How to Be a Reconciling Presence in a Vitriolic World (Part 2)

(Editor’s Note: this is the second in a two-part article by David Fitch on being a reconciling presence in a vitriolic world. You can find Part 1 here.)

In Part One of this article, I explained the concept of the “enemy-making machine” and how this produces antagonisms within the church. In this part, we’ll look at the example of Jesus and how he can gives us a way forward that counters this machine.

The Anti-Type of the Enemy-Making Machine

In Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus gives his disciples a practice that counters the enemy-making machine. He instructs them that when they have a conflict to go directly to the person and to point out the sin when they are alone (v. 15). If the enemy-making machine organizes us against the opposition by distancing us from the person and turning them into a detached object of disdain (an enemy), Jesus does the opposite. He says to go to the person face to face, be present to the person, and test whether you will be listened to.

If the enemy-making machine works by rallying people as a group against a single cause or person, this passage in Matthew starts with the one-on-one relationship. If no agreement is achieved, we are not to mobilize people against the other party. As v. 16 says, we are to take just one or two other people with us, so that every word may be confirmed. There is no testifying against someone. We are there to listen and establish the truth. Each time the conflict remains unresolved, more are invited into the circle. The group forms not as a whole entity against the other person, but instead gathers slowly in communal submission “in his name.” Agreement comes “when two or three agree in my name,” and his presence becomes known, the fullness of peace.

If the enemy-making machine works by absorbing our identity into the ideological cause, Matthew 18:15–20 requires we come together, submitting one to another. We are to come together “in his name” (v. 20), which means giving up our identifying with the cause. If the enemy-making machine works by absorbing our identity into the ideological cause, Matthew 18:15–20 requires we come together, submitting one to another. Click To Tweet

If the enemy-making machine works to keep us locked in a zero-sum game, where only one person wins and the other person must lose, this passage in Matthew moves us to a new place altogether. Here in this space of mutuality, “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” We are being taken into God’s future, releasing the power of the kingdom to heal, transform, create something new.

This most basic of all practices illustrates how the new life in Jesus Christ frees us from the enemy-making machine. It frees us from its coercion, vitriol, and “stuckness” instead of turning “religious freedom” into a banner to be fought over. We ask real gay persons whether they would want pizza at their wedding and engage in real conversations over how our convictions work out in this situation. Instead of making a gay person an enemy to be fought over, we have real, face-to-face conversations. We take no perverse enjoyment in anyone losing. This is not about us, it is about making way for God to work his Kingdom in Jesus. Matthew 18, even as a practice lived out among non-Christians, promises to counter the Memories Pizza parlor episodes of our lives and invites us to bring the transforming power of Christ’s presence into all such episodes wherever we encounter them.

A Different Kind of Leadership

The practice of Matthew 18 points us to a way of being in the world that resists the antagonisms of the world. Instead of inflaming the antagonisms via the enemy-making machine, we discern it and resist entering the world’s antagonisms on the terms dictated by it. By unwinding the antagonisms, allowing the violence and coercion to subside, we make space for the very presence of Jesus to heal, reconcile, and renew all things. In the midst of our strife-ridden culture, the church will need a unique kind of leadership for living in the world in this way.

Jesus provides us a model for this leadership in John 8:2–11. Here a woman caught in adultery is placed before the mob (“making her stand before all of them,” v. 3, NRSV). She has been made into an object, “the enemy,” for the enemy-making machine. In the ensuing discussion, the scribes and Pharisees talk about her as if she is not even present. They ask Jesus whether this woman should be stoned as “the law of Moses commanded.” A belief system, “the law,” something given for the good to be concretely lived out in the covenantal life of the Israel’s community, has become a banner to get behind. It is now used to pit one group of people against another, to define who is in and who is out. It has become an ideology of self-righteousness in which the Pharisees find their identity and feel good about themselves. There’s some self-congratulatory, perverse enjoyment going on as they are able to say “she failed, but we are holy and we keep the law.” The enemy-making machine is operating in high gear. Jesus is asked to enter into the middle of the enemy-making machine and take a side.

Strikingly, Jesus is silent. He stoops down to write on the ground. It is a stunning tactic in which he refuses to enter the violence on the terms offered to him by the ideology. Likewise, we too must become present to the conflicts of our churches (and the world) while quietly refusing to enter on the terms given by the enemy-making machines of the world. Jesus then directs, “Let he who is among you without sin, cast the first stone.” It again is a tactic, bringing to the surface the underlying contradictions at work. Banners, in the enemy-making machine, often cover over the contradictions at work in the conflict. By agreeing, and then taking the underlying assumptions to their extreme, Jesus reveals this duplicity. The perverse enjoyment in the Pharisees is exposed. The accusers disperse. The woman is left in the presence of Jesus, cleared of all the strife and violence and anger.

Only after the antagonism has been unwound, and the woman has been released from the violence of hate, does Jesus say “you are forgiven, you are free. Now go in the way of righteousness, and choose sin no more. Work out what it means to become whole in the power of the Spirit” (my paraphrase of the dynamics of John 8:11). Indeed, this is only possible for the woman now after she has been freed from the ideological enemy-making machine.

This episode is a picture of the church as the presence of Christ in the world of antagonisms we are living in. The question for Christians today is: Can the church be this Jesus? Can we become his reconciling presence in today’s world full of strife? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14).

[Parts of this article were taken from The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (Brazos Press, 2019).]

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