Conflict in the community

This Sunday’s Gospel comes from chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew, a chapter which pulls together some of Jesus’ words about the community, the church.

The final verse of Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 18: 20, tries to make it clear that the church is not just a grouping of persons, but the Body of Christ, where Christ is present: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”

As a community, we are called to live in communion and mutual love, as Paul wrote to the Romans 13:8: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

But we know that this is often not the case and so Jesus leaves us a process of becoming a community in the midst of sin and division.

Jesus offers us four steps. In many ways, they seem all too reasonable. But we often don’t do what Jesus calls us to do.

A few months ago, I read John Paul Lederach’s Journey Toward Reconciliation. Lederach has worked in reconciliation and peacemaking in many parts of the world, particularly in Latin America. His work has influenced the work of Caritas International in its peacemaking efforts, in particular its manuals for Conflict Transformation. Lederach is a Mennonite and has taught at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Notre Dame. In chapter 3 of Journey toward Reconciliation, he provides a practical exegesis of this Sunday’s Gospel. This has influenced me in what I will preach tomorrow – first of all in a community that just experienced a brutal killing, but which is a community with many divisions.

Jesus proposes four steps:

Step 1: Going Directly
Step 2: Taking One or Two Witnesses Along
Step 3: Telling It to the Church
Step 4: Relating as with a Gentile and Tax Collector

First, if someone has sinned against you, go directly to the person, alone. Don’t talk about the conflict behind the person’s back. Don’t air the dirty laundry in public. Go directly to the person – not seeking to win, nor to extract an apology, nor to justify oneself. Go to bring the person back into the community. Lederach suggests that this requires “prayerful vulnerability,” “responsible discernment,” and “interactive engagement.” We don’t go as one who has the answers, as the person who is in the right, but looking carefully at myself and the problem in a humble and open way.

In the bombed shell of Coventry Cathedral

I know that it is easier to castigate the “sinner” than to go and speak directly to him. This happens in communities here where it is very hard to speak directly about conflicts and so gossip abounds. I would also suggest that this is what is happening in the Catholic Church in many parts of the world. “Fraternal correction” in private has been replaced by accusations.

But Jesus says go directly – to gain one’s brother or sister.

Secondly, if that doesn’t work, take one or two witnesses. They might help keep the discussion focused and be able to pint out where we are defensive or offensive, where we are not listening. They may even be able to help us point out places of agreement that we and our opponent don’t see. In addition, I believe that the presence of witnesses can say to the person that we are concerned about her or him and want to be in communion.

But, if that doesn’t work, bring in the community. The Greek uses the word ekklesia, most often translated as church. This is one of the few places where this word is used in the Gospels. But the Church must be one that is working for community, that knows who it is, that knows its weaknesses and its strengths, that is honest and transparent in its workings.

Finally, what do we do when nothing seems to work?

Jesus’s words have often been mistranslated or misinterpreted. The Greek reads: ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης. This literally means, “Let him be to you as the pagan and the tax collector.”

Sometimes this has been interpreted as saying that we should shun the person, turn away from her or him. But Lederach opens up an interpretation that I believe is more faithful to the call of Jesus.

How does Jesus treat the pagan and the tax collector?

In the Gospels, Jesus heals the servant of the Roman centurion and the daughter of the Syro- phoenician woman. That is far from shunning, though the encounter of Jesus with the woman suggests that his culture preferred to refrain from dealing with pagans.

In the Gospels, Jesus invites himself to dinner with the tax collectors. Note the stories of the call of Matthew and the encounter in Jericho with Zaccheus. Jesus wants to eat with them.

Jesus shows us the creative imagination of God.

Eating is a way of connecting with another, putting oneself at the same level as the other person. It is a place where we can be vulnerable and can interaction with others, even though we don’t agree. It is not a surefire way of reconciling, but it can open up a place.

In all this, we need to remember that what Jesus wants is communion, community, solidarity, mutual love. There will be conflicts, but can we still love the other? Can we seek out creative ways to foster reconciliation and justice? Lederach’s question is critical: “How do we make the church community a place where this mission of encounter, growth, and reconciliation can take place?”

This is not easy, but I believe it is what Jesus wants, what Jesus calls us to be.

I’ll close with an extended quote of John Paul Lederach:

“The entire purpose of working through conflict is aimed at bringing back together what has been torn apart through earlier actions, behaviors, and responses. The primary goal is reconciliation, understood as relationship ship and restoration, the healing of personal and social fabrics. In this process, it is impossible to separate personal from social healing. Clearly, these are like steps in a journey. It begins with a personal journey within, for the purpose of identifying the source of pain, what is wrong, and understanding it. The process then moves us toward the source of our anxiety and pain that is welling up in the relationship. What rises from this journey is commitment to relationship and interdependence.”

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