“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:15-20Scott Peck noted that communities often pass through four stages of development. Peck called the most common, opening stage of building community “pseudocommunity.” In pseudocommunity, everyone pretends that they really know each other, even though they actually know very little about each other. In pseudocommunity, people assure themselves they have no conflicts. In pseudocommunity, people mind their manners no matter what they might be thinking behind a polite smile. Conversation stays general: “How’ve things been goin’ lately?” “Good, busy. And you?” “Yeah, me too.” Intense opinions aren’t shared publically, but at the “meeting after the meeting” in the parking lot. Pseudocommunity is a bland world of pretense where no one’s feelings get hurt in public. It’s a trade-off: some truth for a shallow peace. It’s boring, but at least it feels safe.
Peudocommunity is the only stage of development that many communities will know – probably because the way to true community involves some pain. Peck says that the group must travel through chaos and emptiness to reach true community. On the journey, people need to know it’s safe to let go of their manners and blurt out their prejudices, opinions and judgments. It means people need to let go of what is not needed in order to make room for something new.
Matthew 18 is Jesus’ assault on pseudocommunity. Jesus knows that living together in true community means there needs to be conflict. Healthy conflict. Yes, there is such a thing! Healthy conflict is the responsible exploration of our differences. In fact, we can thrive on differences of opinion, differing approaches to life and different ways of thinking. It is possible to learn what makes us different from one another and then recognize how these differences can be used to serve God.
As we think about our core values here at CCC, we affirm that we are a congregation of people who want to listen attentively. We seek others’ opinions and understand that differing values do exist within our church family. We seek to deal with disagreements positively, communicating with others in direct, caring, and responsible ways. The good news for us today is that while disagreements can hurt, disagreements can also bring us together. Remember that next time you are locked in a conflict with someone. Conflict can be healthy.
We have all be taught certain methods of passive conflict resolution. For instance, do you have a problem with someone you know? Does this person have bad manners, bad hygiene, or annoying habits? How about those inconsiderate neighbors with noisy pets? Wouldn’t you love to tell off your tyrant boss without her knowing who did it? There used to be a website called SincereSuggestions.com. For $5, Sincere Suggestions would send a politely written letter to notify people about their problems while you will remain completely anonymous. The sender would just choose a topic, fill out the information and an anonymous letter would be sent right away.
I don’t recommend this approach, of course. If we have something to say about someone, than we should say it to that person’s face. But some of us were taught that direct confrontation might hurt another person’s feelings. So instead of being honest, we find a third person to do the hard work for us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a person say, “You know, I wish someone would trash talk me around town today. I wish someone would call me a crook, or a liar, or a weirdo behind my back because confrontation makes me uncomfortable.” So let’s do everyone a favor. If we have a problem with someone, we deal directly with that person alone. Many of the worst conflicts in churches happen because at some point someone had the opportunity to say, “Can we talk?” to another person, but they didn’t and now things are worse.
In today’s Gospel reading, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when we think someone in the church sins against us. We should approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. That way, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face – and you have room to save face if the other person points out ways in which your behavior contributes to a negative situation. Jesus encourages quiet conversation between people. It’s not just a prelude to a juicy public drama. The first quality of conflict and communication is to face a person one-on-on without dragging others into the dispute. There may be time to involve others later. However, the initial confrontation is always personal, private, and sincere.
Sometimes we get mixed up and become peacemongers instead of peacemakers. That word – peacemonger – was used by Edwin Friedman who was a Rabbi and therapist in Bethesda. Friedman said that what often passes for peacemaking is actually peacemongering. Peacemongers are more concerned about good feelings than progress. They don’t want anyone to be upset. If something causes a person some degree of pain, peacmongers will change plans to try to make everyone happy. Peacemongers have no backbone. They are not willing to endure pain — either their own or someone else’s. They just want everyone to feel good.
For example, suppose a family has decided to go out to eat dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant. They are together in the car, all of them anticipating a great meal. Then, the six-year-old announces that he does not want to go there. He wants to go to McDonald’s. The parents try to reason with him. They explain to him that he can get something good at the Mexican place. The child escalates to energy and has a tantrum, shrieking because he doesn’t want to go to the Mexican place. In an attempt to compromise, the panicked parents say, "Let’s just go to KFC. There is a McDonald’s next door. We can stop in for a Happy Meal on the way?" Now the entire evening is changed because the parents wanted to avoid the pain of dealing with a screaming child instead of going on to their original destination.
How many times have churches and other organizations altered and changed good things they were doing because a person complained and announced loudly that he or she was unhappy? How many times have we changed plan to feel at peace again? But there really is no peace. Speaking for myself, I resent it. When I modify plans in an attempt to satisfy a few unhappy people, they are usually not pleased with the new plan, either. When I go out of my way to make people happy, those I’m trying to please usually don’t notice it, don’t appreciate it and may actually feel like THEY are the victims. So, accommodating unhappy people does not make them happier. It just gives me a backache.
Peace-mongering does not solve anything. It certainly does not make unhappy people happier. Peace-mongering promotes anxiety. Peacemongering favors pseudocommunity. It rewards false harmony and good feelings over process and honesty.
Peacemakers are different. Peacemakers love people who might complain, and they work hard to stay connected with people. But, they do not limit growth because one person does not care for a particular program or project. In other words, Mexican food may not be your favorite. That’s OK. But, this is what we are going to do tonight. Let’s enjoy the evening and make the most of family time even though this is not your favorite place.
Let’s make this very practical. Here are the steps to deal with any conflicts we have here at CCC.
- Look at yourself, first. Knowing that mutual forgiveness is the air we breathe, knowing that Christ gives the community the wisdom it needs to interpret Scripture, when someone wrongs us, I first look in the mirror and examine my motivations for wanting another person to change. I need to be in touch with my own brokenness before I ask someone to examine theirs.
- Have a one-on-one. Instead of going behind a sister’s or brother’s back and complaining to others of what they have done or said, meet with the other person directly, privately, face to face. If we really intend to heal a relationship without giving a guilt trip, we might start with a simple, “Can we talk?”
- Bring mediators. If that private talk doesn’t create a ceasefire, then Jesus advises that two witnesses be brought along for a second meeting. They are extra eyes and ears to help understand what is going on – mediators to help us see various degrees of right and wrong. And if those two or three discern that someone is in the wrong and refuses to make it right, the whole church may be brought in to discern and compassionately appeal for restoration.
- Stay Close. After all this has been tried, if there is no peace, Jesus says the offending sister or brother is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector. Some people interpret this to mean exclusion. Eliminate the offensive person. I don’t like that interpretation. I think it means stay close. It means the church treats people like Jesus treated people – people like Gentiles and tax collectors: giving them food, eating with them, helping their family members, and inviting them to be part of God’s new community of love and justice.
We humans are always going to be in conflict in some form or another. Our goal is to be peacemakers. Peacemaking is not the absence of conflict. Peacemaking is a way through conflict. Peacemaking is the presence of Christ in our midst. Peacemaking means addressing conflict and injustice actively – not running away from it – using nonviolent methods. So remember, words can hurt and words can heal. Disagreements can tear people apart, or they can help us work together for a shared future. The choice is up to us.