Sermon: Sunday 7 September 2014
The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
Do you like conflict?
Today’s gospel gives us an instruction how to deal with conflicts within the Christian community. These instructions are pretty straightforward and sound almost ideal: Talk to the person who offended you, if that does not work, include some other people and talk again, if that does not work, make it public and if nothing helps treat the person like a Gentile or a tax collector – that could mean: excommunicate her or him.
These instructions are certainly an improvement compared to how we normally deal with others if we feel offended. Very often, we speak about somebody, not with somebody. It is very tempting to gossip about the shortcomings of other people; there is lust involved in telling others about what somebody else did to me or to somebody else. Many programmes on the telly nobody admits to watching live on this curiosity and lust.
Also the method described here places clear restrictions on escalating conflict. The worst case scenario is ignoring somebody and breaking off contact – if I am angry with somebody I usually contemplate that the death penalty would be far too good for that person.
On the other hand, very often one does not bother to resist or object, one resists protesting against offence until things have mounted up so high that a fruitful talk is almost impossible. Or, we do not deal with the problem because we are afraid: we do not think we are important enough to protest. We are afraid of recrimination, of greater problems arising from protest. We are all tempted to let the dust settle over something, but very often this develops into a stinking morass.
What I like very much about these instructions is that if I feel offended it is my sole responsibility to talk things over with the person who offended me. I must not wait till the other person apologises to me. It’s the victim’s job to raise the issue.
This I think is most important, because thinking about myself I often do not realise if I offend somebody else. When I am in the right mindset I am grateful if somebody points out if I offended her or him – because I often simply do not notice. I may still dismiss it as nonsense – but I can’t argue with how somebody feels. What is suggested in today’s reading can be a wonderful way of dealing with conflicts because problems are forced to be dealt with in a personal way before they become too big to be handled.
About the next three steps I am less sure. If this personal talk does not help, one should approach the person again with some company, then make it public to the parish and afterwards exclude somebody from the community.
In my opinion, these instructions miss one major point: What if I am wrong? I know from myself that I often feel offended without true reason, that somebody pushed certain buttons, somebody reminds me of my own shortcomings, somebody threatens my status and my self-esteem, questions the image I made about myself which can be quite unrealistic and I feel for example greatly offended because someone simply told me the truth about myself? In such a case the personal talk could offer the opportunity to correct my wrong views; in an atmosphere of trust I could realise that my conception of myself needs to be adjusted. A personal talk could help both to understand each other and oneself better and deeper. But: what if the personal talk goes wrong? What if the other person is not going to apologise for telling the truth? What if I stick to my mislead feelings of offence? Then the following steps the gospel suggests would be a horrible abuse of power because it would simply mean to put social pressure on the person who said the right thing. This would be particular true if hierarchy or status would be involved. Imagine the Dean feeling offended by me and taking the Bishop and the Chapter with him to have a little relaxed talk with me about my behaviour? I think you see what I am getting at. I could ask a few guys from my gym to have a word with Dean. That would be fun! I am sure you can think of more realistic examples how these instructions of dealing with conflicts could go wrong.
There is one major point missing here: I think it is important to mistrust my anger, grudge or resentment against other people. Before I make a big fuss and visit somebody with the help of the gym or the Cathedral Chapter I should question my feelings. If I feel hurt or offended, it is firstly my problem. Why I am offended? What are my feelings? What is threatened by his or her behaviour? People who are able to offend me often push certain buttons connected with my past, my upbringing and my character, personal weaknesses and faults I have. For example I had to realise that I am easily offended if one threatens my self-esteem or my safety. This is one of my weakness, and I need to address my problem there. If someone offends me I have the opportunity to learn something about myself, I am challenged to grow and to become more mature. My negative feelings toward somebody carry the possibility to teach me something about my own shortcomings and problems.
Seen from another point of view my feelings of anger and grudge can be unjustified and in my opinion there is a distinct need to talk things over with somebody else, who is not involved. This is what in my opinion is missing in the biblical instructions. Before I approach somebody who offended me I often try to sleep about it and I talk it over with somebody whose confidentiality I can rely upon. This can be a friend, my wife or my confessor. In many cases I have to realise that my first impression was wrong, that I might have a part in the situation, that I only saw parts of the truth.
Many conflicts finish or at least get defused by this before I enter a tough talk with someone. However, I sometimes get encouraged not to step back but to fight things through. These talks work both ways. What I miss in the instructions of today’s gospel is this interim step. We should talk things over with somebody else who is not involved to correct our biased views. This could be one of the wonderful fruits of confession. It is one of the most helpful and comforting things in my life. If I try to deal with conflicts on my own, I am bound to be wrong and unjust. I need others to correct me and to love me, even if I made mistakes. ‘If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them.’ I cannot be a Christian on my own. The early monks realised that they needed some sort of community to worship with, thus the hermits built monasteries that they could meet occasionally to support each other. To be Christians we need others, we need friends and parishes, even if relating with others can be full of conflict, of anger and pretty stressful.
How shall we deal with conflict? Firstly, it’s a reality, it matters. There is no point in pretending it does not exist among proper loving Christians. It happens all the time and to address things in time may prevent a huge explosion later. Little tigers have the tendency to become big tigers. So talk. Talking and listening in safety has the potential to become holy ground. If things go wrong, go separate ways for a bit or for ever, but don’t kill each other. And whatever you do, don’t try it alone – relying solely on our own thoughts and feelings we are bound to get it wrong and add insult to injury.
And finally, if it was that easy, I would get it right more often.
© The Revd Canon Johannes Arens