There has been a meme floating around the internet recently that shows a picture of Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the Temple, and the words that go with the picture say, “The next time someone asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option.” Jesus did not come to bring peace. He came to bring the Kingdom of God. Peace will be part of that, but getting there can involve confrontation and conflict, and he did not hold that back from us. He said,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [Matthew 10:34]
When we forget that, we find ourselves unprepared to handle the conflict as well as we might. Anger takes over and we act or speak out of defensiveness. We become more concerned with winning than with being true to the gospel, which calls us to love, not to win – or, even better, to see that to love is to win.
Conflict is not always a bad thing. Some level of conflict or disagreement is inevitable whenever more than one person is involved in any endeavor of importance, and increases with the importance of the matter in hand. Buying a can of beans may set two people on opposite sides: Bush’s or Campbell’s. It’s unlikely to destroy a friendship or marriage, though. Buying a car or a house will bring out stronger feelings. Then there are truly major issues like how far you’re willing to trust God with your finances. If you want conflict within a family, that would be a good discussion to have. Conflict around important areas of life is going to happen.
What’s good or bad is how we handle it. A psychologist named Connie Lillas describes three extreme responses that are not helpful:
“Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
Foot on the brake. A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
Foot on both gas and brake. A tense and frozen stress response. You ‘freeze’ under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.”
If conflict is faced honestly and squarely and with mutual respect, then it’s a lot easier to say, “Look, I disagree with you and you disagree with me. What do we do until we can work things out (admitting that that may never happen)?”
The ironic thing is that Jesus warned us that it may be within our most intimate relationships that becomes hardest to do.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” [Matthew 10:34-36]
Within a family, we expect that there will be an almost inborn way of looking at things. So-and-so is a Smith, and you know they’ll always be on time. So-and-so is a Jones, and you know they’ll always be late. The North family are all dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and the West family are all liberals. The Marxes all play practical jokes and the Dumonts have no sense of humor whatsoever.
Making it worse, the family is where we expect a sense of security. It’s where we normally can be most ourselves, most relaxed, most safe. When conflict enters into that place, it is most threatening of all. It’s where we are most scared to allow it. It’s where the potential for destruction and harm is greatest. All the same, it finds its way in, especially when there are questions about religious commitment.
When there is such conflict, it can be handled well or handled poorly. I have only presided at one interfaith marriage in my life. The groom was Christian and the bride was Muslim. Not a single one of her family showed up at the wedding, and it was heartbreaking. That was not done well. Another time, I got a phone call from the mother of an old friend who is Jewish. Her daughter, as she said, “Has got engaged to one of yours, and her father is not happy. I want you to talk to them.” (“Them” meant the engaged couple. Her father did not want to talk about it. He had nothing to say.) In the end they held a small wedding with just the immediate family present; no guests. They didn’t want to look like they approved. But immediately afterward, they held a big reception for everyone, because they were happy that their daughter was happy, and when the father-daughter dance began, everybody got all verklemt. That was well done.
Jesus’ message to his followers was never that there would not be trouble and conflict. His message was that in the midst of it all, God’s care would be there, no matter what. And he wasn’t just talking about a family argument. He included what could happen if it went even farther than that, as can happen when religious disputes turn violent, as we see in our own day in Syria or Sudan or Nigeria or Northern Ireland or any of a dozen other places. He said,
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” [Matthew 10:28-31]
Discipleship, faithfully following the ways of Jesus, will occasionally be dangerous, and occasionally somebody will get hurt.
There is, in God’s grace, always healing beyond the hurt and safety beyond the danger. No one is quite sure who said, “A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” We are certain, though, who said,
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [Matthew 10:39]
It was someone who lost his life, and three days later was alive again.