Disputes and Conflicts

These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? James 4:1a

But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another... Mark 9:34

Friday just gone, the 17th September, students across our country began their university educations again after the summer break, some will have signed up for the two year Masters degree course in Central London costing £6,500 in the department of Social Sciences and Humanities Westminster Regents campus to study Conflict prevention and Dispute Resolution. James, Jesus' brother was teaching this too over two thousand years ago, along with St Paul and Jesus himself. The Westminster course describes itself thus: The course content is not explicitly concerned with 'peace studies', but the processes of prevention and the processes of resolution embrace the concepts of securing and maintaining peaceful cooperation.

It is the university of Oxford that is appealing for sponsors for its creation of a course called Peace Studies, so Peace Studies exists - this stuff is big business in a world dominated by what James describes as 'disputes and conflicts.' Both James, Jesus' brother and St Paul talk powerfully to believers in God about their conflicts and their disputes. In Corinth believers have brought one another before the secular law courts and Paul is amazed they couldn't find a single person from within their own community to help settle issues. He believes that in asking the secular world to judge their religious tangles there can be no winners – Christian has turned against Christian and this brings the church into disrepute with the world, the world who already thinks the church foolish for preaching the death of God upon a cross and that weakness and vulnerability are the real power in this world.

James believes that the conflicts and disputes that have arisen in the church he writes to, have a much deeper source and he anticipates the teaching that St Paul gives the Roman church, as St Paul describes the human condition with “O wretched man that I am, I want to do the right thing but there is another law at work within me, fighting against what are really my honourable intentions.” It is as if sometimes we just can't help ourselves because we are human. Disputes and conflicts are everywhere and the church is not immune to them because like the rest of planet earth it comprises fallen human beings. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists know that conflict is even in some ways a healthy part of human and social development.

Professors of Masters degrees like the one I described earlier, explain the difference that exists between a conflict and a dispute. A dispute, they say, can be resolved, agreements can be reached because there is often something over which a compromise can be made – we have all have these kinds of disputes commonly on those holidays where we bargain for a souvenir. We are in dispute with the seller and usually peaceably and even with a wink, suggest prices each side, until one settles and we walk away satisfied we might have won, of course, the other side might have equally walked away the winner too, if we never knew the original price.

Conflicts are different say the professors of these degree course. Conflicts are about non-negotiables. Conflicts are about ideologies, beliefs, deep underlying values and world-views. Conflicts are harder to solve and can be made up of many disputes along the way.

Interests in a dispute then are negotiable. But conflict is based on non-negotiables. You can study all this for six and half thousand pounds and then maybe learn to negotiate for the second degree you take in the subject unless the price of the course is a non-negotiable.

But why study a secular degree course when you have all the teaching you could ever want from the scriptures? In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus teaches the church about how it is to deal with the messy relationships that exist between human beings. His logic is all there for the unearthing and it is the original premise in which our justice system is surely based. Thankfully in our country there are systems that will uphold the innocence of parties until proven guilty, although of course, we all know of times when the system has miserably failed. I was very moved on Saturday morning listening to Radio 4 as it interviewed the families of the Birmingham 6 who were imprisoned for 16 years in 1974 for crimes they did not commit.

Henryk and I are 80s kids and we grew up learning the theme tune of a popular television program that you might have heard of, called the A Team, whose protagonists had suffered a similar fate: the lyrics which we are both a little embarrassed to have learnt off by heart go like this: In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team. I will spare you my singing as the adrenalin-stirring music takes over from the dramatic voice-over prologue.

It was an exciting show and we always cheer for the under-dog, don't we and so viewers cheered for the A Team, these misunderstood and honourable heroes, the victims of a corrupt system. And indeed the film industry is built on this stuff and really conflict is at the heart of every grand narrative. Conflict is at the heart of the gospel too – Jesus' biggest triumph over the powers was in his defeat of them by coming back from the dead – defeating the biggest powers on planet earth – sin and death. It was hugely costly for him as we know.

It is interesting always to see that Jesus's teaching was something he followed through on – he wasn't frightened of challenge and conflict but he sought to bring everything out onto the light and to face it head-on. He challenges the Pharisees, he calls the woman caught in adultery to sin no more, he turns tables in a temple. It seems to me that just as we can not define God by a definition of love that is outside of God and to which he must conform, we can neither create our own definition of Peace and ask that Jesus conform to it either. Neither the Father not the Son will capitulate to definitions outside of themselves, which are, if we really admit it, created by man. When we define love – it must look like God – God is love, God authors love and Christ is Peace, Peace in the flesh, peace incarnated, born for us. Peace is God's Shalom – God's reign and rule on earth – God is love and what therefore does love look like? – it looks like God - and what does God look like – he looks like Jesus – the image of the invisible God and what does Jesus look like – the Bible tells us so – and so the Bible defines love and the Bible defines peace and if we here want to be better by ever increasing degrees at this conflict and dispute business, that seems very fashionable these days, as Christians, we had better begin with the guidance set out here and learn a thing or two from God himself. In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus says that if someone sins against you, you are to be so wanting the restoration of that person that you will talk with them face to face, if that's just too nerve-racking you are to take some witnesses with you and try to do everything you can to restore your brother or sister.

If they will not meet you there is little you can do. At some point it would seem then we have to let them go but every time we deal with one another it is in private and face-to-face. No mass audiences and no grand hype.

And isn't it hard to do?

This is because ultimately the Bible in its teaching understands that problems are located within and without. Conflict is described in the Bible using the word “agon.” It is the word from which we get the “agony” and “agonize.” It describes the disputes between human beings –external problems but 'agon' also describes the personal struggles we all have to be more patient, to overcome temptation, to exercise control of one's emotions – to have an internal conflict is also to have an 'agon' – Jesus himself experienced agon both in his lengthy pilgrimage through the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemene – God understands us perfectly in his Son.

It would be wonderful to end this sermon with something twee, some assurance that conflict will fade away, that there really might be some bubble that the Christian can live in, protected from such things, there isn't – with Christ in our lives, however, we are ultimately protected for nothing can separate us from the love of God in Him – the reassurance that I give then comes from theologian John Howard Yoder, (not immune himself to a little internal conflict!) who helpfully reminds us that “Conflict is normal and natural. In the context of Christian ministry there should be more rather than less of it, since truth telling, growth, change, and the demands of righteousness concur in bringing more of it to the surface. Rather than being denied or avoided, conflicts are to be processed, resolved in the light of the message of forgiveness… Conflict resolution is then a special Christian grace, but also a general Christian duty” (Yoder, Conflict Resolution, 6-7).

Let's keep studying our scriptures together for what Jesus has to say to us – not £6500 but just ten pounds for the price of a bible, if you can spare it – as we study this book here (life-long learning) we have the text book par excellence and it is the one that God left us - so let's study together. Amen.

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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions