Conflict Resolution Has to Be Real
(The following reflection is adapted from a sermon preached on Sunday, October 12, 2008 at Annunciation Orthodox Cathedral in Ottawa, Canada. Many factors, and sometimes people, have conspired to limit awareness of the financial wrongdoing and subsequent synodal cover-up among the faithful of the Archdiocese of Canada. This sermon was aimed at that audience.)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s second set of gospel and epistle readings are in honor of the Holy Fathers of 7th Ecumenical Council. The 7th Ecumenical Council was convened to put an end to what was perhaps the longest & bloodiest conflict in the history of the Church – the Iconoclast controversy.
Although that council did not, in fact, manage to put an end to iconoclasm, my point here is that our fathers were no strangers to conflict. They knew that it came with the territory and they understood how to face it.
We, on the other hand, always seem a bit “taken aback” by controversy in the Church, as if it “shouldn’t” happen here.
Many years ago, when I first went to seminary (SVS), I remember my uncle saying to me, “That’s an interesting choice of vocation. It means your life will be characterized by an absence of conflict.” I just smiled and nodded, having a pretty good idea that he couldn’t be more wrong.
Since we in the OCA are embroiled in a very serious conflict, one that’s far from resolved, this occasion affords us an opportunity to talk a little about how the Orthodox tradition understands conflict, particularly conflict within the Church, and how our holy fathers faced it.
The epistle reading for the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council begins with the words, “Remember those who rule over you…consider the outcome of their conduct.” This verse is used here as a call to honor and emulate these fathers, of course.
That may seem somewhat ironic for us, under the circumstances, since we’re facing a situation where our own synod of bishops - those who sit in the place of the holy fathers - have failed to do that and have betrayed the trust of their flock.
All this to say that the upcoming AAC is likely to be a rather contentious event and not particularly pleasant, however necessary it may be. So it is “meet and right” at this time to deepen our understanding of how our holy fathers approached conflict, in order to fully understand our responsibility in Pittsburgh.
A “CONFLICT-INCOMPETENT” CULTURE
We suffer from several major confusions regarding conflict. First, we tend to assume that “anger equals sin”. Second, we assume that there is one single model of conflict resolution in the Church, the one I would call the Sin-Forgiveness model. This model treats conflict as a result of mutual sin requiring mutual forgiveness. Third, we also tend to assume that all conflict has same remedy, and the sin-forgiveness model is that remedy.
Where do these incorrect assumptions come from? Well, partly from the very politically correct culture that surrounds us, partly from incorrect or incomplete teaching within the Church, and partly from our own unconscious confusion over all the mixed messages we get about conflict.
It’s certainly the case that here in Eastern Canada there’s a strong cultural aversion to conflict, a tendency to say all strong emotion or vehement feeling is bad and should be suppressed, and even to say we should strive to eliminate our capacity for vehement feeling. You see this in parts of the public school system, for instance, where they’re trying to mold young people into beings incapable of anger or aggression.
The only problem here, of course, is that Orthodoxy completely disagrees with all this.
Obviously, the most basic manifestation of conflict is anger, so to understand how the tradition approaches conflict, we first have to understand how it views anger.
Given the presence of “anger” on ancient lists like the “7 deadly sins” or the “8 evil thoughts”, you might assume that anger is inherently evil. That’s not the case, however.
The capacity to be angry is a key element of Orthodox spiritual life. We need anger to fight against the evil, the distortions that live within us. And the idea that passions like anger are inherently evil was explicitly refuted by St. Gregory Palamas back in the 14th century as demonic nonsense. Anger and other passions need to be re-educated, he said, not eliminated. So our capacity to experience vehement feeling is part of being in the image and likeness of God.
Hence scriptural verses like, “Be angry but sin not” (Ephesians 4:26 - one of the verses being studied today in preparation for the AAC). And, of course, we have Christ Himself chasing the money-changers out of the temple. You’ll notice that scripture does not record that the Lord later arranged for a service of mutual forgiveness with the money-changers!
So there is righteous anger. It is natural to experience righteous anger and indignation when we witness violence against women and children, flagrant injustices or abuses of power, for instance. This righteous anger is a function of conscience. It’s when we do not experience this vehemence when faced with great evil that we should worry.
So, to conclude that those who’ve expressed anger during this OCA conflict are sinning is unjustified. We may be have been shocked by some of the things people have said or written concerning the conflict, but that’s largely a result of our own conflict-averse culture and our ignorance up here in Canada of the events that have marked this conflict.
Many years ago, during the Vietnam War, the Roman Catholic spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote an article in which he argued that war was the greatest of all evils. The late Fr. Seraphim Rose of ROCOR began a correspondence with Merton on the subject because, based on the patristic tradition, he disagreed with Merton’s point of view. Fr. Seraphim noted that conflict can be the lesser of evils in some situations and that a real war is better than a false peace.
By extension, we can say a “real war” in this sense is any conflict fought to defend the fundamental principles of the Gospel, to defend the freedom and dignity of the human person, the basic values that we understand to be inherent in God’s creation. Because there are some things worth fighting for and even worth dying for. And if our fathers had not believed that, we certainly wouldn’t be here today and neither would the Orthodox Church.
REMEDIES FOR CONFLICT
To understand that different remedies are required in order to bring true healing and true peace to different types of conflict, let’s look at some examples.
