A time for talking and a time for not talking—or do we all just need more time?


In February of my final year of university, the faculty went on strike. The dispute had been brewing for the entire academic year and provoked plenty of fodder for debate. I have always remembered how discussions seemed to continually circle back to one question: when do you decided that dialogue has failed and opt for other strategies? In other words, when do you walk away from the negotiating table?

I can remember rehearsing the various answers. On the one hand, how can anyone be opposed to something as reasonable as dialogue and negotiation? On the other hand, it is clear that there are ways in which dialogue can be used to perpetuate an unjust status quo and in which at some point one party is justified in declaring that it no longer makes sense to continue in the conversation.

In one way or another, I have had these debates in my head ever since that strike. These issues about the importance of dialogue, conversation, and negotiation have deeply influenced me. Indeed, my reflection on them is a critical part of my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.

I thought of all these issues again recently when I read two competing essays on the topic. On the one hand, there is Phil Groves, of the Anglican Communion Office, who reflects on the case of Euodia and Syntyche to conclude that

We also need to remember that when disunity appears facilitated conversations are the Biblical way forwards.

For someone who leads the Continuing Indaba project, this is perhaps, not a surprising conclusion.

In response, comes a much lengthier article from Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council who—never one to shy away from hyperbole—says Ashey “misses the mark by a longshot.” He then proceeds to call reconciliation—a central Biblical concept—some kind of “new religion.” You can read these articles and make up your own mind.

But what neither of these articles addresses is the question of time. “Time all heals all wounds,” it is often (wrongly) said. How does the question of time influence our understanding of conflict transformation?

We might first note that Jesus was not afraid of taking time—it took him thirty years on earth before he began his ministry. So when people start making claims about how much time has elapsed as a reason for determining that dialogue no longer is an option, we can all stop, take a deep breath, and remember that God’s time is not our time.

The other thing is that Jesus invested a lot of his time in people that others thought were hopeless or lost causes. My favourite example of this is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus takes a break at a well in the middle of the day, meets a woman who has been pretty comprehensively cast out of her society (that’s why she was getting her water in the heat of the day when no one else would be there), and engages her in conversation, even though, as John tells us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (4:9)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “facilitated conversation”—there doesn’t seem to be a facilitator at the well—but it does seem to me to be a pretty dramatic example of the fruits of patient engagement with difference. The woman’s life in transformed and she becomes one of the first evangelists, running into town to tell everyone about what she has learned.

When I think about conflicts in the world, whether in the Anglican Communion or beyond, I often think about this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. I find myself asking a question. What would happen if we did what Jesus did? Show up where no one expects us to be and taking the time to talk to people who are different than us?

UPDATE: Corrected mistaken reference to Phil Ashey which came out as Phil Groves. A case of too many Phils!

Justice and grace: the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain

Our political discourse is shaped by the language of justice. In England, there is a big debate about “shirkers” vs. “strivers.” The latter deserve government benefits because they are working hard to improve the lot, the former certainly not. A major argument for same-sex marriage is that it would be unjust to deny two people who love one another the right to be married. Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are justified by explaining that they are just punishment for the crimes of the victims. Whatever you think about any of these issues, the key thing is that they all use the language of justice.

But is justice really the best way of approaching the world? The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday make us think otherwise.

In the first reading (I Kings 17:17-24), the prophet Elijah raises the dead son of a widow. The entire encounter is framed in terms of justice. When her son dies, the widow is convinced that it is just punishment for something she has done (v. 18). Elijah appeals to God in terms of justice—it is not fair that he should leave her without a man to support her (v. 20). God is apparently convinced by this reasoning and raises the son from the dead (v. 22). Justice prevails. But one implication of the reading is that if the situation had been different—if the woman wasn’t a widow, if she had another son—God might not have raised her.

The parallels between the Luke passage (Luke 7:11-17) and the Kings passage are so close that Luke is almost certainly trying to make a point. He certainly wants to claim that Jesus was a great prophet like Elijah. But I think Luke—along with the entire Christian tradition—wants to say something more about Jesus. We see what that something more might be by looking at the differences between the two passages.

