(The Rev. Dr. William Barber is barred by a State Trooper at the entrance to the Kentucky State Capitol. Photo attributed to Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus, used with permission)
“[This past week] conjured up images of the dark days of the past. Peaceful protesters nose-to-nose with police officers in places like Selma and Birmingham and Little Rock and Greensboro. But this wasn’t the 1950s or 1960s. And it wasn’t in the Deep South. It was Monday at the Kentucky state Capitol. And it was troubling.” J.Gerth, Courier-Journal
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every house divided against itself shall not stand” Mark 3:25 KJV
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech before 1,000 delegates in Springfield, Illinois. Held in the statehouse for the annual Republican Convention, the delegates chose young Abraham to be their State Senator. It was three years prior to the start of the Civil War. At 8pm that evening, Lincoln stepped to the podium to deliver his address. At once, his remarks set him apart from what incumbent and opponent, Stephen Douglas, had long advocated. For by exposing the fallacy that a growing nation could peacefully coexist as both slave and free – Lincoln speech delved into the ensuing crisis – using Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke:
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free….Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it…or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”
While one of Lincoln’s most memorable quotes, neither he or Jesus received good press at the time for saying it. In Lincoln’s case, quoting Jesus that evening likely cost him the election to the Senate that fall. In Jesus’ case, while successfully refuting his opponents, the authorities waged a malicious campaign to publicly discredit him as a sorcerer, a deviant and generally speaking, a completely unhinged man. Small wonder Jesus’ biological family sought to abruptly have him stop doing what he was doing, so he could quietly return home for good.
So why did Jesus respond to his critics by employing the image of a house divided?
Because his words countered not only the absurdity of his opponent’s charges but exposed the shifting demographics in his day, where the most vulnerable were burdened with escalating economic disparity and homelessness in ancient Near East:
Observes Jeanne C. Tate, “The social order that the Hebrew people had known for centuries was in fact already crumbling. As the land peasant families had farmed for generations was consolidated into large estates, there was an exodus to the cities. Younger sons, in particular, were forced to leave behind the land of their ancestors for crowded and impoverished urban life. [In the wake of traditional clans disappearing], Jesus was only pointing out the obvious: the people were indeed becoming a “house divided against itself.”
No, it isn’t 1950 or 1960. And no, this didn’t take place in the deep south. But the voices raised and hands of those pounding on the doors of justice will not be silenced. And no house can remain divided for long.