Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
February 26, 2017
An old man was sitting on a park bench, relaxing and enjoying the beautiful weather when along came another old man who sat on the bench across from him. Their eyes met briefly, they nodded at one another, but neither said anything. They just sat there, staring straight ahead. After a few minutes, the first man heaved a heavy sigh. “Well!” said the other man, jumping up to storm off. “If you’re going to talk politics, I’m leaving!”
How many of you have a friend or family member with whom you disagree? You may find yourselves on opposite sides of issues such as religion, parenting, schooling, choices about money, crime and punishment, environmental issues … or even less “hot button” conflicts such as literature, music, food, or sports. OK, raise your hand if you have somebody in your life that you disagree with. If you’re on Facebook, how many of you have “unfriended” or at least “hidden” someone over what seemed like a continuous disagreement about something you both strongly feel? How many of you think you’ve been unfriended or hidden? Or in the non-social media world, is there someone that you stopped having coffee with or started going the other way when you saw them coming?
Why do we have conflict? Wouldn’t we consider our lives more healthy if we had less conflict? In fact, isn’t that a goal many of us share… to get through the day with as little conflict as possible? Well, the fact is, aggressive, hostile, insistent conflict isn’t good. Neither is passive, repressed, pretending-everything-is-OK conflict. It’s no accident that our most significant conflicts are with people with whom we have a relationship. Conflict is a normal part of relationships and can be very healthy and beneficial to growing closer. Psychologist Michael Batshaw says, “Engaging in conflict isn’t going to end the relationship, but avoiding the conflict might.”
The company I work for recognizes that conflict is a normal part of work relationships. Several years ago, I was fortunate to attend a company-sponsored class called “Conflict Jujitsu” to learn about healthy ways of resolving conflict. (Dave Dornan Seminars, Fort Collins, CO) It was one of the most useful classes I have attended. It’s possible that one of the reasons I have such a strong memory of it, is that the last day of the class happened to be September 11, 2001. Talk about a final exam!
The reason the instructor, Dave Dornan, who developed the course, called it “Conflict Jujitsu” is because jujitsu is often described as the gentle/yielding art, and is much more than self-defense. It is the ability to use your opponent’s aggression and turn their actions to advantage by yielding in the direction of the attack. In other words, when they push, you pull and then turn. When they pull, you push, and then turn. Sound like a dance? He did, in fact, suggest viewing the other person in the conflict as your opponent/partner with whom you create a mutually beneficial solution. As the dance continues, you absorb their energy and turn it to a new perspective where both of you can see it more clearly, together.
Our family once toured the studios of Pixar Animation. Pixar had a useful cultural practice for working on projects, where all of the participants in meetings sat on the same side of the conference room table [use hands] with the topics they were discussing projected on the opposite wall. This seating arrangement reinforced that the people were all together and the problems and solutions didn’t belong to any one person. It transformed the energy from a space between people to a neutral space where they could see the topic more objectively, with less ego and personal investment. The issue that was being discussed was “out there” instead of “in here.” The participants worked to make the solutions to the problem the goal, instead of “getting my ideas accepted.” Successfully dealing with problems in this way, has strengthened their relationships instead of damaging them.
I guess things haven’t changed too much in the last few thousand years. Conflict is a popular topic in the Bible too:
From Proverbs (12:18): “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
From James (1:19-20): “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
From: Matthew (5:9): “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
And of course, “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
These thoughts are reflected in most of the world’s other religions as well.
The Quran says to “return evil with kindness.”
Buddha said “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
From Jainist writings: Nothing which breathes, which exists, which lives, or which has essence or potential of life, should be destroyed or ruled over, or subjugated, or harmed, or denied of its essence or potential.”
Now, with the healing of conflict being a common theme throughout religion, it begs the question … Why is religion at the root of so many of the world’s conflicts? That is an excellent question. And, it’s one I will suggest to Jill to preach on at a future date.
But, today, let’s make it local. How do we at Redlands United Church of Christ deal with conflict? How much do we welcome people with other points of view? People who think they know all the answers can sometimes annoy those of us who do. Certainly, here, in this bastion of the Bible, this cathedral of Christianity, this gathering of Godliness, this sacred space of spirituality, we, as joiners with Jesus … WE are welcoming, right? We start almost every service with the phrase, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” Think back to the person you thought of when I started speaking. That person you literally unfriended! Would you be able to welcome them here? And as you think about that, don’t cop out by saying, “They’d be welcome but this may just not be a place where they’d feel comfortable.” I remember a conversation with one of our previous ministers and grappling with this very topic, knowing that we often fall short in this way. We suggested maybe the phrase could be modified to “We welcome all who welcome all.” But is that really who God is calling us to be?
