Sep  2015 17
Jesus the Divider

Forty years ago this upcoming November, theologian and ecumenist Robert McAfee Brown gave a brilliant speech at the opening of the World Council of Churches Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya—a keynote that actually keyed a tone for the Assembly.

I first read the speech when I worked on my dissertation in the late 1980s. I recently reread the speech, and an article published a year before on the same topic. Both the article and the speech shed light on current struggles, even as they lead me to question more deeply the possibility of a meaningful Christian unity.

The Nairobi Assembly theme was “Jesus Christ Frees and Unites.” Brown’s article was entitled: “Jesus Christ Frees and Unites…and Divides.” It is Brown’s inclusion of Jesus the Divider, and the connection between freedom, division, and unity that catches my attention as I reflect on the unfolding events of 2015.

At Nairobi in 1975, half the delegates were from the Two-Thirds World; the Euro-North American brands of Christianity were losing their dominance. The human carnage of the Vietnam War and the political and social fallout in the non-Western world was fresh and present, the arms race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was escalating, and the gap between the Haves and Haves Not was glaring.

Brown, by his own description of being an educated affluent white male from the U.S., looked at the happy-happy theme of “Jesus Christ Frees and Unites.” He judged his words would be dismissed as the Oppressing Gospel of the Privileged if he did not also address humankind’s deepest divisions, and particularly his nation’s role in those divisions.

So, he decided to speak using a theologically profound sequence: Jesus Christ frees, Jesus Christ divides, Jesus Christ unites.

The inclusion of Jesus the Divider changed the meaning of the Assembly theme. Jesus the Divider means there is going to be struggle, tension, conflict, and discomforting the comfortable. Then and only then are “Christian freedom” and “Christian unity” going to be meaningful to the majority of the world’s Christians.

How does Jesus Christ divide? In the article, after mentioning that Jesus divides him from Jewish friends, secular colleagues, and adherents of other world religions, Brown writes:

…He divides me from many of my fellow Christians. Where some of them want a Christ who will not stir up trouble, I want a Christ who will challenge the status quo. Conversely, when I confront other Christians who want a revolutionary Christ, I discover that my own talk of ‘revolution’ is usually little more than the rhetoric of a middle-class churchman, and I am likely to feel threatened by Third-World talk of the political and economic ‘liberation’ that is an absolute necessity to Christians less advantageously placed than myself. As a result, Jesus Christ easily becomes a cause of division between American white Christians and Latin American or Asian or black North American Christians. (431)

 Brown argues that the freedom Jesus Christ offers must lead to temporary but real period of division as the forces that keep persons and peoples in bondage are exposed for what they are.

Unity without the period of division—without the exposure of the systems and powers of bondage, without the struggle, and without change—is not Gospel unity.

For anyone paying attention to the conversations and arguments about race in the U.S. today, Brown’s assertions should sound familiar. He sounds contemporary when responding to those privileged persons in his day who claimed “everybody is oppressed” by something (think: “All lives matter!”):

…when [the response “everyone is oppressed”] is made too quickly, it defuses and demeans and denies the revolutionary messages of the Gospel. If I can immediately be assured that I too am oppressed and that the message therefore is addressed directly to me, then I can conveniently escape responsibility for the degree to which I do serve in Pharaoh’s court, and I can continue to be an instrument of oppression against “the wretched of the earth.” (436)

I think Brown is right.

He is right on the sequence: Jesus Christ frees, divides, and unites.

He is right about the struggle.

When he addressed the Assembly, he reflected on the concluding commitments of previous Assemblies, such as “We intend to stay together” or “We intend to grow together.” He opined that the Nairobi delegates should consider the commitment, “We intend to struggle together.”

To his further credit, Brown held out hope for unity after a time of division, based on the uniting power of Jesus Christ that transcends all human-made divisions.

Here, I have to confess, with much sadness, my hope for unity, my hope for a diverse-as-the-human-family community of Christians of which the world says with awe and admiration, “See how they love each other!” wanes.

I am trying to see with eyes of faith and trust, but the realities of polarization and fragmentation and “flocking of like with like” are so powerful and evident.

I have been involved in Christian ecumenical ventures since I was a college sophomore and visited ecumenical centers of Western Europe. I took advantage of seminary clusters to take courses at schools of other Christian traditions.

When I was a pastor, I participated in ecumenical clergy associations.

I wrote a PhD dissertation at Chicago on an aspect of the ecumenical movement, on the nature of the community we seek. I researched local ecumenical and interreligious organizations in the U.S. for the Lilly Endowment.

But during all these years, the divide in the world and in the U.S. between those with and those without has grown. The division between types of Christianity has deepened to the point that I think we should speak of Christianties, in the plural.

Stubborn social inequalities between racial groups, quickness to judge the other, powerful purity codes, and standing with or against the narrative and ethics of American Exceptionalism are but a few of the dividers within Christianity.

I know Jesus Christ frees. I know Jesus Christ divides. Of these claims I am sure.

But when it comes to “Jesus Christ unites,” my hope has dimmed. That said, I will continue to look for other witnesses and hope to see more of what I once thought I saw. 


Brown, Robert McAfee. 1974. "Jesus Christ frees and unites . . . and divides." The Ecumenical Review 26, no. 3: 430-438. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2015).

 Brown, Robert McAfee. 1976. "Who is this Jesus Christ who frees and unites." Mid-Stream 15, no. 2: 129-145. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2015).

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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