What does it mean to pay spiritual and moral attention to the conflicts of our lives?
Conflict reveals what is important to us. Sometimes I find myself in conflict because I have discovered something I did not know I cared strongly about. Someone changes the arrangement of furniture in the office, and I realize why I loved the previous arrangement; someone posts a social media message that infuriates me for some hitherto unarticulated reason; someone makes an assumption about my country, my religion, my politics, my language, my priorities, and up flares hundreds of years of resentment that I carry in me.
Conflict is powerful information; and this powerful information can be difficult to recognize, difficult to process, difficult to accept, learn from or act upon. Conflict can tell us a great deal about ourselves, and it can tell us a great deal about Jesus. He shows us why we should not fear it.
To listen carefully to an arguing group is to gain a peculiar glimpse into the desires and anxieties of that group. You also learn their tactics, their alliances, their threats, what they are willing to do to win and what happens to them when they feel they have lost. You notice fear, too, as well as skill. A person may demonstrate the capacity to sidestep or reframe an argument, or their alliances, or their unwillingness to engage, or their feelings about compromise.
What does it mean to pay spiritual and moral attention to the conflicts of our lives? So much religious energy seems to be spent imagining religious lives that are free of conflict: Adam and Eve pre-fruit; Jesus meek and mild in a manger; saints more focused on their purity than their politics. You get the picture.
But this betrays both the biblical literature and the human condition. The aim of our lives is not to skirt around conflicts and emerge unscathed, but to engage with them in a way that tests, hones and evolves our moral impulses toward an ethic of serious and creative engagement.
Fear of the Fear
For years, I was frightened of conflict. Not only was I in fear of conflict, but I also was in fear of the fear of conflict—layers and layers to keep me away from facing the invitation and information that conflict presents. Then two things happened. My health declined, and I accidentally learned how to pray.
The decline of my health was predictable. I was working in religious ministry, gay, closeted, scared and anxious. I did not have the resources to express the information of my life. So my body took over. I got a virus—a serious one that affected my immune system, making it overactive—and it did not leave. Something was calling for my attention.
To listen carefully to an arguing group is to gain a peculiar glimpse into the desires and anxieties of that group.
And I learned how to pray. Accidentally. The real story is that I had decided to give up on my faith. And in an ironic move that was utterly lost on me, I decided to go to a monastery—Taizé—to give up on God. To make it formal, I decided to turn to the crucifixion scene. And I decided to imagine that I was one of the people along the way of the cross, and that I had an opportunity to say goodbye to the God I no longer loved. But in that prayer, Jesus said something to me, and I said something back to him, and I was in the middle of a kind of prayer I had never imagined.
I have decided that either you hate me, or it’s time to stop caring, I said.
What do you care about? Jesus asked.
I don’t know, I said.
Neither do I, Jesus said.
I don’t know what to do, I said.
I know, he said, looking at me.
I felt like the years of approaching Jesus had lacked one simple thing: respect. Respect from him to me, and from me to him.
So, right on the cusp of trying to divorce God, I found myself in conversation with Jesus with unexpected reciprocal respect. No longer did I think that what he thought dictated everything I should think. But I was curious. I wanted to know what annoyed him, what upset him, what moved him, what drove him. I started reading the Gospels, and I started writing letters to the Jesus I had not known. I had grown up with plenty of conflict around me: conflict from the legacy of the colonizing of Ireland, conflict from being gay, conflict from hating myself, conflict from violences I had known. So I paid most attention to the conflicts in the Gospels: the woman pushing through the crowd, confronting the crowd with its laws that she would not allow to confine her; the public arguments about religious adherents; the differing views on how to understand the role of foreigners in occupied territory; questions about the shape of marriage; arguments about sin, sins and sinners. Who should I touch? Who should I allow to touch me?
In each of these interactions, characters were communicating intimate information about their lives: the things they love about themselves; the things they refuse to consider; the prejudices about their lives; the rules they rule over but would never want to be ruled by; the laws they break because some laws should be broken.
In one story, Jesus arrives at a house. We are not told whose house, but it is possible it is Jesus’ own in Capernaum. Jesus has his disciples with him; and when they arrive there, he asks them what they were arguing about along the way.
The question itself is intriguing. The Greek word for arguing is dialogizomai, from which we get the word dialogue. Were Jesus to have said, “What were you dialoguing about along the way?” the whole scene would have a different flavor. However, the translators are unanimous that the best translation into English is argue, not dialogue.
Comparison is like a spark to the fuse of conflict.
Anyway, you might know the rest of the story. The disciples are quiet because they are ashamed; they have been arguing about who is the greatest.
