It was our third cup of tea, and we had yet to converse. Hair awry, a note of hysteria creeping into her carefully modulated voce materno, my young friend was fending off another attack from her preschool-age twins, whom I privately referred to as “Search” and “Destroy.”
“He won’t play Lego!”
“Lego is stupid!”
Mom shot me a look of pure desperation. As her mentor, what could I offer that she hadn’t already tried? The quizzical pause evoked by a stern “Your FATHER will be dealing with this later!” was quickly shrugged off. Oreos and pop provided respite only long enough to brew another cup.
“I give up!” she sagged. Minutes later, the great god Wii was being worshipped in relative quiet in one room, Xbox 360 in another. Screens 2; mom 0. She smiled weakly. “Anything to keep the peace.”
Christians claim to value unity, and Mennonite Brethren have a tradition of pacifism. So where does that leave us when differences arise? For arise they do: Hymns vs. electric guitar riffs. Complementarian vs. egalitarian. Real wine or grape juice? Unity can seem unattainable amid diverse viewpoints. Many Christians respond with anxiety: differences might cause conflict; conflict can precipitate division; division is bad. Unity is good, but our working definition of “unity” is often “absence of conflict.”
Our approach to corporate conflict sometimes parallels that of this young mother dealing with her children. Initially, we try to ignore it, hoping it will sort itself out without intervention. We ask nicely for peace to prevail. It doesn’t. An authoritative “Settle down!” may work for a time. Later, we may need to appeal to a higher authority, or delegate responsibility for dealing with the conflict (“Wait till dad gets home!”). Treats and technology subdue into passivity. We are busy, entertained, quiet. We are getting along. Wii R 1.
Or are we?
Dictate, defer, distract. We employ these strategies to avoid or manage conflict. It works fairly well with children, tends to backfire with teenagers, and is semi-successful with adults who, too tired to deal with conflict, sacrifice relational authenticity to avoid it. But results are short-term, and the unity achieved is both fragile and false.
Polite silence, evasive replies, hidden animosity, repressed fear, relational distancing – this bears little resemblance to the “one-ness” Jesus prayed for us to experience with one another (John 17). “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).
What is this unity, the “one-ness” that Jesus has with the Father? “I am not alone, for my Father is with me,” Jesus says (John 16:32). Earlier, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). If this kind of unity is our standard, how do we get there from here? The “dictate, defer, distract” approach is nowhere to be seen in the relationship between Jesus and his father.
Ah, you riposte, surely they were never in conflict; they had no differences.
Look at Gethsemane: contemplating the death ahead resulted in a real-time confrontation. In anguish, Jesus entreated again and again – openly, publicly, passionately – vulnerable and sweating blood. Yet, this confrontation between father and son was free of animosity – no defensiveness, no blame, no accusation. Jesus’ request of “may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39) wasn’t a challenge to his father’s authority. The Father didn’t demand obedience from his Son, nor shut down the confrontation to avoid messy emotional intensity.
If we were in that scene, what might we do? Demand he accept without questioning? Distract him with platitudes, crucifixion-preparedness classes, and cookies? Defer to divine destiny and advise he just “deal with it”?
Perhaps oneness doesn’t mean differences are non-existent, or hidden, or even that they must be resolved. If absence of conflict is not a worthy pursuit, what then is the goal?
Perhaps Jesus’ words “as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:15) offer a clue. Here, we see a unity of relational intimacy, of honesty and transparency. The oneness Jesus prayed we would share with each other cannot be actualized if we avoid or repress conflict. If we hide a part of ourselves, we cannot be known, nor know another intimately, as the Father and Son know each other. Commitment to relationship means walking through conflict together.
Without condoning mean-spirited arguments, Gethsemane encourages us to express our pain simply, vulnerably exposing the fear behind contention. Jesus’ request did not offend or threaten God. The agony of the Father more than matched that of his Son, knowing, as he did, what the response must be. In the end, the issue was not resolved as we would like to resolve conflict. The cup did not pass him by. The relationship, however, survived.
A commitment to unity doesn’t avoid conflict; it confronts it. The pain of conflict is not always bad; pain drives us to overcome conflict because we cannot bear to be divided from the ones we love. We yearn to be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. The alternative is to pull back, avoid conflict, hide ourselves from one another, and play nice.
If that’s not an unbearable prospect, it should be.
At my tentative suggestion, mom sat down on the carpet with her two boys.
“I love you guys,” she said quietly. “It hurts when we fight like this. Let’s figure something out together without being mean, okay?”
Search flung his chubby arms around his mom’s neck in a sticky embrace. Destroy looked thoughtful. “Okay,” he nodded at last. “I’d rather do that than play alone.”
(link to BibleGateway.com)I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.