So, today’s scripture is for me as much as it is for any of us. I still struggle with conflict and I try to unlearn some of the lessons taught to me as a child. The good thing I got from my childhood is a sense of patience and calmness amidst a storm. This worked for a while, while the other person blew off steam, but it never really addressed the problem. So let’s look at the scripture and look at our lives and see if there is any way we can move toward relational justice.
Matthew 18 sounds like Jesus in its wisdom and its practicality. It sounds like him in his caring for the community. And yet it almost sounds like rabbinical advice for governance. It sets things in the context of a church that didn’t exist at the time of Jesus’ words and it oddly calls for the people who are too stubborn and bull-headed to take the criticism of others to be treated as tax collectors and Gentiles. More about that later.
Jesus' method of addressing conflict has three steps. The first step is to talk with the offender in private. Sounds pretty simple right? Maybe for some. But what if the other person is not willing to admit that there’s a problem? What if that person has power over you? What if you feel threatened by that person or don’t trust them? We can make up all sorts of reasons for not confronting the person. What if we’re embarrassed? Can’t we just let it go?
So if you are like me and you have a propensity to avoid conflict, what do we do with our hurt or our anger? We tend to hang on to it. We stuff it. And it gets added to another part of hurt that we have in other parts of our lives. And of course, we stuff that too. Since we are hanging on to all of this stuff, we become tense and impatient. Before long our temperature rises and it is all we can do to sit still, because now we are not only angry at one person, but we are angry at our boss because of what he or she said a month ago. We’re angry at some decision made by some politician somewhere. We’re angry at our kids for breaking a rule or not calling, and so on. We become living pressure cookers and God help the one who is nearby when the cooker blows.
Jesus saw conflicts between people get folks so riled up that nothing could get done and most importantly, they would lose their sense of calling and the sense that the early Christian community was somehow different from the rest of the world.
Jesus had just told the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:10-14. In that parable, Jesus tells the people not to despise the little ones. If one sheep out of 100 goes astray, then the shepherd leaves the 99, searches high and low for the one lost one and when it is found there is great rejoicing. That is how important each of us is to God, and how important we ought to be to each other. Jesus, the peacemaker, tells the people how to make peace with one another.
Jesus does not want us to hang on to our anger, our bitterness, our pain. Jesus encourages us to deal with it in an upfront manner and then to let go of it. For when you let go, you leave room for God to fill you more and more. The twelve-step slogan "Let go and let God" applies here.
Jesus begins by saying, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, then you have regained that one." Jesus doesn't want anyone to get away with anything. After someone has done something we are to confront that person. This is scary, I know. But it is very important.
Jesus says that we are to first talk to the person who has offended us in private. This is a place where it is just you and him or her. No one else is there to speak for you, so you must speak your own mind. You and the offender are the only ones who hear this, therefore you maintain respect for one another. No one loses face in the community. And at the very least the truth is heard from both perspectives.
Often, the offender was not aware that what she or he did was offensive to you. And my experience is that both parties tend to respect each other and care for each other more having gone through that situation.
But most of us don't do that, do we? No, it is much easier to hang on to something and say to a friend, "Hey, do you know what he or she said to me?” And too often the offender who could have been a friend becomes demonized in our eyes. The relationship gets poisoned because of supposition and our propensity to project our thoughts onto someone else. "He must be thinking this. She must be thinking that." Bob Klutz once said, "you either deal with it today, or you deal with it tomorrow, plus interest."
I hope that we are willing to say that if anyone comes to us with a conflict that we do our best to hear them, and if we have done wrong, will try to promptly admit it and work to repair the problem, the breach, before it escalates into a broken relationship.
But what if that doesn't work? Jesus then institutes plan B. If you are not listened to, Jesus says, then take one or two others along as witnesses. Sometimes in the heat of anger or in the frustration over our own inability to express ourselves, we cease to make sense. The emotions are way too charged. Neither party hears the other and we just end up more frustrated.
I know I can get tongue-tied when I'm trying to tiptoe around a delicate subject. Sometimes in my tiptoeing, I will let the wrong word slip and the other person will get set right off and I'll go scurrying away with my tail between my legs. What a wimp I can be from time to time. In this case, a mediator is real helpful.
Several of us are now trained as conflict mediators. We have learned how to be deep listeners. Over the last two days we learned to pay attention to what is being communicated in the midst of a conflict, not only what is said, but what is communicated. The mediator’s role is to make sure that each side is understood and if possible move toward an agreement about how to move forward.
