War in Heaven

There is an odd bit of gangland slang that was popularized in the late 1980s where bystanders hit by stray bullets were referred to as “mushrooms.” They “popped up” in the line of fire.  At the time the actual incidence appeared to be relatively low[*] but there was justifiable public outrage over the apparent disregard for the innocent.

Callousness was an obvious dominant factor in the shooter’s mental framework.  But the bystanders didn’t just wink in out of nowhere.  They were already standing where the shooters were spraying their bullets.  Which suggests the slang might point to a more broadly applicable feature of conflict.  It might be very difficult for the combatants to recognize who else their wrath might injure besides the intended targets.

One of the things that I was taught during a prior career in law enforcement was that, in an armed confrontation, the officer “tunnels in” on whatever is perceived as the immediate physical threat.  This results from the flood of “fight or flight” hormones dumped into the bloodstream.  It is a normal physiological response which prioritizes energy and focus toward the immediate danger.  It is hard-wired and was appropriate when the threat was a large predator on the savanna.  But the response is not appropriate when the confrontation involves firearms and innocent civilians.  So officers are trained (at least in theory) to think about their surroundings in spite of the adrenaline dump, and this includes maintaining a conscious awareness about whoever else might be standing in the line of fire.

This physiological response to threat is also not appropriate in our personal relationships.  Conflicts are inevitable.  But they also cause stress.  Some stress is helpful if handled properly and it pushes us to seek resolution or accommodation.  But chronic, destructive, or otherwise mishandled conflict is another matter.

Most of us deal with conflict using whatever strategies we absorbed growing up, coupled with whatever our personalities tend toward.  And when things get out of hand the escalating stress levels are likely to lessen our awareness of another’s welfare, making it easy to cross lines and start doing harm.  If this happens we will probably lose track of the bystanders.

Severely dysfunctional parents might be an example at the extremes.  Over the years I’ve had quite a few casual chance conversations with acquaintances who were separating from a spouse.  The welfare of the kids seldom came up.  If children were mentioned at all, it was usually in the context of legal wrangles over money, property, visitation and custody.  The rest of the conversation was all about the intolerable behavior of this other person.

It seems that once the parents are tunneled in on warfare with each other they no longer see their children.  It’s not that the parents intend harm.  But somewhere during the course of the chronic personal warfare and the divorce they lost track of the kids.

To be clear, some divorces are inevitable and most parents do consider their children.  But when they cease to seek the welfare of each other the stress levels rise, and one or both parents risk not being able to see the bystanders.  Particularly if malice has taken hold, or if one of the participants happens to be toying with trading up to a more interesting bed-mate.  The effect on the children is at this point is no longer a matter of conscious thought.  Conflict metastasizes into open warfare and what ought to be a bit of heaven turns into something else entirely.

What happens in families is probably true of most social groups.  Churches are unlikely to be any different.  I’ve attended a church of one type or another for as long as I can remember.  And a common features of group conflicts seems to be that at least some of participants appeared completely insensitive to the effects of the conflict on those not directly involved.  They seemed unable to grasp the damage from the relational shrapnel scattered by their warfare.  The nature of the conflict appeared irrelevant; it seemed not to matter whether the conflict was doctrinal, leadership, over programs, or just driven by personality.  The broader effects of the conflict seem beyond the range of conscious thought.

Christians ought to be better at this.  Conflict is inevitable.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  But if the welfare of our fellow combatants is not part of our thinking we are apt to mishandle the dispute.  We either escalate, or dig in and nurse grudges, turning what ought to be a bit of heaven into something else.  The rising stress levels that result will make it hard to pay attention to those not involved, particularly the young and the weak.

And heaven becomes a free fire zone with bystanders in the way.


[*] Lawrence W. Sherman, Leslie Steele, Deborah Laufersweiler, Nancy Hoffer, Sherry A. Julian. Stray bullets and “Mushrooms”: Random shootings of bystanders in four cities, 1977-1988 Journal of Quantitative Criminology, December 1989, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 297-316