Do we need to write off half of the population who disagrees with us on any number of topics? The other party? Another religion? Other Christians? How about a different race, economic status, or education level? There was a study done by political scientists from Stanford and Princeton who coined the term “outparty animus.” (Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University and Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University – Fear and Loathing Against Party Lines) They found that increased partisanship provides an incentive for elites to engage in confrontation rather than cooperation. But the study also found that there is real value in “bipartisan relationships.” These relationships are not only good for you but good for society. They increase our ability to find clarity, common ground, and real solutions. It’s not enough to point to Washington and Sacramento and wish that they would be more bipartisan. And of course, blame the other side for being impossible to work with. We need to model for our government leaders how to solve the problems and injustices of the world through strong bipartisan relationships.
But how? My Conflict Jujitsu instructor suggested these six steps:
- Get quiet. Why? It buys us a ticket to sit in the audience for a moment. When we react we surrender control. When we choose a response we gain personal freedom and control. It also gives the other person a chance to talk, letting them blow off steam, and allowing you to learn more before you respond.
- Listen to understand. Quiet your inner voice. Listen with all your senses. Return their message frequently. There are several advantages to this. It allows your opponent/partner to hear how they sound and it gives them two important gifts: acceptance and understanding.
- Get curious. Try to understand both their position and their interest. Their position is their stand … the “how.” Their interest reflects their motivation… the “why.”
- Get creative together. Why would I want to create a solution with my opponent/partner? It helps shift the balance of power. And gets buy-in from both of you if you invite them to get creative. It helps both of you think of alternatives. And since you care about the issue, not being right, it helps get to a solution.
- Speak Smart. Find areas of agreement while acknowledging your differences. Don’t data dump. Keep the other person involved.
- Get vulnerable. Be willing to say, “I’m sorry” and “you’re right.” Getting vulnerable is the acid test of whether you are using Conflict Jujitsu ethically or not.
So to recap the six steps … get quiet, listen to understand, get curious, get creative together, speak smart, and get vulnerable.
But I have a seventh step. Or perhaps it’s an overarching philosophy that encompasses the others. Remember the scene on the mountain? Peter, James and John were amazed to see Jesus shining like the sun and to hear a voice from the clouds saying, “This is my Child with whom I am well pleased.” They had had an experience that changed the way they viewed Jesus, yet, in the next moment they turned and went down the mountain to continue their work. Jesus admonished them to not tell others what they had seen. They had too much to do.
Rev. Kathryn Matthews, former dean of Amistad Chapel, asks … Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we could see past outer appearances and witness the bright inner beauty of each person, each Child of God? What would happen if every Christian saw, in everyone, including Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians and those that are “despised and rejected by the world,” a beloved child of God, shining and radiant on the inside? What effect would that have on the world? What could we accomplish together?
Former Trappist monk James Finley reminds us that Jesus saw God in all that he saw, whether a tax collector or Mary his mother, persecutor or disciple, poor or wealthy. We have the unwavering love of God in a perpetually wavering world. Let that soak in. You are the object of God’s boundless love. You are a beloved Child of God.
We have work to do. We have serious conflicts that need to be dealt with. It really matters what our immigration policies are. The rights of LGBT people are indeed being questioned. We need to deal with homelessness but can’t seem to agree on how. Climate change is affecting the future of our planet. Racial and gender equality is affecting us now. We don’t even all agree on what democracy means.
But even in our deepest disagreements and those that really matter, we are called to see God in the other, not to wait for them to show God to us. Even when so much is at stake, the God who loves us without hesitation loves the other without hesitation too. Hear that again. God doesn’t just love people like us. When we see the other person as an equally valuable object of God’s unconditional love, the work of justice begins. Usually in conflict, we want the other person to see it our way now, but what we want shouldn’t come first. We have to first be clear that we are coming from love and action, not right and action.
So friends, do you see it? Do you see the glow in the seat next to you? Even if they voted for the other candidate? Are they shining like the sun even if they have a different opinion on taxes or immigration or schools? And when you leave here, will you see your Facebook friend shimmering? Will you hear a voice saying, “This is my Child, my beloved”? We have a lot of work to do. We need all hands on deck. Pulling together. Pushing together. Dancing together.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. I’ll leave you with this thought from the Talmud. Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
May we go forth into a world that is full of conflict but yearning for justice. May we resolve to get quiet, listen to understand, get curious, get creative together, speak smart, and get vulnerable. But most of all, when we look at ourselves and when we look at others, may we hear the voice of God saying, “This is my Child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”