Objective ears can often restate things and ask pertinent questions which will help draw us out. And more often than not, the problem is either resolved or at least there is recognition that each person has had a fair hearing with the other. Since you have already spoken with the person individually, this should not seem like something new or out of the blue. The key and the challenge is that it must be done out of respect for the person with whom we have the conflict. If you cannot have respect for the person, if you don’t see each other as lost sheep who have a right to be in the herd, then you will not be satisfied when the confrontation is over. The goal is not winning, the goal is making peace and restoring community: a win/win situation.
Finally, if none of that works, there is plan C. We go to the entire community. But when it gets to this level, often the resolution happens either by the offender capitulating, or leaving. Remember, this is only a last resort. This is done only after everything else has been tried and it has failed. Does this last method work? Maybe, if you have already done parts A and B.
Too often, however, we get the order mixed up from Jesus' order. I’m not just talking about people going on Jerry Springer to confront someone in front of a national audience that is egging them on. We do this in other more subtle ways. We gossip about one another. We project what we assume the other person is thinking and feeling. We assume we know the motive of the person. When it gets bad, we send anonymous notes. All the while we think we are protecting the institution, or ourselves. We feel a little bit better because we have blown off steam, but maybe we’ve actually blown off the person with whom we have the conflict. This does not lead to peace and trust. It fosters mistrust, accusation and often-false assumptions.
At my first church we had a longtime deacon who seemed to see it as his responsibility to reign me in. But he would do it at Deacons meetings or Board meetings. The rest of the group would be moving toward consensus on something and he would stand up and launch into a monologue about everything I was doing wrong. People tried to talk to him and encourage him to stop, but that just made the tirades go on longer. For meeting after meeting we got stuck because of his behavior. The church never found a good way to deal with it, so we ended up in a holding pattern. He didn’t have the capacity to go with plan A or B. The church didn’t know how to react when he did plan C. The result was an awkward and unhealthy stalemate. Sometimes it appears easier to stay in a familiar conflict than to imagine anything else.
Think about this, we often talk about things behind people’s backs and then someone wise says that we should sit down with that person. But because things have gotten so heated, we sit down with a third party. Eventually we may sit down with the actual focus of the conflict, but we have to do a whole lot more work because we have to separate between the assumptions and the truth and the he said, she said, you said stuff.
When we get it backward and if the two people actually sit down and talk after the whole community has dealt with the problem and everything is blown out of proportion, it’s hard to rebuild trust. If we hang onto our problems and our fear and our anger and our hurt, which we are prone to do, we restrict the Spirit's access to our guts. We have so much pain inside of us that we cannot let the Spirit in. It is not until we let go of that anger that we let hope enter.
I would encourage you, if you have a conflict in your life, to first of all view it as an opportunity for growth and not a stumbling block to avoid. The second thing is to utilize Jesus’ method of conflict transformation, if it’s safe for you to do so. I say this is transformation because it ensures that you will attempt to maintain a relationship with the one with whom you have a conflict.
Here’s the rub: even if you do not reach a resolution after all of the hard work, you are still to treat the person as a valued member of the community. Jesus says that we are to treat them as a Gentile or tax collector. Remember, Jesus embraced gentiles. He had lunch at the home of Zaccheus the tax collector. The gentiles and the tax collectors are like the lost sheep whom we forgive 70 times 7 times. That’s 490 for those of you keeping score at home. We are to forgive even if the other does not apologize. For your spirit is what you control, not theirs. You can decide whether to take on their angst toward you.
I hope and pray that all of our relationships are healthy, healing and hope-filled ones. I hope and pray that we can feel the grace of God in those we hold dear. And if there is an issue that you may have with another, remember Jesus’ model of addressing conflict. It’s designed to respect everyone, even those who are our biggest stumbling blocks.
My friends, I encourage you to remember that God sees each of us as lost sheep from time to time, each of us are precious and worthy of time and energy. May we let go of that which holds us back and blinds us to our own worth. As we let go, may we let God’s spirit fill that part of us that we have used to hold our bitterness.
As we imagine justice in our relationships, I pray that God’s healing spirit of hope, justice, peace and power fill those empty places in our lives. As we latch onto the light of God, may it guide us forward to our next relationships. May we all embrace Godly relationships. And though it all, may we find peace. Imagine that.