“It is as well that war is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee
I am currently reading War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, a thoughtful account of war itself, and it turns my mind to the mysterious persistence of “church wars.” I feel decidedly uncomfortable using the word “war” as a metaphor in this time when so many have experienced real war first hand. I do not intend to diminish or trivialize the experience of combat soldiers and others who have seen that reality. They have faced things beyond my imagining. But we should think about the things we say about war when we go about being the Church, first because the analogy is apt and second because all the little acts of meanness and intolerance ripple out. They ripple out like radio waves, which can be amplified. There are people in every congregation who amplify the emotionality of the system. Our little acts of meanness and intolerance, thus amplified, ripple out into the world. They merge with the hostilities rippling out from a thousand different energy sources until they all come together as war. Wars start at home. If we want to make peace in the world, the place to start is at home.
The church where I served as rector had a small but quite good little pipe organ. It had been purchased several years before I got there, but there had been an acrimonious fight about it at the time. I wasn’t there so I don’t really know much about what happened. I understand that some folks like organ music and others don’t like it so much. But why this should be a dispute that engendered real personal hostility escapes me to this day. I suppose you had to be there – and I wasn’t.
Some years later there were problems with a priest who was eventually fired. The congregation divided up over that, to a significant degree along the same lines as the sides that fought over the organ.
During my fourteen years as rector, many issues came up. Each time the old divisions resurfaced. Although the organ controversy was dusty history by then, people kept bringing it up. Sometimes an issue would arise without prior notice at a parish meeting. The two factions would eye each other, each waiting for the other to take a position, so they could oppose it. I kept track of the parish history in terms of these controversies – there were “the Styrofoam wars,” “the mulch wars,” “the roller blade wars,” “the Maple tree wars,” and “the Easter egg wars,” just to name a few.
Looking back on those years, I feel good that we were able to manage the conflicts well enough to get on with what we were trying to accomplish. We built new facilities, remodeled others, expanded parking, added services, revised liturgies, increased educational offerings, etc. Always the old factions fought. But despite the differences, we got the job done. Or did we? What was the job?
The catechism says our mission is “to reconcile all people to God and each other in Christ” – “to reconcile all people.” This is St. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: “May the Lord increase and enrich your love for each other and for all.” His call to the Philippians was: “Make my joy complete by being of a singe mind, one in love, one in heart, and one in mind. Nothing is to be done out of jealousy or vanity; instead, out of humility of mind everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others. Make your own the mind of Christ.”
St. Paul did not write the immortal 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians (“If I speak with the tongues of angels but have not love I am a sounding gong”) about marriage. He wrote it about how the different liturgical and theological factions in the congregation should treat each other. He said, “Let everything you do be done in love.” St. James agonized over church wars (I am not the one to invent the metaphor of war for Church – James did it), saying, “Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Is it not precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? . . . . You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force.”
St. John the Divine confronted the church in Ephesus:
“I know that you have perseverance and have suffered for (the Lord’s) name without growing tired. Nevertheless, I have this complaint to make: you have less love now than formerly.” In short, St. John the Evangelist sums up how to be the Church: “This is the message you have heard from the beginning: that we must love one another.”
If the catechism and Bible define the point of being the Church as love and reconciliation, I don’t think we get the job done just because we manage the conflict. To some extent, there was healing in my old parish. Some people came to care for one another. When one of the old combatants died, it was his old arch-enemy who was at the hospital with him. Sometimes we got it right. But to the extent we failed to heal relationships – and that was substantial – the mission was not accomplished. Then what should we have done?
It clearly does no good to wag one’s finger at a congregation saying, “You ought to love one another. So just do it.” We cling tenaciously to our old factions and animosities: Irish Protestants vs. Irish Catholics, Hutus vs. Tutsis, Hatfields vs. McCoys, Sharks vs. Jets, Crips vs. Bloods, High Churchmen vs. Low Churchmen, people who like traditional church music vs. people who like a jazz mass; people who want to spend the endowment this way vs. people who want to spend the endowment that way, people who like chairs vs. people who like pews.
Conflict excites us, energizes us, ultimately disgusts us, repels us, and sends us packing. But we cannot stay away from it for long. We come back to our old familiar patterns of castigation, blame, judgment, and acrimony. The pattern I described in my congregation plays out in many of our Nevada congregations as well. The same people stare daggers at each other across the nave year after year, making the space between them a perilous place to be.
Why do we cling to our grudges despite confessing our sins together and being absolved of our sins together Sunday after Sunday -- despite the exchange of the peace in which we ritually lay down whatever grievances we may have brought with us that day -- despite kneeling at the same altar rail in order to become part of the same spiritual body? Hear what Chris Hedges says about war:
“The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction
and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give
us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. . . . . Trivia dominates
conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an
enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause.”