The major difference is that the motivation for Jesus acting to raise the son is not justice but compassion. Rather than imploring God to act justly, he simply reaches out his hand and raises the son.

The people in the funeral procession are astounded. One of the things they say in response is, “God has looked favourably on his people!” (v. 16) That phrase, “looked favourably,” is only used three other times in the Bible and all by Luke. It is used first when Elizabeth realizes she has conceived John the Baptist (1:25). It is used again by Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah when John the Baptist is born in the canticle that has become known as the Benedictus (1:68-69):

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty saviour for us

in the house of his servant David.

Although Zechariah is holding his long-awaited son in his hands, he realizes that God has something greater in store for God’s people—the long-promised Messiah is coming.

Luke also uses “looked favourably” in Acts, when the apostles are trying to decide if non-Jews can follow Jesus. James realizes they can when he realizes that God has “looked favourably” on the Gentiles (15:14). The saving work of God is not just for the Jewish people, but for all people from every race, culture, and tradition.

So when Luke uses “looked favourably” in this passage, he is invoking the entire sweep of God’s saving action. God comes to each one of us while we are lost, wandering, and spiritually dead in sin, has compassion on us, and raises us to true and abundant life.

Christians have a word for this compassion—grace. And the key thing about grace is that it is not just. What makes grace so wonderful is precisely that it is unmerited and undeserved. God didn’t have to be convinced of the justice of our cause to come to us. God came to us in Jesus Christ because God loves us. This is the good news.

There’s one final difference between the two stories to highlight. Elijah raises the son in a home. Jesus raises the son on the road out of town. We are that son, lost on the road. The only other time Luke uses the word “compassion” is in the story of the prodigal son when the father sees the son “far off” on the road, has compassion on him, rushes out to meet him, and brings him home (15:20). We, too, are wandering far off, but God comes to us in Christ and brings us home to God’s loving embrace. (Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2:13). That is the depth of God’s love for us.

But the world still insists in thinking in terms of justice—and sometimes Christians do too. But grace, the central idea of the Christian gospel, is not just—and that’s what make it so wonderful. The calling for Christians is to realize how lost and dead we are, to realize the depth and unjust nature of God’s love for us, to be transformed by this love, and then to share it with others who are similarly lost, broken, and dead.

God’s love is not just—and we thank God for that.

Gasp! He talks about Jesus!

One of the things I noticed about Archbishop of Canterbury-select Justin Welby is that in his announcement tour on Friday, he talked about Jesus a lot. There were multiple references in the press conference and various interviews to “the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Now, to point out that a bishop talks about Jesus might not seem like the most noteworthy event. But it’s striking how frequently it has been mentioned in the press accounts. For instance, the Guardian:

Constitutional convention also mostly stops archbishops from talking about Jesus in public. No one seems to have told this one.

The Mail—not admittedly the best source—had a similar sentiment in a headline:

Not your average Archbish! Not only does he actually believe in God, but the new Archbishop of Canterbury is the son of a bootlegger who was Vanessa Redgrave’s lover

(This is more than modestly unfair to the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who believes deeply in God and talks a lot about Jesus. Sometimes, though, it take a little while to realize that’s who he’s talking about.)

One thing I am learning in the Church of England is that there is actual debate about how overt clergy can be about their faith—that is, how much they can talk about Jesus. At a meeting I was at the other day, one priest said that in her marriage preparation, she didn’t want to give the couple anything that was “too Christian.” This came as a bit of a shock to me and is, perhaps, a sign of the ways in which Britain is farther down the secularization path than the United States is. (I’ve been chronicling some of those points in my Death of Christian Britain series of posts.)

On the other hand, back in April, I was noting the ways in which the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church went a whole interview without mentioning Jesus.

In every market, competitors are always on the lookout for the thing that will distinguish them from their competitors and make them stand out. Our world has a pretty crowded marketplace of ideas right now. Call me silly, but I think talking about Jesus—the one idea that Christians have that no one else does—is one way to stand out. We still need to answer the question of what the good news is. But for now, I’ll be content with an archbishop who can talk about Jesus—even if it is depressing that that alone is noteworthy.