Moving Beyond the Impasse 

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                     Feb 16, 2020

Matt 5:21-26

Anger and conflict are as old as human existence. Their seeds grow deep, twisted roots that easily break off and multiply underground, sprouting new buds of hate. Maya Angelou wrote that hate has caused a lot of problems, but it has yet to solve one. Anger is quick to the draw, whereas wisdom requires restraint and pause. As Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “angry people are not always wise.”

Decades ago, I was travelling through the former Yugoslavia with a church group. As we drove past a farmer in a horse-drawn wagon, one of our group took a picture of him. He was incensed and began yelling at our leader, who was from that area. Our leader stopped the car, got out and walked over to him. The man threw a rock at him, grazing our leader’s head. Undeterred, with blood now running down the side of his face, he kept talking with the man. Eventually, he climbed up into the wagon and they continued down the hill together. When he finally stepped down from the wagon at the bottom of the hill, our car picked him up. He was silent for some time and then he explained, “If I had not engaged in a difficult conversation with him and reached an understanding, this conflict would have continued to fester between our families for generations.”

When you feel the blood rush to your face, words come easily, whether in person or on the keyboard. That’s when we all need a little angel on our shoulder crying out, “Don’t hit that send button!” But, in spite of our best wisdom and the best efforts of those little shoulder angels, words still escape us and we find ourselves having to take hours to mend a rift that took seconds to create.

Jesus knew how poisonous angry outbursts and insults can be. He took them so seriously that he urged his followers to prioritize reconciliation above all else. I imagine that Jesus saw two of his followers engaged in a heated argument as they were walking to the temple, when one of them began yelling and insulting the other. They both stomped off, heading for different doors in the temple so that they wouldn’t have to see each other. “When you are angry and say things you regret,” Jesus would have explained to the rest of his followers, “don’t continue on as if nothing has happened. At this moment, your most important priority must be to reconcile yourself to the one with whom you are angry. It is your responsibility to go to them and listen. Try to understand them before you try to have them understand you. Be willing to sit in the fire and apologize if needed. Only then is it possible to come to terms. And only then will you be ready to go to worship.”

Last week I attended an event that is dear to my heart—how to find a third way through polarized opinion. Mediator Sandra Koop said that we could all get along better by not so desperately seeking agreement that we overlook understanding. Sometimes, we may never come to an agreement, but we can still try to understand. Social activist Will Braun noted that when he tries to understand people who see things differently than he does, it is a transformative spiritual discipline that softens him, adds a touch of humility and helps both parties move beyond their own suffocating righteousness.[1]

When society is becoming conflicted and divided, reconciliation seems impossible. I was part of a United Church delegation to Israel and Palestine just over 9 years ago, and it seemed that the only path forward was a third way right through the middle of the divide. We met a Palestinian Christian called Daoud Nassar, whose land was under constant siege by the Israeli army. They bulldozed buildings and saplings. Daoud then organized meeting and living spaces in caves. And they kept planting olive trees. Another United Church delegation visited him last summer. The army had just bulldozed another 1500 saplings. And yet, Daoud continues to proudly display a rock at the edge of his land painted with the words, “We Shall Not Be Enemies”. He is still building relationships, one by one, with Israelis and has not given up hope.

Two weeks ago, Ruth, Dan, Nancy & I attended the play “Two Birds, One Stone” at the Asper Theatre. A Jewish woman, who lived for awhile in Israel, told her story alongside a Palestinian woman. Theirs is a story of relationship that is determined not to let their peoples’ fear and anger have the last word. It is a relationship that gives space and respect for the other to tell her story.

This third way of reconciliation based on individual relationships seems to be the only way forward. It resists the division of we and they. Mark Nepo, a Jew whose family members were killed in the Holocaust, writes, “Under all our fear and brutal trespass, we are innately kind and of the same humanity. Under what divides us, we all long to belong and to be understood. We are they, despite the terrible violence that surfaces between us. And all our gifts are needed to stitch and weave the tapestry of freedom…If we don’t recognize ourselves in each other, we will consume each other.”[2]

I am tempted to give up when conflicts seem irreconcilably entrenched, but then I remember Daoud who has every reason to give up, but doesn’t. He draws deeply and perhaps naively upon his Christian faith, and inspires me to do the same. A Christian counsellor once said, “Contradictions are the impossible chasms that create forever separations. God is the forever bridge that creates impossible reunions.”[3]

I give the last word to a Muslim–Sufi Poet Rumi:

 “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”[4]

 

[1] John Longhurst, “Face2Face even aims to promote faith, life conversations,” The Winnipeg Free Press February 10, B4.

[2] Mark Nepo, “We are They,” Spirituality & Health (July/August, 2019): 72-3.

[3] Craig D. Lounsbrough

[4] Excerpt from Rumi’s poem “A Great Wagon”.