The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
September 10, 2023
Conflict is not a catastrophe. Again: Conflict is not a catastrophe.
How did that statement sit with you? For us in the West, we tend to think that conflict is a catastrophe, especially in the church. To have conflict means that something is broken, we think, and that conflict never ends well. With Gospel readings like today’s reading, we might be tempted to jump over it – we already tend to. We jump to the last line: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We jump to that line to think about how Jesus is present as we are gathered. But the context is that Jesus is present in the midst of conflict and disagreement.
Conflict is not a catastrophe. Conflict is yet another place where we can discern the presence of Christ.
Conflict is not the end of the world, though maybe some of us learned that somewhere in our childhoods. Maybe we had parents that were conflict-averse, and so disagreements were handled with passive-aggression or ignoring the problem entirely. Maybe we had parents or families that were conflict-intensive, and so every little disagreement made us afraid that the conflict would explode into yelling or emotional or physical violence. We may have grown up in a childhood where we were not allowed to say we were mad at someone about something, and maybe we were told that being angry at someone wasn’t Christian, that we would just “forgive and forget”.
We’ve all learned a lot of lessons about conflict in our childhoods, and we then had experiences over the years that reinforced those lessons. Perhaps we married someone who is conflict-averse like us, and disagreements fester until they can’t be hidden any longer, and then we experience conflict as a big, scary explosion rather than a difficult conversation. Or maybe anytime someone tells us something uncomfortable, we jump back to a childhood where we were criticized by a parent, and so uncomfortable facts feel like a personal attack.
What lessons might you recall about conflict from your childhood? What was conflict like when you were growing up?
Because the answer is not to avoid conflict. It’s to reframe our understanding of conflict and to practice better forms of conflict and confrontation.
Someone telling us something uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a criticism or rejection. We might feel that way, but we should look inside. Is it our subconscious comparing this experience with one in the past?
Someone telling us that we’ve done something to hurt them may feel like a stinging accusation, but what if it’s coming from a place where the person wants to restore the relationship?
And looking at our Gospel reading for today: how might we practice conflict better?
First, actually go talk to the person. Have a difficult conversation. Speak and listen. Listen with the depth of your heart. And take note of your feelings – your feelings, your subconscious may be comparing the present with the past.
Second, if you decide to take witnesses, it’s not about ganging up on the person. It’s not about creating “us vs them”. It’s not about getting the right people on your side in the conflict or forcing people to pick sides as a sign of loyalty to you. That just rips the community apart. If others are present, it should be a prayerful, compassionate presence to remind us of the deeper call: to love your neighbor as yourself. There is honesty and accountability in love.
The sign Jesus gives us that the conflict is unhealthy is if the person or group stops listening. Now that’s a sign for our times! It’s easy to stop listening – if they don’t say the exact right thing, or if it’s something we deeply disagree with, or maybe it’s just straight-up nonsense like we see on social media more often than not. But we can always try to listen to what’s underneath the words: are they afraid of something? Are they wounded deep inside? Is there a value or ideal at risk for them? That we can listen to and try to paraphrase back to them. There is something we can do in listening.
That doesn’t mean someone gets to talk the whole time. No, we also know some people who talk the whole time because they don’t really want to listen. They just want people to agree with them – listening to the other person isn’t their goal; they only want to be listened to.
This all, of course, has to be grounded in the dignity of every human being. We can’t really listen if we don’t honor the dignity of the other person. Without mutual human dignity, there cannot be mutual human conversation and listening. Without that listening, there cannot be healthy conflict. So as we look for where Jesus is in our midst, let us also think of how disagreement and conflict can be an invitation to see Jesus present among us. Helping us to listen, to see the dignity of another human being, and to know that conflict is not a catastrophe – it can be an invitation to deeper mutual understanding and love.