Jesus has no illusions about the controversy inherent in his mission, and he does not want his disciples to have any illusions either. He comes to bring fire, a sign of judgment. Here on the road to Jerusalem he is already at odds with the religious authorities. He speaks about the baptism of his death, the likely consequence of his preaching and teaching. He speaks of the stress he feels until his work is done. Jesus is not a false prophet like those described by Jeremiah. He does not speak dreams or lies or deceit. As one who has the word of God he speaks it faithfully, and God’s word is like fire, like a hammer breaking rock. As in the Psalm, such a word as judgment brings justice to the poor and vulnerable, rights to the lower classes, and deliverance to the oppressed. Conflict is inevitable.
For the crowds, conflict is inherent in their own hypocrisy. The interpretation of the present time is as obvious as the weather signs that everyone knows, but the crowds persist in denial and take refuge in ignorance. But for the disciples, the ones closest to Jesus, the ones who say they are serious about following Jesus on his path, there is no such escape. Conflict is inevitable, and it will not just be the relatively easy and expected conflict with strangers or authority figures. To choose to follow Jesus, to accept the controversy of his teaching and preaching, is to bring conflict into one’s very household, with one’s nearest and dearest.
Now this idea may not have come as as big a shock as we might think to the disciples. The men are of at least breadwinning age. They are culturally and religiously supposed to marry, settle down, have children, and enter the family business or do even better. The women have even more cultural and religious expectations for their behavior than the men. They are to move from father’s house to husband’s house to son’s house with the welfare of the family their only concern. Yet here they all are, women and men, gallivanting around the countryside with some itinerant preacher, the men walking away from their families and leaving their businesses, the women walking away from their families and using the their resources to support themselves and this very motley crew, all of them calling scandal and attention to themselves with their involvement with miracles, the preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God — whatever that is — and getting into trouble with the arbiters of the faith. We can only imagine the letters from home.
And truth to tell, the idea of inevitable conflict, even within our families, does not come as such a great shock to us, either. We can relate. My friend Lucy’s mother did not speak to her for two solid days when Lucy revealed that she was not going to vote for Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, as her family had always voted for the Republican candidate. Instead Lucy was going to vote for a Roman Catholic, Irish Democrat named John F. Kennedy. Lucy’s mother did finally end up talking to her, but she held a grudge for years. Many of us know families of active pacifists whose children join the military, and families with generations of military academy graduates whose children join peace movements. There is nothing more disconcerting to us as children to learn that Mom and Dad have either spent the bulk of the family fortune on exotic vacations, or have left the bulk of the family fortune to the whales or the trees. And in academic circles, the first Thanksgiving break is almost a cliché: the newly convinced vegetarian or carnivore goes home to be confronted with the sacred foods of the family Thanksgiving feast; the newly convicted free market capitalist or fair trade organizer goes home to undergo the opinions of their direct opposite in Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe; upon return to the dorm the pictures of the high school sweetheart are taken down and put away, or even thrown out.
For the folks in Jesus’ time, and for us in ours, conviction of whatever sort invariably leads to conflict. How much more so for disciples of Jesus, then and now, who are called to follow a path that has controversy built into it, a path that confronts not just systemic injustice and oppression, but the shadowy recesses of the human heart and its complicated relationships? Someone once said that human beings fear change more than death, and the path of Jesus is all about change: change in the world as we resist those vested in fear, violence, power, and greed through our proclamation of the kindom of God; change within ourselves as our proclamation of the kindom of God and our own formation into disciples of Jesus as we act out that kindom go hand in hand. Many of us who undertake the process of discipleship can acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ words: the most inevitable, the most painful, conflict is indeed with those who love us, who want to protect us, and who cannot bear to see us change in their fear they will be left behind, or will have to change themselves..
So if conflict is inevitable, how do we engage it with grace? While Jesus does say that conflict is inevitable, he does not say that we are to be belligerent, argumentative, hostile, or self-righteous. How then are we to engage others with grace in the very real issues of stewardship, justice, and peace that are part of our discipleship? How are we to engage our family as well as those we encounter in the wider world with grace?
Part of the answer lies with how we view conflict itself. If we see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs, as something that “nice people” or “good Christians” do not engage in, we too will be in denial, of both the reality of our world and the inevitability of conflict in our lives as Jesus’ followers. In fact, conflict does have its more positive side. Ron Kraybill, in his book Peace Skills: Manual for Community Mediators, defines “conflict” as that which is “the result of differences that produce tension”. So conflict can be a valuable source of information about the state of our relationships on a personal or communal level. As such, it can be seen as something to be managed or resolved, but Kraybill asserts that conflict can also be seen as something to be transformed, in a process that “does not just end or prevent something but also begins something new and good.”
