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“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

When I started dating my girlfriend a little over three years ago, her parents seemed to think I was a godsend.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I recall one of them saying I was “an answer to prayer.” In many ways we were an excellent fit, and her parents welcomed me into their family with open arms.
They didn’t know a whole lot about me except that their daughter seemed to be crazy about me, and they knew that I was a seasoned teacher of students with autism and therefore uniquely equipped to handle her own son’s many special needs (Asperger’s, Tourette’s, and weapons-grade ADHD, now with a side of raging teenage male hormones). They also knew I had “some kind of ministry background” and they even took the time to read the book I wrote back during my church days.
Over the next couple of years I ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at their home like families do, and I went on family vacations with them to the beach. She is their only surviving daughter (her older sister died when they were very young) so between me, her, and her son, we were pretty much the sum total of their family. Things went great for at least a couple of years.

A House Divided

But then one day her parents discovered this blog. At this point in time I had already lost so many things that I was no longer trying to hide my non-belief (I told about what pushed me in that direction in my last post here). By this time the blog was steadily gaining popularity but given the way social media works, most of what I had to say stayed tucked away neatly inside the atheist internet bubble. When they found my videos they were stunned.  They were furious. They felt like they had been duped, misled.  Here all this time they were thinking I was a good guy for their daughter but this changed everything. The fact that I’m one of the most conciliatory writers in this niche was completely lost on them. All they could see was hate.
They called us down to visit them at their home to confront us face-to-face about our mutual apostasy. Up until this point they hadn’t even realized their daughter had ceased to believe as well, and somehow no matter how many times we reiterated that we had each come to our own conclusions separately (in her case years before I did) this had to be my fault.  They wanted me gone, out of her life immediately.  Her father told me I was “a dangerous person” and from that night forward I was no longer welcome on their property.
Later that year, when Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around, we were informed that if I was accompanying their daughter and their grandson then they would find other people to celebrate those occasions with instead. They didn’t have any other children to invite, so I suppose they must have eaten at least one of those meals alone.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Perhaps most troubling of all during this time were the rumors floated our direction—in typical Southern passive-aggressive fashion—about changes made to her father’s will.  We weren’t told any details, only that soon after her parents met with us that last time, her father drove to the state capitol to meet with his lawyer and “make some changes.” He made no bones about his belief that I had converted to atheism in order to get rich (lulz), so I figured he was doing something to make sure that after he was gone I wouldn’t be allowed to access whatever wealth he had accumulated. He repeatedly told his grandson (whom I’ve been raising as my own son for years now) that I was “in this for the money” and that he thought I was a terrible, dishonest crook. He texted me once and said:

You’re the David Koresh and the Jim Jones of the atheist movement and sooner or later you’re (sic) self centered pride and your true motive of suckering weak, confused people and people who have had unfortunate home experiences out of their money will be revealed. I hope it will be sooner. You have my permission to add this to your blog.

As you wish. I’m not sure how much money he thought bloggers typically make but I’m pretty sure that up until this point I could be making more money mowing yards.  It seems his suspicions were confirmed, however, when I agreed to appear in an interview on CBS Sunday Morning this past spring (here’s a link to that, in case you haven’t seen it). When he saw that, he called me “a pile of sh*t” and told me to “drop dead.” And in case you’re wondering, I never responded in kind to a single harsh word he sent my way.

A Parting Shot

We didn’t have to wait long to find out how deep this anger went. My girlfriend’s father passed away just a few days ago and at first, in accordance with his dying wish, I wasn’t allowed to be around as the family mourned. He made his wife promise.  I already wrote about how hard that was because I wanted to be there to comfort my partner upon the loss of her father, and frankly she needed me. Eventually her mother relented and allowed me to be with the family at the funeral, for which I remain deeply grateful.  But the next week of grieving brought another harsh blow when it was discovered that her father had not only stipulated that I wasn’t to touch anything of his now that he is gone, but also that his own daughter would receive nothing. Nothing at all.
Did you hear what I just said?  The sonofab*tch wrote his only child out of his will.
That’s how much he detested our lack of belief.  Never mind our love for each other. Never mind our continued pursuit of a relationship with them.  Never mind the sacrifices we make to care for their only grandchild, who greets each morning screaming and banging walls and challenging and inverting every parental instinct we have. Never mind how hard both of us work in order to cover the exorbitant medical and pharmaceutical bills accumulated because of her son’s many needs on top of her own autoimmune issues. Nothing she or I do counted for anything anymore. All that mattered was that we were no longer believers in Jesus, and that meant we were no longer family and we must be cut off.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
How un-Christian of him, right?  I mean really, that’s as un-Christlike as a guy can get, right?
Trust me, I understand as much as anybody the complex diversity of subcultures and value sets indicated by that word “Christian.”  I used to be one myself (yeah, I know, half of you don’t buy that since I’m not one anymore) and I know what it’s like to see people doing terrible, unloving things in the name of Jesus and wanting so badly to rescue his reputation from the hands of these broken, fallen people.
My last post about how I lost my teaching job inspired a deluge of consolation from Christians who insisted that the parents, administrators, and students who treated me poorly misrepresented what Jesus was about. I appreciated the warm regards and the kind words, but…
Is it really un-Christian to cut off family members because of loyalty to Jesus?  Or to try to get a teacher fired because he doesn’t share your faith?  Are you really sure about that?

