Like other citizens of our free land, Christians tend to divide sharply, predictably, and with heated language.
We disagree about almost everything, from cultural norms to attitudes toward wealth and power; from personal behavior to what Jesus intended.
To judge by our blog posts, our comments, our letters to the editor, and our remarks in public, we are appalled at what other Christians believe. How can this person have that viewpoint and still call himself a Christian? Does she not know that her words heap burning coals on her own head?
In view of our fiery words, you’d think we had explored the extremes of Christian faith and were shouting across a vast, unbridgeable chasm. In fact, we differ within a narrow spectrum, like those who debate Coke vs. Pepsi.
That narrow spectrum tends to be far removed from what Jesus actually said, did and expected. We argue about things that don’t matter because we can’t stand the things that do matter. We argue about sex, for example, in order to avoid the topic Jesus actually addressed, namely, wealth and power.
And when we do address wealth and power, we tend to affirm the individual’s right to have as much as they can get, even though Jesus said no such thing.
Christianity consists of thousands of tribes, cliques, and communities — each with different theologies, traditions, and doctrinal beliefs. Within a Westernized society obsessed with celebrity, entertainment, popularity, conflict, and money, it can be easy for Christian groups and communities to clash with each other.
For the modern church, much of its recent legacy has involved conflict, division, and controversy. Christians have developed a love-hate relationship with theologians, pastors, and church leaders — and it’s dividing the church.
Many Christians see their faith journeys as series of either/or situations and decisions — this is bad. Because as much as we want things to be clear, concise, and black-and-white, reality is complex and messy.
Pride, greed, hatred, bitterness, fear, and ignorance often cause Christians to promote distrust instead of unity — but what if Christians were more patient, graceful, and forgiving of each other?
“Now I’ve gone completely over to the dark side,” I laughed as I unpacked an Apple iMac desktop computer and set my last Dell Windows PC to the side.
Such is the teasing that goes on among computer users — teasing that occasionally turns to irate bristling and strident claims of supremacy.
But becoming “all Apple” (iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac) isn’t the “dark side,” is it? It’s the “other side.” It’s a new product, not a corrupt soul.
Product decisions aren’t expressions of ultimate value. They’re like selling my automobiles and moving to a walking culture in Manhattan, putting aside suits, and starting my own company. It’s the “other side,” not the “dark side” or the “light side.”
I won’t be using my new iMac to steal money from people. That would be “dark side” behavior. I won’t engage in identity theft, patent trolling, luring people into danger, slandering people with whom I disagree, threatening children, starting phony charities. Those would be “dark side” activities.
In recent years, we have seen serious confusion between “other side” and “dark side.” Led by politicians, ideologues and religious zealots, we have been encouraged to view opponents as evil, unpatriotic, a menace worthy of destruction. The opposition wasn’t content to disagree; it also wanted also to dehumanize and demolish.
Conflict happens everywhere, from Congress to congregations, from boardrooms to bedrooms. The dysfunction of Congress is just a highly public instance of a typical conflict scenario.
I recently compiled some basics of church conflict. See if you agree with me that this playbook applies broadly.
Church conflicts – which will happen to all clergy and congregations eventually – generally focus on the clergy, just as conflict in any enterprise tends to focus on the top leader. That’s because the underlying issue usually is power – who calls the shots, who can initiate change, who can hold others accountable.
Secondary issues like specific actions, perceived performance and trust get the spotlight, but are surrogates for the power issue. People who want power don’t relish being perceived as wanting power. They prefer being seen as the aggrieved, better performers, more trustworthy, more faithful to ultimate purposes.
Church conflicts usually spring from a small group of antagonists, perhaps even a single person, who start with a conclusion, largely intuitive and emotional, and then search for reasons. Those reasons tend to be moving targets that defy better information. Deal with one reason, and two more take its place.
Antagonists, meanwhile, intimidate others into compliance, or at least silence, by making it clear they will stop at nothing to win.
The most amazing thing happened this week.
Maybe you missed it.
The Episcopal Church held their General Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. They gathered. They prayed. They sang. I'm told there were a few sermons, too! And you know they offered the Eucharist. They can't do anything without someone bringing bread, wine, and a blessing. God love 'em.
This week they voted, too. They held up in their bicameral way of doing things and worked out some key issues. Among the issues at hand were whether or not to sell their offices in New York City and to find ways of investing their income in the future of the denomination. They did both. If you followed them on Twitter (Many did. #GC77 trended right up there!), then you know that there was hope and joy in their rooms. This is not why they made the news, of course. They made the news when they voted to formally allow for same-sex blessings within their communion.