Jeremiah 15.15-21; Romans 12.9-21; Matthew 16.21-28
Alongside the selection of hymns which I give to couples preparing for marriage, I carry an unwritten list that I prefer them to avoid. I’m thinking here about ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways’ and more infamously ‘Fight the good fight with all thy might’. For similar reasons, Anna and I rejected my favourite hymn for our wedding because ‘For all the Saints’ reminds us that ‘the strife is fierce, the warfare long’.
This theme of conflict runs throughout today’s readings:
O Lord, …
bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
All three texts today speak of religious conflict and persecution. Jeremiah and Paul and Jesus all knew what it was to be intimidated because of their beliefs.
Religious persecution remains a problem for Christians in many countries today.
A website called Open Doors lists 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is high, very high or extreme. Topping this list are our friends in North Korea, but not all the countries on the list are among the ones you might expect. For example, Mexico and Columbia – both countries with majority Christian populations – are listed by Open Doors as places where Christians are persecuted. This is because of drugs cartels which target churches and Christians that speak out or whose social action challenges criminal networks. The Open Doors website is quite an eye-opener and contains helpful country by country pointers for prayer and information on the practical changes which might make a difference in each context.
Stories of religious persecution are horrifying and demand our prayers and, where possible, our lobbying. But how relevant is religious persecution to us in St Albans? Even when we are aware of what is going on in these countries, we can easily dismiss it as something that happens in distant benighted lands. Unless we take the Daily Mail too seriously, religious persecution seems unlikely to ever impact on my C21st western lifestyle.
So while I don’t want to ignore the seriousness of religious persecution, I want to broaden our reflections on this mornings’ texts towards the theme of conflict in general, something which everyone experiences in one way or another.
Conflict is the subject of endless books and courses by lifestyle gurus and management consultants. Some of these have been of great use to the churches over the years. But is there anything within the wisdom of our own faith to bring to the table? Are there values and principles in the gospel which mark out a distinctive Christian response to conflict?
Before we deal with positive Christian contributions to conflict resolution, we should first parry an aversion to conflict which can beset Christians in particular. Most people are conflict averse: when they see a problem coming, they run in the opposite direction. They’re like Peter in today’s gospel when he said ‘God forbid it, Lord! This suffering must never happen to you.’ Christians are particularly prone to this because we can mistakenly think that faith exempts us from disagreement. This risk is particularly high in the internal life of the Church. Such idealism often springs from a naive hope that faith solves everything such that life in the Church becomes an escape from reality. This approach leaves the door open to bullying and may end in disappointment and hurt. As Christians, we pursue a shared gospel vision but we remain individuals with different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. Faith does not exempt us from conflict, in the Church or the world.
So, what does Christianity bring to the table? Well,
Your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
And if the love of God gives us an appreciation of our own worth, it reminds us that any with whom we find ourselves in conflict are loved by God too. ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them’, wrote Paul. Persecutors are cherished by the almighty as well as the persecuted. To which end Paul continued with advice about relationships:
‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all… Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God… No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (Rom 12.17-21).
The Dutch Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, wrote that, ‘the goal of Christian community is not emotional harmony but to create communities of celebration and forgiveness’. More crudely, I would say that the Christian should approach conflict a bit like his taxes: when possible we avoid it but we should never evade it.