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

Religion is an exceedingly subjective enterprise, so it’s nearly impossible to say what is the Christian view on just about anything. But I figure the most responsible way to answer this question is to see what Jesus himself had to say about when family loyalties come in conflict with the Christian faith.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (emphasis mine)

When I read those words as a believer I did what most Christians do:  I found a way to make that as unoffensive as possible. Any superficial survey of life and culture in the Ancient Near East will make plain that the earliest Christians found themselves at odds with their surrounding world upon joining the faith. Surely this was simply a reference to the fact that becoming a Christian would lead some to fall out of the good graces of their Jewish (or Roman, or pagan) families.
But wait a second. This statement covers more than that.  Look again, harder this time, and you’ll see that Jesus was demanding that even Christian fathers choose him over their own children, and that at a time when patriarchal social structures dictated that the fathers determined the religion of the whole family.  What scenario could this possibly indicate, and in what way would a father have to choose loving Jesus over loving his own children?
Incidentally, lest you dismiss this as a vague outlier among an otherwise family-friendly book, allow me to remind you of the other places where Jesus says:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.

If we could dispense with the usual disclaimers about how the word “hate” here is a very strong word (most of us get the concept of hyperbole), he is still demanding that a man must be willing to prioritize devotion to Jesus above devotion to his wife and children.* He is suggesting that there could conceivably be circumstances in which a man would have to choose him over family.  I don’t know about you, but I was told no such thing would ever happen. And yet here is Jesus saying that very thing, clear as day. Clearly there are those who took his words to heart and put them into practice.  Can they be faulted for doing so?
Nor is this merely an abstraction.  Jesus illustrated this principle on numerous occasions when men who wanted to follow him indicated they had family matters to settle before setting out across Judea or Galilee or wherever only to have him snap back that “the dead should bury their own dead.”  Anyone not willing to leave behind family obligations was no disciple of his.  He actually said that. On another occasion Jesus even snubbed his own mother and brothers, who wanted an audience with him but instead got dismissed because, as Jesus put it, his “real mother and brothers” were those sitting in front of him, listening to his teachings.  You see the pattern here?
Jesus didn’t focus on the family.  Quite the opposite.  The apostle Paul was even more averse to family obligations (read here if you don’t believe me). He went so far as to suggest that family life was a distraction from the things of God and he preferred that people avoid family entanglements altogether.

This Too Is What Following Jesus Means

So why am I belaboring this point?  I’m simply trying to suggest that maybe this man who cut off his only daughter was doing precisely what Jesus said to do:  He was choosing Jesus over family.  He didn’t want his money benefiting atheists in any way whatsoever, even if that included his only child.
His actions are not unusual, either.  I have heard from dozens of friends over the last few months who have received similar treatment from their parents as well.  Some of them were cut out of wills just like my girlfriend was, others were kicked out of their parents’ homes (or even out of their own homes by their still-believing spouses).  This is a pattern for many, many families, and it’s heartbreaking and infuriating to watch.
I have heard there are even books which explicitly encourage Christian spouses to separate from or divorce their non-believing spouses in hopes of bringing them back to Jesus. And yes, I know the apostle Paul didn’t go that far in his marital advice, but then he did say not to be yoked with unbelievers, didn’t he? And Jesus said you were no disciple of his if you couldn’t choose him over your own spouse and children.
Those who want to present a kinder, gentler, more family-friendly Jesus will find ways to distance themselves from this troublesome side of the man whom they worship as perfect. Since they are contradicting the very founder of their faith, I would suggest those people are being driven by humanistic impulses more than Christian ones, and I applaud them for it.  I am not going to give Jesus credit for it, however, because the way I see it their own hearts are leading them away from doing what Jesus told them to do. It’s the ones who choose Jesus over family who are doing what the Bible said.
This week I’m not going to act like I’m okay with that.
* Incidentally in the passage where Jesus lists those over whom you should choose him, the word “husband” is conspicuously absent from the list. I assume that means he wasn’t really suggesting that wives should go against their husbands, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...

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