Here in a beautiful flourish of argument, St. Paul , while in the midst of some conflict with other religious teachers in Corinth over his authority to teach the Gospel, tells is that people of God fight not with the physical weapons of human warfare but armed for a different spiritual battle. This is almost a throw-away comment in the text, but it is a powerful reminder to me.
How I understand this is that in all of our conflicts, whether small and personal in our families, whether like Paul’s conflict over our own spiritual authority, or even the conflicts going on right now over human rights, fair policing, LGBT rights, and building a more just society in our great country, we must engage them in a different way. The human response is to try to assert power over another, through comments that malign and put down others, name-calling or humiliating the ones with whom you disagree. It is through treating the one you disagree with as less than you, as enemy, as stranger. You can see such approach at work whenever one side or the other demonizes those they disagree with, so that they are painted into a caricature of who they really are which no one, even themselves, could sympathize with. At times this power over approach to conflict can lead even to threat, to political sanction, to violence (as it does in war, in revolution, and at times in police action).
Instead of viewing our conflicts in such a way, we are to see ourselves as a part of spiritual warfare. Ephesians says this puts our battle not with those we disagree with but with those powers and principalities which keep us estranged, and keep others oppressed. Our approach is to aim to help reveal those powers for what they are, inviting both sides out from under their captivating hold.
What does this look like? I struggle to discern how to live it out, but to me the perfect example is the mode Desmond Tutu took in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He consistently said that those in power were not the enemy, and said that he was inviting them to re-discover their own humanity and join the winning side. He spoke in a way that made it clear that both those on top and those on the bottom in the apartheid system were being oppressed and losing out on something essential, which they could regain through letting go of this system of power over.
Martin Luther King said it well when he said about Jim Crow and other systems of oppression that the people fighting for justice for fighting for freedom for both black and white people for we are bound together by a common garment of destiny, an inescapable network of mutuality, so that what happens to one group affects all together.
Seeing our conflict not against individual but against the forces that wreak havoc in our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, our communities means continuing to show compassion and respect to even our most out-spoken critics. It means learning to invite others to wonder with us how the world can be different. It means calling and being called into dialogue. It means recognizing we can get nowhere by dehumanizing another, demonizing another. It means facing that all violence will do is promote more violence.
Our goal is reconciliation.
In truth, I’m not sure I know how to do this yet, at least in some of the relationships that matter most. But it is a call I need to hear. I am thankful to be reminded of it.
What does it call you to do?