(Spoiler alert) Barbarosa is a movie about an Anglo from Texas who marries a Mexican woman. Her family expresses their objection by cutting off his ears. So he raids their village, killing and plundering. The family sends assassins in a vain attempt to kill him, but each year he slays the assassins, so they send more. Going to die in the futile effort to kill Barbarosa becomes a rite of passage. Eventually, a young man succeeds in ambushing the family nemesis. But the family falls into a deep depression. What are they to live for without Barbarosa to hate? But when Barbarosa’s side kick shows up in Barbarosa’s hat and shoots up the place, the family comes to life, pursuing him with shouts of hatred and pledges of vengeance.
We love to hate. Despising our old enemies is so much easier than finding new ones. Our brains hardwire into habitual patterns of thought and feeling so the moment I see my old enemy I feel the same old way and think the same old thoughts to reinforce those feelings, no matter how obsolete and irrelevant they may be today.
So what’s wrong with that? It’s how we act, think, and feel at home, at work, and in the rest of our lives. Why should Church be any different? Who reads the catechism anyway? Paul, James, John the Evangelist, John the Divine – oops I guess that would be Jesus too (John 15: 12) – just don’t get it. The real fun of going to Church is throwing verbal bricks at the vestry. What’s wrong with that?
Well, maybe a lot of things, but maybe only one that we might care about. There are several ways to put it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “For every minute that you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.” Carl Sandburg said, “Anger is the most impotent emotion. It effects nothing and hurts the one who is possessed by it more than the one against whom it is directed.” Grievances, grudges, entrenched patterns of contempt, distain, and resentment are a spiritual sinkhole. They are in the end profoundly boring. Especially in Church the things we get worked up over are so embarrassingly trivial that we look foolish even in our own eyes.
The real problem is with what we are missing. Grudges, grievances, and entrenched patterns of negative relationship are a false and empty substitute for the real stuff of life – “purpose, meaning, a reason for living, resolve for a cause.” Do we really want to make the petty squabbles of Church life our raison d’etre? Do we want our lives to be that pitifully small?
If, however, one shakes loose from the hardwired, entrenched patterns of negativity, if one tries the passion of love, what happens then? It leads to adventures. Big ones like Mother Theresa washing the wounds of lepers in Calcutta. Smaller ones like a busload of people driving all night through the snow from Vegas to Carson to pack a legislative hearing room to fight human trafficking. It leads to the psychological adventure of seeing the world through your enemy’s eyes and discovering your own life has just become larger.
I see old angers, resentments, and judgments putrefied into a venom that poisons our congregations. I see congregations still fixating on the vices of priests who have been gone for years. I see Churches choking on rancid memories. When new people come to those churches, seeking solace and healing from life’s wounds, they find no healing but rather poison, and those who are healthy enough flee as fast as they can. A relationship is lost, a relationship that might have enriched both sides.
Old animosities are sticky. They are the shackles of a slavery holding us back from life. It is that stickiness, that stuckness that Jesus came to liberate us from. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Reconciliation sets loose time, energy, imagination, and hope that make life rich and good. If you won’t reconcile with your fellow Christians for the love of Jesus, you might do it for yourself.
If one were to decide to be a force of one spreading peace in one’s congregation – as in “Lord make me an instrument of your peace” – how would one go about that? Here are some pointers.
Prayer. Start with prayer. Everyday I pray for my enemies, that they may flourish in joy and serenity, not at anyone’s expense. I don’t know if it’s helping them or not. But it sure is helping me.
One-on-one meetings. The best thing we can do to build community in the church is having one-on-one meetings in which we don’t talk about church. We get to know each other as human beings instead. We think we know each other from our casual Church chat, but we don’t. A one-on-one meeting away from the Church over coffee or lunch builds bridges we can never build in church meetings.
E-Fast. Make a resolution to never ever – absolutely never, ever – discuss a controversial issue by e-mail. At a minimum use the phone. Far preferably, meet face to face.
Behavioral Covenants. Talk with your priest about the possibility of using Gilbert Rendle’s book, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations to set some agreed ground rules for how you treat each other in the congregation.
Status. Don’t measure status by who gets their way. Giving people their way because you assume their egos are too weak, too 2-year-old, to be in a group they don’t dominate is an insult. So be ready to disagree in a spirit that respects and values the other person by listening to them and trying to understand their perspective. Don’t shut them up by giving them their way and burying the issue.
Practice curiosity. Nelson Mandela’s core spiritual practice was trying to understand those who opposed him. Instead of thinking up arguments as to why someone is wrong, make up questions to figure out: how they came to their position, what’s at stake for them, what good thing are they defending or promoting?
Perspective. The things people fight over in church are almost invariably trivial compared to our mission. Keeping things in perspective is a mark of wisdom and emotional health.
All this assumes that we actually want to make the Christian leap from “war as a force that gives us meaning” to Christ as a force that gives us meaning. That may be the most basic but most important decision we ever make.