This process of conflict transformation into something new and good has many entry points for grace. I would lift up three of them in particular for our consideration this morning.
The first is picked conflicts. The hard-earned wisdom of our faith tradition, of parents, adult children, and mediators of every kind attests to the fact that not everything is a matter of life and death. Respect for one’s Other in conflict recognizes that their truths and convictions are held with as much integrity and passion as one’s own. And there is only so much energy, time, and resource to go around. So we have to decide. What in our discipleship are we truly called to uphold in our proclamation and life, and where and with whom are we called to uphold it? What are the marks of the kindom of God, and what is only culture and conditioning? Do we really need to engage in conflict over a particular issue, or can we drop it, agree to disagree, focus instead on areas of common interest, or agree just not to engage that issue? As many of us have come to learn, progressives and conservatives, vegetarians and carnivores, Christians and atheists can live in the same house, as long as there is a commitment to love one another and to serve the common good. Some of these shared interests can a
lso involve issues important to disciples of Jesus. Again my friend Lucy, a practicing Christian. With her son, who is an atheist, she shares a deep commitment to the welfare of disadvantaged children. There is indeed sometimes conflict between them due to certain decisions each makes out of his or her beliefs. But their commitment to mutual respect for one another in love, and this shared concern for children, help them to support one another in all their common concerns, even as they continue to find increased areas of agreement.
This first entry point for grace of picked conflicts is closely related to the second entry point. We have to decide how important it is for us to be right. Especially we have to decide how important it is to be right in comparison with other values in our discipleship. If we insist on being right, we may indeed “win” on a particular issue, but we may cut off the possibility of further conversation or even break the relationship, to the detriment of any future good. Instead of being right all the time, it may be that sometimes it is up to us to refuse to call it, to postpone or even give up our being right in order to keep the conversation going until the transformation of conflict for everyone is possible. Many of us remember, during the Viet Nam police action, when so many fathers and sons were in such deep conflict over the question of military service, that it was mothers/wives, daughters/sisters, who stood in the breach, who refused to take sides (although they certainly had their own opinions), who kept the lines of communications open between their loved ones, until the wounds had had time to heal, and the conflict could be transformed into deeper understanding and compassion. Jesus himself had strong words to say to those who were in conflict with him, even to his own family, and he certainly thought he was right on a great many things, but he was not afraid to change his mind, and he was not afraid to keep the conversation going.
The third entry point for grace is the use of example rather than rhetoric. An odd thing to say for a preacher, but true nonetheless. If we are called to practice our discipleship in ways that conflict with family or other tradition, we may want to go the extra mile to make that practice more convenient for family or for others. To take on some of the research and action of shopping and cooking toward a more thoughtful and just use of resources, to begin to give a portion of our tithe of our own money to mutually important causes, to pare down our own excess consumption perhaps in part through meaningful gifts to family members, or just not to be so quick to argue or to critique: these examples go a long way to prove both our own commitment to our discipleship as well to open conversations about that commitment with those near to us who might otherwise be frightened or angry about our priorities.
It is true that sometimes we do have to leave, that the situation is so intractable, so fraught, that for our own spiritual or physical safety and integrity, or that of others, we have to go. Or, while it does not seem likely for us in the United States at this present time, it may be that we, like many of our brothers and sisters around the world, are called to witness to the proclamation of God’s kindom to the extent of martyrdom. The work “martyr” means “witness”, and certainly the consequences of Jesus’ witness to the good news of the kindom of God led to his death. But there are also many kinds of witness that may feel like death in ourselves by what we are called to do. To oppose or resist our family and friends for the sake of justice or peace or a different way of being in the world very often feels like something is dying inside us, and our grief can be very real. Or it may be that our discipleship does call us from home for many years, or away from cherished practices and beliefs. But even if the situation or other people involved are intractable, and we have to leave, we can still allow the possibility, the possibility, of the conflict’s transformation, through the grace within us, into the beginning of something new and good.
Our attitude toward conflict is what in large measure determines if it transforms us or if we transform it. If we are aware of conflict’s inevitability – especially if we can become aware of conflict early on — and if we see conflict as a source of information useful to us that can be transformed into something new and better, then we can see and open not just these three entry points for grace, of picked conflicts, the decision about being right, and the use of example: we will be able to open many more entry points of grace into conflict as well.
Conflict is inevitable, Jesus taught, even to conflict with our nearest and dearest. But as he also taught, our discipleship can also be a source of peace and transformation of conflict for ourselves and for those around us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students