

Nor, though, does Jesus bless or justify unjust and oppressive structures. Rather, on the Cross, He exposes them – and us, the people who make them – for what they are. He shows the limits of our cherished structures of nation and kin. Neither the efficiency of the Roman state nor the sanctity of His Jewish blood-ties offer salvation against humanity’s real enemy. Yet it is through them, through the Roman state apparatus and through His ancestry, that Jesus, in the end, does effect a revolution: the most radical revolution possible. He vanquishes Satan and destroys death. By what they are at that moment very much not, He shows what family and nation can be, should be: the vessels of light and love by which He guides us to unity with the Father.

The revolution that Jesus calls us to is not a revolution against nature, but in harmony with the deepest desire of all living things: namely, the desire for life itself. He who is the Life offers Himself to us in abundance and forever. He offers Himself to us now, at the altar, in the Body and the Blood. 

Make no mistake, we need Jesus’ fire. Not the fires that burnt the house of Confucius. Not the fires that incinerated Hiroshima or Nagasaki, pray God. But the fire of the heart, the fire of a holy life, the fire which does not consume but which restores and perfects, the fire of the Holy Spirit – this is the fire we need, now and always, to confront our spiritual enemies. And if those enemies have any hold over our own friends and families, such that we have to fight to win them to Christ, so be it, but only with this fire: the fire of Christ, the fire of love. May the Sacrament kindle that fire in our hearts as we receive Him there today. 

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