Her detractors trumpet it, her defenders shamefacedly admit it, Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure. What few are willing to acknowledge is that being divisive is not always wrong. It all depends what we are being divisive about. Any person, in any walk of life, who attempts to challenge the status quo will be divisive.

Margaret Thatcher was certainly divisive. She took on the deep seated conservatism of the trades union movement and Labour Party who wanted everything to remain the same and the equally conservative establishment elites in her own party who thought they were born to rule. Finally, having defeated the Left it was the wets in her own party who vanquished her.

There have been few figures in British political history more divisive than Winston Churchill. Considered by many to be Britain’s finest prime minister he aroused, and still arouses fierce passion. There are still people who spit at his name because of his orders to send troops into Tonypandy to quell rioting miners more than a century ago. Even during WWII he had to face a Commons motion of no-confidence.

Sometimes he was wrong, sometimes he was right. On India, Gallipoli, the abdication crisis, and the economy Churchill was wrong, on the threat of German re-armament in the 30’s he was right. There were those, the bulk of the establishment and the majority of the British people, who wanted to appease Hitler, pretend nothing was too seriously wrong and keep everything calm, people who thought Churchill a dangerously divisive figure. Churchill was right to be divisive.

Ghandi, that “half naked fakir” as Churchill nearly described him was a divisive figure, and not just in the minds of the British. Ghandi aroused fierce passions amongst those Indians who did not wish to follow his lead. Eventually he aroused such hatred he was murdered by a fellow Indian.

Although lauded today Emmeline Pankhust was one of the most divisive figures in British social history. She was considered a dangerous radical by the establishment and also divided the woman’s suffrage movement. Millicent Fawcett declared that Pankhurst and the militant activists following her were “the chief obstacles in the way of success of the suffrage movement in the House of Commons.”

Lincoln, the first Republican president of the USA was such a divisive figure that between his election and inauguration seven Democratic controlled slave holding states actually left the Union. Lincoln was so divisive that his election precipitated a civil war. Few today would argue that Lincoln was not the USA’s greatest president.

William Wilberforce was a divisive figure. He took on in full frontal confrontation the power of empire, the political establishment, big business, any who supported slavery. In doing so he was anathematised and considered a dangerously divisive element, and he was in the right.

In the Church we honour divisive figures. Spurgeon was divisive. Although they never left the Anglican church the Wesley brothers were divisive, they provoked extreme reactions especially amongst the establishment. The Covenanters were despised and divisive and were hunted down for it, and yet without them and those like them we would never, as Carlyle reminds us, have had the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers brought about a split in the monolithic church which dominated Europe. The Reformers were divisive, thank God.

For Protestants the archetypical Roman Catholic bogey man is Ignatius Loyola with his Jesuits. They have also been seen as divisive and distrusted figures within the Roman Catholic church. It took nearly 500 years for a Jesuit, who form the largest order in the church, to become pope.

Francis of Assisi, everyone’s favourite eco-warrior, was divisive, and was fortunate in that the pope of the day eventually listened to him and did not just silence him out of hand.

The great theologian Athanasius, considered as one of the Fathers of the Church, was so divisive that he gave birth to the cry, “Athanasius contra mundum”. You can’t get much more divisive than that, and yet he managed to save the Church from Arianism.

We find divisive figures striding through the pages of Scripture. All the Old Testament prophets were divisive figures, and often paid for it being ignored, rejected, imprisoned and murdered. The greatest prophet of them all John the Baptist was such a divisive figure that he got his head in his hands to play with.

That divisive figure Paul withstood Peter to his face and forced a split with those Judaisers whom he thought shouldn’t stop short of circumcision but go the whole hog. The Greeks of Ephesus, as elsewhere, also thought that Paul such a divisive figure they tried to have him stoned. Eventually the Romans probably had him beheaded. Rather divisive.

John, the apostle of love, reminds us again and again that Christians will be hated in this world. The only way to stop that divisiveness is to stop being openly Christian, something John does not advise.

There is no more divisive figure, then and now, than our Lord Himself. He aroused passionate hatred, was rejected, anathematised and eventually judicially murdered.

We owe much to divisive figures, without divisive figures there would be no progress in any field. All too often consensual politicians in church and state give the impression that they want to steer a middle way between what they see as the two radical extremes of right and wrong.

There are times when we need unifying figures, and times when we need divisive figures. We should not fear division, as being divisive is not of itself wrong. Clarity about anything gives rise to division, it’s inevitable. What matters is whether or not we are in the right.


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