If someone butts in front of me at the grocery store checkout line, and I give in to my annoyance and punch him in the nose, that’s not righteous anger. That’s human frailty. It would mean I lost my patience and my temper. Here, the sin-forgiveness model of conflict resolution is entirely appropriate. It repairs human relationships, if not noses. This model assumes, correctly, that we annoy each other in roughly equal proportion during daily life. This is the model we use when we lose our temper because our spouse rolled up the toothpaste tube the wrong way.
This is the model we use on Forgiveness Sunday, and it’s a way of acknowledging and repenting of our general sinfulness, of learning to forgive and be forgiven.
Let’s take another scenario, though. Let’s suppose one of our parishioners falls into alcoholism and verbally abuses another parishioner. Will the sin-forgiveness model restore true peace in this situation? Actually, no. It may even have the reverse effect if used prematurely.
First, the rite of forgiveness in this case implies that the person abused by the alcoholic is somehow now to blame for the alcoholic’s behavior. The victim is made to feel equally at fault, whereas in fact he or she has only been on the receiving end of the alcoholic’s abuse. It’s very much like asking a rape victim to apologize to the rapist. To engage in the Sin-Forgiveness model in this case distorts the truth, and can cause further emotional damage to the victim. It would be a huge pastoral blunder in this or any other case of abuse.
Moreover, it won’t help the alcoholic recover. With alcoholism there are only two possible outcomes: you either beat it or it kills you. There are no other choices. The Sin-Forgiveness model cannot work in this instance until the alcoholic becomes a ‘recovering alcoholic’ with full knowledge of his addiction and the courage to fight it every minute of every day for the rest of his life.
In this scenario, only a forceful intervention into the alcoholic’s world will succeed in persuading him to accept to the help he needs.
THE FATHERS AND CONFLICT
The intervention model wasn’t invented by modern psychology. The fathers used intervention constantly to rescue people in spiritual delusion, and still do today. The person who refuses to acknowledge his sin when faced with overwhelming evidence of its reality is deluded. This person needs intervention before mutual forgiveness will have any effect.
And, as you are well aware, the fathers didn’t hesitate to fight against those who endangered the teachings of the Church. They fought against heretics. They fought against false shepherds, wolves in sheep’s clothing who harmed the people of God.
When St. John Chrysostom was made Archbishop of Constantinople, he quickly fired a large number of these wolves – bishops and other clergy. He had them booted out. Sacked. Dismissed. Did he love them? Yes. Did he forgive them in his heart? Yes, of course. Did he sack them anyway? Yes!
You see, St. John Chrysostom wasn’t confused about conflict or the proper remedy for each situation. Nor was he confused about his responsibilities toward thefaithful. He stood up for what was right. It was his righteous indignation about the abuses he saw in the imperial capital that led him to do this.
St. John Chrysostom knew that loving the criminal and forgiving criminal behavior don’t mean you leave the criminal is his post so he can do it again. If our justice system allowed violent repeat offenders to go free, we would be righteously angry at their failure to protect our families. And so we should be.
THE OCA CONFLICT
At the present time, the holy synod stands accused of deliberately covering up a huge embezzlement of Church funds. Now please understand. That wasn’t our money. We’re not allowed to send money south of the border. It was the hard-earned money of our brothers and sisters in the US. So if you’re surprised at their vehemence, you might take that into account.
And don’t forget, these funds were in many cases earmarked for people in dire need – the widows and orphans of 9/11 victims, the families of the Beslan massacre victims, victims of the Armenian earthquake and more.
It’s hard to imagine a more heinous crime. You could try, but it would take some work. That should help us understand the “violent” tone we may hear from others on this conflict. And to understand this further, we need to consider certain established facts:
Fact #1: We have been continually lied to about this crime for three years.
Fact #2: Every effort has been made to prevent us from ever finding out about it.
Fact #3: Those who have sought the truth have been persecuted and slandered, even by members of the Holy Synod.
Given these facts, and the continuing obfuscation of the issues by the members of the Holy Synod who created this cover-up, we have to ask ourselves: if this is not a time for righteous indignation, when is?
So now you understand why some of your brothers and sisters in Christ are saying or writing “harsh” words about what has happened and about those responsible. And understanding now how our holy fathers have handled conflict in the past, you won’t be able to dismiss these harsh words quite so readily as “unchristian”. Indeed, if you believe Christians should never say a harsh word, you must have an issue with the One who chased the money-changers out of the temple.
We need to ask ourselves: Is this the time to apply the sin-forgiveness model, to do prostrations and simply forget the whole thing? The fathers would not handle our current conflict this way and neither should we. Premature “reconciliation” that papers over the real issues will not resolve our current crisis. The time for reconciliation will come, but this cannot fruitfully take place until we work through the issues.
As conflict-averse as we are, it’s time for us to stop running from this conflict and face up to the real issues in all their ugliness. That’s not pleasant. That’s not fun. It doesn’t feel good. And yet it’s the only way to arrive at real resolution. We need to take this up as an ascetic duty, a “podvig”, as a charge from God.
In doing so we’ll learn by experience that a real war is indeed much better than a false peace, and that, in situations such as this, it’s the only way to true peace and reconciliation in the end.
- Fr. Symeon Rodger
(Fr. Symeon Rodger (M. Div.; Th.D.) is Second Priest at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Ottawa.)