Being always nice in church definitely has its limits

Here’s my column in today’s Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. July 17, 2016.  I’ve discovered that though we certainly want the fruit of the Spirit to ripen in our lives — such as kindness and gentleness and patience — many times determining to just “be nice” only gets you so far down the road.  What do you think?
I grew up in a nice family – a very nice family.  My dad and mom genuinely were two of the nicest people you’d ever hope to meet.  You would like them.  But being nice undeniably had it flat side. In fact, in my dad and mom’s view, conflict, generally speaking, was sin.  To them, conflict normally demonstrated that people were falling from the straight and narrow. Thus, in their view, working through conflict was equivalent to getting “right with God.”
            Even though unwittingly I had adopted that view, my experience of working with pastors and churches in conflict has led me to seriously question that view.  Very often when I encounter church leaders with the conflict-is-bad viewpoint, I see churches who count parties in opposition to “our group” to also be in opposition to God.  Thus, I find churches operating by a progression of understood but unexpressed guidelines and rules. 
            In his book “Reconcile: Conflict Transformation For Ordinary Christians,” (Herald Press, 2014), John Paul Lederach identifies 10 such guidelines that he calls the “Unspoken 10 Commandments of Conflict in the church.”
And wouldn’t you just know the first commandment: “Always be nice.” Just like in my family! And why?  Well of course, “niceness” is the essence of Christianity.
            Nice people intuitively understand commandment 2: Never confront each other in public. Confrontation is hard, maybe even uncontrollable. But no worries.  If you get confused about commandment 2, refer to commandment 1.
            If you do find yourself in a distasteful confrontation, move to commandment number 3: Do not listen to your enemy. Instead prepare your defense while your foe is still speaking. Listening might raise questions that could weaken your defense and may lead to compromise, and, heaven forbid, self-reflection.
            Number 4: Should you find your “righteous” anger raised by a contentious person, do not speak with them. Rather, seek out and speak to others about them. That is, find other nice people who agree with you. By speaking with only those who agree with you will develop true community.
            Nice people, those of true and noble character, will quickly understand commandment 5: Never show your emotions in public.
            The reason you never want to show your weakness through emotions like, say, crying, is explained in commandment number 6: Men, be rational.  Indeed I still can hear my dad saying, “It is better to disengage from a situation of conflict and remain silent than to show uncontrolled emotion.”
            Women, commandment number 7 is for you. Do not defend yourself vigorously, nor “nag” incessantly or you be called the dreaded B-word. Don’t be surprised, though, if your opinions are ignored, only to find those same opinions to be accepted as valid when stated by a man. 
            Nearly every week in my counseling sessions with pastors I hear commandment number 8: If you do not like the way things are going in the church, blame the pastor.  Most problems can be traced to the pastor.  If the pastor is wonderful, then blame the church council. If they are clean, then blame “them” or “some people I know.” If you cannot find anyone to blame, leave the church. A church where there is nobody to blame is not worth staying in.
            Commandment number 9 is useful if you feel you just must confront.  Save your energy and frustration for the church’s congregational annual budget meeting.  God gives these meetings to bring congregational catharsis.
            And commandment number 10: In a nutshell, do not have conflict in the church because conflict is a sign of sin.
            You smile but they describe the experiences of many people.  These unspoken commandments connect with some typical responses that form the foundations, not of what we say we believe, but of what we actually do with conflict.
            In Matthew chapter 18 Jesus gives specific steps in handling conflict (verses 15-20).  To me, the most interesting part of Jesus’ instruction is in what he assumes. Namely, there will be disagreement, conflict and interpersonal clashes in the church and in every relationship. Underlying Jesus’ instructions is his clear invitation to move toward the source of our anxiety and toward conflict itself. 
            And yet somehow many have come to see conflict as “unchristian.” Growing up I had this image that church is made up of saints, or at least nice people who do not experience this kind of messiness. Early on, it was drilled into me by my parents.  Even though I still don’t like conflict, I know the opposite is true. Being in church never means that we all agree.
Christians often quote Matthew 18 verse 20 where Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” When we realize that Matthew 18 actually is dealing with conflict and working toward reconciliation and not to small numbers of gathered worshipers, we begin to see the church as the place where conflict is understood as necessary and important for learning and growth. 
            The most important words of Jesus in Matthew 18 are “I am there among them.” That is a good promise to those of us who take seriously the mission of reconciliation.    

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