I was at a conference a year or so ago about conflict within churches. I know, dear reader, it will come as a shock to you to know that sometimes, in churches, occasionally, people don’t get on.
Actually, people do seem to be genuinely shocked when there is conflict within churches, but we shouldn’t be – our two new testament readings clearly demonstrate that conflict has been in our church from the beginning. If ever you feel that the church is ripping itself apart – then take heart – it always has been . The letter of James, that beautiful, yearning letter, is trying to stop Christians taking lumps out of each other, and our Gospel in Mark Ch 9 has the Apostles fighting it out as to which of them was the best.
The interesting thing I learnt about conflict in that conference was twofold – firstly, those who specialise in conflict resolution seem to create a lot of the conflict in order to resolve it. The call for tolerance is often accompanied by a pretty intolerant attitude towards anyone not going along with their method. But that’s just a rather catty by-the-by. The thing of specific interest was the ingredients which produce conflict.
What are those ingredients? There has to be a difference of opinion, certainly. But that’s just the catalyst, the difference itself can by tiny or immense. What creates the acrimony itself is fear and silence. Because it is fear and silence which separate us from God and from one another.
We often talk about silence in church as being important, and it is. But there are many different types of silence. Welcoming silence, prayerful silence, hostile silence, awkward silence. The silences that we encounter in our Gospel are the sort of silences which the church can well do without.
The first silence in our Gospel is when Jesus predicts his passion, and the apostles stay silent, because “they didn’t understand, and were afraid to ask.”
So instead of asking Jesus, they came to their own conclusions. And whatever those conclusions were, it resulted in an argument about who was the greatest. Jesus was talking about the pain he was going to have to endure, and they were talking about who was going to be the next bishop.
Hence their second silence, when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about. They refused to say.
The first silence kept them ignorant, the second kept them from a right relationship with Jesus. Silence can sometimes be a corrosive thing in a church.
A few years ago, someone in one of my previous churches asked to see me, and launched a pretty angry tirade against me, about some issue or other. Without going into details, the issue was trivial and easily and amicably resolved, but not before they had said some things which from my perspective had been really very hurtful. And I asked them why they had not spoken earlier.
Their answer was “I didn’t want to upset you”.
The months of silence was far more upsetting to me than the words they might have used initially, partly because it resulted in a bottling up of imagined dischord which exploded into anger. Left to our own devices, by the isolating silence which comes from “not wanting to upset people”, the conflict we imagine in the silence of our own minds is often far worse than the reality when shared with people.
There is a very sad, little verse in the Epistle of James. “these conflicts and disputes among you,” he writes, “where do they come from? Do they not come from the cravings that are at war within you?” When by our silence we isolate ourselves from one another and from God, our minds become a playground for our insecurities and our demons.
It’s interesting what those silences do. The apostles’ silence caused by the fear of seeming ignorant, kept them ignorant. Their silence at being ashamed, kept them ashamed. Jesus could not forgive them unless they asked for forgiveness. The silences that we keep with one another because we “don’t want to upset anyone” don’t resolve conflict, or even avoid it. They embed conflict, they ferment it. These are silences which keep us apart from God and our another.
So how do we resolve conflict then, what’s the Christian method of resolving conflict, what was Jesus’ method?
Well it ought to be said that conflict resolution wasn’t his big thing. His life and his passion was a result of conflict between him and the Pharisees was not resolved. We ought to reconcile ourselves to the fact that for conflict to be resolved, both parties have to be willing participants – that’s sort of what I was getting at with the catty comment earlier. You can’t bully people into being peacemakers.
The way Jesus resolved the conflict among the apostles, after their arguments about who was best, was to do one of those enigmatic things that he always did. He shows them a child, and said one of those things we think we understand until we actually examine it.
He said, Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. Or in other words, when we welcome a child, we are welcoming Christ, we are welcoming God.
Well it’s very easy to dismiss that by saying it means we should just be nice to children, but that’s not the context at all. What is it about children that when we welcome them, we’re welcoming God? Later on he says that heaven consists of those who are like children. What qualities is he saying we need?
Interestingly, many of the “noble virtues” – temperance, diligence, humility, charity, etc, you would not necessarily mark them down as characteristics of children, would you? Not to say children dont’ have them, but it’s hardly the first things which spring to mind.
The more I work with children, the more I think we should really be learning from them rather than the other way round. We should become young church leaders to increase our theological learning, rather than dispense it.
When our children come in or go out of our church, there is rarely any corrosive silence. They come into church heads up, looking around and smiling. And we all respond.
Children don’t have the etiquette which prevents us from drawing closer to one another. Children have no fear of asking questions, they have no suspicion of people’s answers. Every time my son comes to the communion rails, he has a different woman on his arm. When our children come into this church, they think they have a hundred best friends – because it doesn’t occur to them why anyone should not be their friend.
When do we lose that, when do we grow out of that, with etiquette and suspicion and silence?
I suppose as life knocks us about we learn to be suspicious, we learn to avoid conflict because conflict hurts, and the protective shell which we put around ourselves becomes thicker and more isolating. We learn to respond to difference not with questions but silence, not with love but with defence, not with curiosity but suspicion. Silence, defence, suspicion, they’re all learnt behaviours. Whereas questioning, loving, being curious, they are natural, inherent.
Perhaps when Jesus showed the Apostles the child, and told them than welcoming them welcomed God in, perhaps he meant that they had to unlearn the things they had learnt. To unlearn their aggression, their suspicion, their silence. Perhaps he was saying not just that we had to be kind to children, but that we should be kind to the child within us.
Perhaps he was pointing to the child in its vulnerability, without their protective shells of silence, or suspicion, and was saying to them, “you don’t need that, you don’t need those things.” Perhaps he was calling them into the freedom that vulnerability give us. Freedom to be hurt. And freedom to be healed.
There will always be conflict in the church. But there need never be acrimony. For that to happen we must be as fearless as children, to break the silence which divides us, and speak the truth in love.