It is easy to think that we know the substance of this conflict, but it is worthwhile pausing for a moment. What would greatest have meant? The one who spent the most time with Jesus? The one who got praised the most? The one who was the strongest? The one with the greatest political insight? The one who looked most like him? The one who was the best at arguing? These are—we are to assume—men arguing. Are they arguing about size, strength, body? In any group, there are always tensions about the greatest, and each group has its own rubric for deciding what the greatest is. Comparison is like a spark to the fuse of conflict. Once we begin the comparison game, we are unlikely to end it until it ends us somehow—bringing us to aggression, exclusion, judgment and reduction; determining once and for all who the loser is.
Because that is what is happening in an argument about the greatest. Underneath it all, it is also an argument about who is the least.
The Gospels sometimes pay close attention to body language. In this scene, we see Jesus sitting down. What is this? An invitation to a close examination of their competitive addictions? Perhaps. It most probably is an indication of the posture for revered elders in many cultures. The disciples would have sat lower than him in all likelihood. So their body language is changed; they are called from a jostling crowd of bantering men into a posture of humility and hierarchy (sometimes hierarchy—when it is able to be trusted—has its functions). Then the most surprising thing happens: Jesus presents a child.
This, by the way, is a delicious part of the story. Where did the child come from? Someone will say—of course they will—that this child is Jesus’ own. Or perhaps it was a child of a neighbor, or a nephew or niece, or a child of the household. If this is Jesus’ house, it indicates that Jesus’ house was a house that children ran through, ready to be scooped into an explanatory parable.
The child is the physical embodiment of the exact opposite of greatness.
Anyway, a child is presented. And the child is embraced. The child is the physical embodiment of the exact opposite of greatness. Whatever the worldly measure of greatness has been, this child is not great. The child is small. The child is powerless. The child may not even be cute. The child is a child, away from the power-games of men. Hearing an argument about greatness conducted by males, Jesus makes them sit down to learn, and then faces them with an independent other who embodies the opposite of the thing that was consuming them. This child upsets the economy of eminence that has been their obsession. When I hear people say that theology should be objective, not subjective, I think of how Jesus interrupted objectivity. We cannot comment on single cases, corporations and governments say. I only comment on individual cases, Jesus seems to say, otherwise what is the point? He speaks about hospitality; he links hospitality to virtue to valor to greatness. Amen. Amen. Amen.
Reframing the Picture
When training in conflict resolution, I heard the phrase “reframe” over and over. It is worthwhile to think of this word in a tangible way. To take a piece of art and reframe it can help the viewer see what is there. Perhaps the frame picks up on a hitherto hidden color lurking at the heart of the work. Perhaps the frame is big enough to show more of the photo. A recent photo by a political party in Ireland showed their representatives sitting with a Person of Renown. Someone on Twitter—it is always Twitter—showed the original. It showed representatives from two opposing parties sitting with a Person of Renown. The photo had been reframed, cropped. Uncrop me, conflict calls out; show the inconvenient bits.
Conflict is information, and often we do not wish conflict to reveal the information. So we tell the story that makes our colleague, or our boss, or our bishop, or the laity out to be irrelevant, ridiculous even. We caricature individuals so that the hearer of the conflict story immediately knows what a good hearer of the story is. The listener knows who the good person is and who the bad person is.
Do not get me wrong— it is fun. It is at the heart of all good “my boss is an idiot” stories. But stories do not always tell the truth; we know that. The Gospels do. Remember Judas?
- “Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him” (Mt 10:4);
- and “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (Mk 3:19);
- and “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Lk 6:16);
- “He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the Twelve, was going to betray him” (Jn 6:71).
There are other Judases in the Gospels—one of them is a relative of Jesus (Mk 6:3)—and there is a follower called “Judas (not Iscariot)” in John’s Gospel (14:22). We are set up to hate this person. Iscariot has become a swear word in some languages, and is certainly rarely used as a compliment in many.
From the introduction to Judas we are brought into a point of view about him. What would Judas say? What would he do? We know some of the story, but we recall little of it. It seems to me that Judas was a man seeking to escalate conflict. He sought to bring about increased conflict with the Roman occupiers. He was not alone. The disciples on the road to Emmaus told a stranger the story of their lament, disappointment and shock that Jesus had failed in their conflict project for freedom: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21).
What evidence is there in the text that the authors are reliable narrators of the motivations of Judas when they have introduced him without consideration for his point of view in the story?
Judas is often cast as a money-hungry character, but he was not money-hungry. John tells us that Judas stole from the purse (12:6), but I am not sure that I believe that. What evidence is there in the text that the authors are reliable narrators of the motivations of Judas when they have introduced him without consideration for his point of view in the story? Matthew is the one who undoes it all. I should tell you that I am not always a fan of Matthew. He seems to favor long sermons, and he squashes great narratives into headline updates before rushing back into other lengthy sermons—Jesus seems to be a priest of the Order of Preachers in the mind of Matthew. But Matthew is concerned with justice, particularly narrative justice. He introduces the genealogy of Jesus by naming 42 men and five women, and he—alone among the Evangelists—ends the story of Judas like this: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders” (Mt 27:3).
