Redeeming Conflict: 12 Habits for Christian Leaders
by Ann Garrido
Ave Maria Press, March 2016, 288 pp.
This article is the second in a four-week series on the topic of conflict in the church (Read last week’s interview with Anita Bradshaw). In this excerpt from her book Redeeming Conflict, Ann Garrido suggests that developing healthy habits around conflict is one of the most important things Christians can do together.
As a child, one of my favorite sections of the Bible was the opening of the Acts of the Apostles. I loved hearing the story about the thousands of people drawn in by the preaching of the apostles, who handed their possessions over to the nascent Christian community and lived “happily ever after.” Hearing my father hint at his struggles in the business world, I considered how ideal it would be to work in the Church with people motivated only by good and holy intentions in an environment void of conflict—the Church painted in Acts.
My first high school job as an evening parish receptionist was quite an eye-opening experience, as I watched four priests of varying generations and ecclesiologies wrangle with one another and with a strong-willed housekeeper to exercise pastoral leadership in a bustling, boisterous Catholic community. It turns out that sometimes keys get lost, the gym gets double-booked, sisters yell, principals cuss, and no one remembers to empty the dishwasher. Not every day, but often enough to leave an impression: the Church is not a place where people live “happily ever after.”
One of the great gifts of graduate studies in theology was the opportunity to discover the letters of Paul. Written decades before the book of Acts was put onto parchment, Paul’s epistles reveal a Church riddled with discord even from its earliest days. Only a few years after the tomb was found empty, Jesus’s disciples were already debating how to handle money, what kinds of public behaviors were appropriate for Christians, and what to do about economic disparity within the group. Many of the challenges we know today they knew as well. It turns out there was never a time in which the Church was without conflict, and yet, two thousand years later, the Church goes on.
The story I tell of my own journey is not unique. It mirrors the journey of almost every longtime disciple—a pattern of attraction and disillusionment, hope, and coming to terms with reality. What distinguishes those who are able to live meaningfully within the Church as it is from those frustrated in their attempts to live “happily ever after” is the ability to function constructively within a church in conflict.
Because it is not necessarily a bad place to be.
Discord, in much of Christian thought, is understood as a consequence of sin: God intended for the world to live in harmony but sin caused discord. As a result, Christians tend to see the presence of conflict in their communities as a sign of sin, a sign that something has gone terribly wrong and needs “fixing.” Because sin is by definition a chosen evil—something we could have resisted but did not—the fact there is conflict implies that some party must be to blame.
The Christian tradition, however, can offer a wider, more nuanced theology of conflict. While sin certainly escalates much of the conflict in our world—raising it to the level of violence, bitterness, and even war—the roots of conflict seem inherently structured into the design of creation itself. God created the world with a tremendous amount of diversity and, indeed, seems to glory in it. Diversity implies not just diversity of species and skin color but also diversity of cultures, opinions, and perspectives. Exposure to diversity, with its resulting experience of discomfort, surprise, and disagreement, appears to be the way that God matures creation. Tension seems to be built into the divine “development plan” as a means by which we grow into the kinds of people God dreams us to be. And what kind of people is that? People who can enjoy communion in diversity.
“Communion in diversity.” Now where have we heard that expression before? And why is it so important? Because Communion-in-Diversity is the name of God. It is another way of saying “Trinity.” Another way to say “Right Relationship.” Another way to say “Love.” And when each of us was baptized, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” it was code language for saying, “You are invited to share in my life. Trinitarian life. A life of communion in diversity.”
The Church properly understood is a school for right relationship—a boot camp for developing the skills and capacities for relationality that we are going to need to participate ever more fully in the Trinitarian life for which we were baptized. It sounds odd to say it, but the first responsibility of the Christian community is to deepen its members’ capacities and skills for friendship, and that includes the ability to manage disagreements well.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s final dinner with the disciples he had been forming is marked by a long closing discourse in which he relays all that he most wants them to remember before he departs. At the center of his teaching that night is a parable in which he describes himself as the True Vine and his disciples as the branches. Repeatedly, he uses one verb to express what he wants them to be able to do in the time ahead, difficult though it may be: he wants them to “remain.”
Reflection on healthy habits for communion in diversity is one of the most important things we can do together as Christians. When we nurture the vision, capacities, and skills for conflict done well, we are proffering a pathway for remaining in the Church and in the Vine. We are nourishing the means for living not a life “happily ever after” but “life in abundance”—the kind of life Jesus does promise us, even in the midst of our bustling, boisterous communities.