We need to talk. Anyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship with any other human being knows what that means. Something uncomfortable – but necessary – is coming.
Therein lies the problem, though: It feels like we’ve lost the ability to talk with each other – much less understand and empathize – especially people with whom we disagree.
We live in an increasingly polarized world of us versus them. Look at the last weeks of two dueling political conventions, with either side disparaging and distancing themselves from the other. And the campaign season to come will surely be more of the same.
It’s the same in our own circles, too. If you’ve ever gotten in a comment war with someone you disagree with on Facebook, you know what I mean. If you’ve never been in a comment war with someone you disagree with on Facebook, you’re probably not on Facebook – but you’ve likely experienced it at the family Thanksgiving table, or with your neighbors who have a sign for the other candidate on their lawn.
Gone are the days of peaceful disagreement and constructive dialogue. Our first instinct is to unfriend or block one another, to stubbornly dig in our heels and disengage. And I’ve got to be honest: It’s kind of attractive to live in our own silos, surrounded by only like-minded people we agree with.
The apostle Paul knew something of what it was like to live in a world of deep divisions – between rich and poor, or between people of different religious persuasions or ethnic origins. Paul’s was a world fraught with political patronage and corruption. To dissent was risky.
So Paul’s advice points them to the long game. Love one another. Well, that’s a lot easier said than done! If we can’t even talk with one another, how can we even begin to love that family member who keeps posting that nonsense on Facebook?
As though in anticipation of that very question, Paul continues: Besides this, you know what time it is… Not a fixed point on a chronological timeline, but an opportune moment, an awakening. Salvation is nearer… There’s another way, and they can experience it and live it now. A way that resists quarreling and self-centeredness, a way that resists injustice and divisions … the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
Love is the nature of God. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. God’s love fosters a community of neighbor-love, of taking risks and becoming vulnerable to bridge divides, of being more patient with one another. God’s love is life-giving and takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (or the self-righteous Facebook comment) but always, always, desires life.
This kind of love is a reconciling love. It’s the outline for conflict resolution Jesus lays out in Matthew: First, try to work it out one-on-one. Then, if that doesn’t work, bring a couple others along. If that still doesn’t work, bring even more people along. And if still that doesn’t resolve things, treat the other person like a Gentile or tax collector! Just cut them out of your life! Shun them! Block them on Facebook! Right?!
“When the Pharisees saw [Jesus eating dinner], they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matt 9.10)
How does Jesus treat tax collectors, sinners, and Gentile outsiders? He eats with them. He enters into conversation with them. He intentionally seeks them out, time and again.
Instead of shunning or unfriending, Jesus’s conflict resolution offers another way. Always with the aim of reconciliation and being drawn back into community.
Lutheran pastor and journalist Angela Denker (no stranger to St. Philip) writes in her new book, “Too often, in the rush to condemnation and judgment, we miss out on creating spaces for dialogue where dialogue is needed the most: between people who disagree” (4).
She tells the story of her friend Rachel, a fellow pastor and a PhD student studying Old Testament in the American South. Rachel struggled when her daughter was invited to participate in an after-school program in a more conservative Christian environment than she was used to. The lure of a free after-school program enticed her, but she was afraid of what her daughter might learn, counter to everything she valued and hoped for her as a parent.
Ultimately, Rachel decided not only to let her daughter sign up but also to become a parent volunteer herself. “The things she was worried about, we figured,” as Angela reflects on their conversation, “could be combated by her presence” (3). Instead of disengaging, Rachel and Angela found themselves being pulled toward greater engagement and dialogue.
Living into the kind of community Paul and Jesus call us to means: We need to talk. It’s not always going to be comfortable, but the results might be surprising.
It’s a countercultural notion that runs against our first instinct toward reactionary comments or tweets. Yet I believe the community of the church, at its best, offers something different – a more deliberate, more kind, more patient way of living and loving across differences.
Those of us who have been reading Dear Church in GLOW Exploration know that Pastor Lenny Duncan loves the church. Not with a naive love that overlooks harm and differences, but a “deep, abiding love” that wants “to sit down and have a talk” (116) – to talk about things that matter with people we care about. After all, if we can’t talk about these things in church, where can we talk about them?
Here at St. Philip, we continue to live into our identity as a Reconciling in Christ congregation – which means that we strive to make space for all people, not just the ones we agree with – just as Jesus makes space for all of us, a community shaped by God’s love and desire that we might fully live.
So let’s keep talking. Because in that community, where two or three are gathered, even across differences, the presence of the divine is also among us.