The word repent has only been used a few times elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. Twice Jesus calls on people to repent because of the proximity of the kingdom (3:2 and 4:17) and twice Jesus uses the word when speaking of cities whose policies need to change (11:21 and 12:41).
When I was a child, I saw images of Judas at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. “St. Brendan meets the Unhappy Judas” is the name of a stained-glass piece in that gallery—showing Brendan in a small holy boat sailing through the waters of hell, and Judas—walking on the water, but nonetheless being consumed in flames—holds himself to himself in perpetual agony.
This seems to ignore the insight of Matthew. The word repent is a rich one: the word used in Greek is metanoia, which means to change your mind or change your direction. Judas did not care about money—he brought the 30 pieces of silver back. Judas did not want Jesus to be condemned—this caused him to end himself. Sometimes conflict can be escalated to distract us from a deeper story, a truer story, a more inconvenient story.
Many of our liturgies do damage to Judas too. But the poet Nicelle Davis changes all that in a poem from her book Becoming Judas:
The Woman Who Cut Judas Down
had lost her son. This body strung
from a branch could be anyone—
even hers. She climbed the tree
to chew through the rope
and bring down the stopped
heart that had grown within her.
On the ground she gathered him to her—
whole self shaking as a baptism
worked its way out from in her
words beyond human articulation—
fever and a cry mistaken for pain.
Conflict is a peculiar economy. Some people will use conflict against one group in order to escalate conflict with another. In John’s Gospel, a woman is being brought for stoning because she has been caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (8:4). How remarkably convenient. This whole thing seems so strikingly convenient that I think it is a setup. Anyway, some men are ready to enact the final conflict—murder—against this woman in order to escalate a conflict between themselves and Jesus.
Some people will use conflict against one group in order to escalate conflict with another.
Here is where body language comes into it again: The woman knew the body language of stones. They were almost up against her. Jesus also knows body language. He crouches down. In the face of a crowd of men being reduced to a primal sense of belonging, he sees a crowd swelling themselves. “Squared myself up” we say sometimes in English, showing how animal we are. We do not have fur that we can cause to stand on end, so we set our shoulders, taking up a little more space. Jesus took up less. He crouched. What was he writing?
In the face of conflict, Jesus makes himself smaller and does something nobody else can see. Conflict is confused by curiosity. When curiosity enters into a crowd of angry people, something might change. He might have been doodling, he might have been writing out sins, he might have been writing an interesting question—where is this alleged man?—or he might have just been demonstrating that the drama of these men’s conflict was not a drama he was going to let control him. He made a moment. He took the attention. He stands up, he speaks, and he crouches down again.
The men go; Jesus stays and talks to the woman. He leaves her in conflict—after all, she now knows what these men are capable of. And surely some of these men are her acquaintances, or relatives. And Jesus tells her to sin no more. What was her sin? Falling for a man who lied about being married? Being deemed unmarriageable and courting a man? Being tricked into sex? Being a set-up for the theological obsessions of men projected onto her own body? I do not know. But I know I would want to question.
Language is at the heart of what moves me. For me, poetry, conflict and religion all circle around the same thing: the words we say, by body and tongue. Jesus liked words too. He praised one woman for hers. He was tired, he wanted to escape, but someone would not let him. Don’t give food to little dogs, he says. And then he learns. Oh but sir, this foreign woman says, even little dogs eat little crumbs. She takes the insult of little dogs and doubles it. Little dogs. Little crumbs. Listen son, I can double any insult you give. You give from the overflow of your heart. He stops. He listens. He changes his mind. He praises her for her words. We remember her.
Some conflicts need to escalate so that those in power can realize they are the ones causing the conflict they are complaining about.
Some conflicts need to escalate so that those in power can realize they are the ones causing the conflict they are complaining about. Some conflicts need to escalate so that people can collaborate. Some conflicts need to decrease. Some of us need to be lifted out of conflict. Some of us need to be dropped into the heart of the conflicts we are in denial about.
We are surrounded by so many conflicts. It is worthwhile troubling the waters of the conflict with an incarnate waterwalker: the one who calls up storms and muzzles them, the one who reveals conflict where we thought there was not any, the one who was not possessed by the fear of the fear of fear. Our conflicts reveal something curiously intimate about us. These storms tell us things we do not want them to tell. Hover over this storm, Jesus of Nazareth. Stir these waters. Let us pray.