Let me tell you a story I thought of this week, one told me some months ago.
We were gathered around our outdoor BBQ area, enjoying a wonderful meal. Around the table were three generations of my family – my parents, my wife and I and our 2 children and their partners. The conversation flowed back and forth with laughter and shared stories – it was good. Younger generation male then told about how he had space in uni lectures a week or two earlier and decided to attend a Uniting Church rally organised in the Sydney Town Hall. He turned up and was amazed at the diversity of people who were there – people from the Law Society and associated legal groups, Medical Societies and organisations, community organisations and the church.
He told us that it was really good and about Drug Law Reform, which had support from many parts of the society – even Sir Richard Branson was there, along with a UN expert. He said that they were advocating the decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs that would be for personal use and was about to explain this as a health issue rather than a legal one, when older generation male interrupted with a broad ranging tirade that went on for 15 minutes – he didn’t even seem to draw breath.
I could see younger generation male and female (and partners) becoming more and more angry and ready to explode as older generation male kept upping the anti and complaining about ‘that church.’ Fortunately, older generation female realised the heightened tension and rising temperature and intervened by hosing down the situation and I quickly grabbed younger generation male and female to help with dessert and more drinks. We got on with the afternoon, but tensions remained raised.
When the older generation left, we debriefed the younger generation who could not grasp the ripping anger and irrational tirade of older generation male. Younger generation male was confused (and angry!) as he asked why his grandfather was so angry when he was trying to listen to Jesus and do things he would try to do. He listened to the stories of people living with addictions and their families and felt the Church had gotten things right – this is the way Jesus would approach things. So why was his grandfather so ignorant and irrational when he was always talking about Jesus and how we needed to listen to him…
This is not a new or unique story. It happens all over the place as different generations engage in a world that is changing, often with different forms of information from science and the humanities, new theological or ethical insights and so on. I found myself smiling at this account as I have been questioned and challenged by my own children and others of their age and generation who see the world differently, who know people in different ways and who haven’t as yet absorbed too much ‘tradition.’ They are less burdened by ‘what used to happen’ or ‘what has been true’ and approach things with a more open mind, often seeking the way of justice or love because they know people in the various ‘categories’ that we lump people into. They don’t speak with any sense of surprise about equal rights for women/gender equality, people of different sexual orientations, a true place in Australia for the 1st Peoples, the critical issue of climate change and the environmental crisis. They recognise people of many races and faiths and have engaged with such people from early childhood. They can see the differences between rich and poor, both here and in other nations and cannot understand the political machinations that deny people justice and what they need to live. They readily accuse people of greed and are puzzled when some people earn mega-salaries for doing similar levels of work to those who earn much less.
When the church speaks about Jesus and what he said and did, many expect the church to do these things and are confused when our words are not matched by our actions. When some younger people raise questions or want to stand up and make a statement there is a furore. For example, the protest of school students who are going to strike in protest over the lack of action on climate change. I have heard too many older people criticise these students and those who are encouraging them, suggesting they have no idea what they are talking about. Yet when I engage young people over these issues, they not only surprise me, they inform me! This is one issue that they feel very passionately about because the world they will grow into and perhaps bring their children into is looking very, very grim. They are angry at political and other leaders who refuse to acknowledge there is a problem or listen to the science and then make a commitment to work through the difficulties and questions to find a real, workable solution.
The fact is that whenever issues of deep justice and struggle are raised there are various interests and those who enjoy the benefits of the status quo are not always willing to engage and certainly not to change – despite others struggling and having access to less resources. When Martin Luther King Jr led the fight against racism, he was attacked, as were those in the movement, imprisoned and finally assassinated. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, those who disagree with him and offer an alternative view of justice and truth, are imprisoned or murdered. Donald Trump rubbishes and belittles people who disagree with his views or suggest an alternative path of justice, truth and love. Whenever anyone decides to swim against the current of tradition, accepted ‘truth’ or the status quo, it is a heavy task and filled with opposition and struggle – often from those you know or love.
In this week’s surprising story from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 12:49-56), Jesus doesn’t pull punches in warning his listeners that following him will be fraught. He isn’t a pacifier, one who came to bring some anaemic pseudo-peace where everyone pretends all is good even though two-thirds of the world suffer from poverty and millions of refugees are homeless and suffering, the earth is warming and indigenous people across the globe are being excluded from the land they called home before colonising powers pushed them off.
Jesus’ words reveal that his way cuts through the rhetoric of status quo and pretence to bring justice and life to all people – not just the privileged. He warns of the intergenerational conflicts that his path will engender as people follow and then find themselves at odds with parents or children, friends and society. The way of true peace means that things may just get a little worse before they get better! Jesus’ way might unsettle the way things are and free us to embrace a truer, more generous and inclusive path together. It sounds good but it isn’t popular because when the rubber hits the road and people realise they may have to give up something – money, power, privilege, position… they fight back and resist and all hell will break loose! Sometimes, suggests Jesus, things may just get worse before they get better. It takes loves, courage and faith.