There can be very few people, families or communities that at some stage do not experience conflict or division of one kind or another. It is an inescapable part of being human that we say and do things from time to time that others find offensive and thus leads to relationships being put under strain or breaking down.
In the early Christian Church in Jerusalem, people did not stop being human because they became Christian. Like us, they got caught up in disputes and feuds which led to relationships falling apart and damaging the whole community.
Our Lord’s basic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to prevent feuds or conflict is to ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matthew 5:38-41) rather than take part in an eye-for-eye or tit-for-tat scrap that can get out of hand and cause irreparable harm. However, not everyone is able to do this as it’s easier to give in to the maxim “don’t get mad, get even”.
In today’s Gospel Jesus presents three further strategies for resolving conflict between his followers. These were designed to head off conflicts or to resolve them quickly if they got serious and detrimental to the common good.
The first has to do with what we might call ‘tough love’ – meeting the other person in private, explaining the problem while at the same time being willing to hear the truth spoken back to us. This is to ‘have it out’ with the other person before it goes any further. Hopefully, this will lead to the problem being defused or settled.
If this approach does not succeed and the problem is a serious one, Our Lord’s says to take along two or three people to act as negotiators or mediators. The hope is that the intervention of these neutral people will succeed where the first one-to-one effort has failed.
But what if even this approach does not succeed because the other person is intransigent? Our Lord says then to refer the dispute to the entire community or its representatives. The community is the final arbiter of the dispute and if the offender chooses to disregard its judgment, then he or she is to be excommunicated – thrown out of the community.
Jesus says that when the community gathers in judgement in this way, even if the decision lies with just ‘two or three’ of its representatives, he is present among them; and whatever decision they reach is accepted by God. He gives to all his disciples the power to ‘bind or loose’, that is, to settle conflicts to God’s satisfaction between community members.
One of the toughest challenges to face any family or community is how to deal with a member whose behavior threatens the well-being of the other members. In Jesus’ teaching we find a procedure that is useful not just for Christians in conflict but one that can be followed by almost any family, community or secular organization.
So how might we go about following Christ’s teaching?
If someone says or does something offensive, perhaps the first and wisest thing to do is not to respond instantly to the perceived provocation. Our spontaneous gut reaction, which we cannot control, is to be hurt if someone offends or lets us down. We cannot control being hurt like this. However, we can control how we outwardly respond to the offence. So ‘turning the other cheek’ here, as Jesus asks, might be to hide our hurt or anger for the time being until we have thought through what our measured response should be. Then we might ask ourselves: what does God want me to do in this situation that will be for the greater good, and not just for my own satisfaction? How does God see this conflict? Am I really in the right? Did the other person intend to wound me or was he or she just having a bad day? And what course of action on my part is now in the best interests of my family, my community or work colleagues?
Who said being Christian is easy?
After this, and if we can’t stop feeling hurt, we might then approach the other person and ‘have it out’ in private, as Jesus recommends. However, if this does not succeed, Jesus then advises us to enlist the help of a neutral person or two who will hear both sides of the argument and act as a mediator. He or she just might be able to succeed where we have previously failed. For those caught up in long-running family disputes, this approach might succeed if it has not been tried before. Remember that Our Lord’s intention is to prevent disputes getting out of hand and damaging other people. So the onus is on us as his followers – as it was with Ezekiel in the First Reading – to do what we can to prevent damaging breakdowns in relationships.
In the Second Reading St Paul explains that all the laws of God are summed up in the command of Jesus to ‘love one another’. This principle, he says, must lie at the heart of all Christian conduct. So the loving and Christian thing to do when we come upon a dispute involving ourselves or others is to seek to diffuse it for the greater good. Hence Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, that is we truly are the sons and daughters of God when we try to bring people together when relationships have broken down.
Of course, not all situations can be resolved and, sometimes, the best or only thing to do is walk away and move on. This is especially true in cases of painful separation and divorce. If a situation, for all our efforts, cannot be changed for the better, then, as Dale Carnegie recommends, we need to cooperate with the inevitable. But until then, may God grant us the grace to be peacemakers, to seek to resolve our own conflicts and bring understanding and healing to where there is division and discord in others.
Holy Name, Jesmond
6 September 2020