Reconciliation is supposed to be a defining characteristic of Christian community. But the social media and messaging apps that smartphones weld into everyday life might actually get in the way.
The previous post highlighted a CBS News report* detailing how app developers attempt to deliberately manipulate the way our brains work. The goal is to keep us coming back to apps and the advertising they push. But one of the byproducts is that our phones make us anxious when we don’t use them. So, if you are in conflict with someone and using social media or messaging apps to communicate, you are likely at least somewhat stressed before the fighting ever starts.
This seems like a recipe for misunderstanding and escalation.
Plain-old email is bad enough. Text-based communication inherently lacks the non-verbal cues required for language to fully express emotions. Over the years I have watched a number of conflicts spiral out of control as the recipient colored otherwise innocuous language with tones to which the sender was insensitive. But now a smartphone addiction can add a dollop of excess cortisol and load the interchange with some very unhealthy overhead.
So, the next time you feel the urge to fire off an angry text or post to a friend, just don’t.
Instead, use this cool app on your phone that allows you to avoid all that. You know, the one that makes phone calls. Call the person and have a conversation.
Or better yet call them, arrange to meet for coffee, and then have the conversation.
A couple of years ago my wife and I read The Gifts of Imperfection* together. The book resonated with me. Since then other bits by the author, Brene Brown, have tended to get my attention. Here’s a video clip from Brown talking about forgiveness.
Reconciliation is what Christianity is supposed to be about. Just over a year ago I posted about shredding the toxic lists we keep of the wrongs others have done.
Here’s another view of it. I just listened to a podcast by Claire Perini and Mark Buchanan at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. They unpack what reconciliation looks like at a personal level between individuals and within national movements. Mark describes reconciliation as “…a father running down the road with his arms wide open…” and shares some personal stories of the “open embrace.”
The audio is about 45 minutes long and definitely worth the time. What really caught my attention was Mark’s statement near the end:
There is this difficult story in Matthew’s Gospel about a slave who owed a staggering sum of money – something probably in the neighborhood of sixteen years wages for a worker of the time. The king to whom the debt was owed put the ledger into the shredder and forgave the account. But the slave then promptly imprisoned a fellow who owed him about three month’s pay – a much shorter ledger. The king’s reaction to this was to turn the slave over to torturers to (literally) take the forgiven debt out of the man’s hide.
This notion of trapping myself with the debts I insist on collecting turns up elsewhere. It’s in the Lord’s prayer and is not some aberration in Jesus’ teaching. I am unable to avail myself of the grace of God because I cannot extend grace to others. The death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be good enough to reconcile God and man. But for some reason it’s not good enough for reconciliation between me and other brothers and sisters.
There is no way for that fellow slave to ever pay back the three months wages. And the fact that I had to hunt him down is what was really galling. He did not come to me. My suspicion is that the debt would never have even been acknowledged until the debtor was cornered and begging. But now that I’ve somehow gotten the upper hand I am not inclined to show mercy until all the debt on the list is accounted for.
Shredding a list does not mean that there are no boundaries set to fence off someone else’s dangerous or destructive behavior. Spouses are not obligated to live with abusers and addicts.
Rather, destroying a list is about forgoing the desire that the other person to “pay up” in some fashion. If not to make it right, to at least acknowledge the debt, particularly the real injury that may have been done. Letting go of the record of debt is essential to reconciliation. But keeping such records is lethally poisonous to personal relationships.
Except that the list is only toxic enough to mostly kill them. There are people we know and may have once been friends with that we would rather never see again. Unfortunately the relationships are still twitching and mobile because the memories and chance encounters still hurt. Those personal connections have become animated corpses and it doesn’t matter how many times we hit the zombies with the shovel. They just keep coming. Such walking dead things cannot be “healed.” We’ve successfully trapped them on the wrong side of the resurrection.
Jesus gave outsiders the right to judge the credibility of Christian witness by how we treat each other. Unfortunately the broader culture doesn’t find anything particularly attractive about some of our rotting relationships. The resurrection is about transformation. Those decayed things need transformation into something new.
But this won’t happen until we let go of what’s owed us, and the lists we keep go into the shredder.
The participants discussed what “church” actually means and why Christians need to be engaged with it. Much of the discussion was anchored around millennials, a perspective represented by panelist Erin Lane who discussed what making peace might mean for them. The back-and-forth included an insightful exchange between Lane and panelist Darrell Johnson, which laid out what is necessary to build trust with church leaders. Issues of alienation and betrayal were also discussed.
Contained in this is the implicit question of why peace might need to be made in the first place. The need for peace assumes the presence of conflict — conflict without genuine reconciliation.
An an observation by panelist Scot McKnight grabbed my attention and seems relevant to this question. He described modern church culture as “fellowships of the sames,” where we meet “with people who are like us” and have the same preferences for music and preaching styles, and share similar cultural outlooks and similar economic standings. McKnight contrasted this with the early church. He characterized it as “a fellowship of differents,” who “did not naturally belong together” but rather were brought together into a “transformative community.”
I have long wondered if what passes for diversity within modern Christianity is merely balkanization. We have enormous diversity of thought, culture and practice between churches, but not much within them. We can choose to go where we like, so that’s pretty much what we do.
Panelist Hans Boersma nudged an aspect of this when he commented on denominational choices. Boersma observed that “…there’s sin behind the origin of our many denominations, our divisions.” He went on to advise “…not to strike out on our own with certain consumer choices too quickly but to be faithful to where we’ve been placed.”
The operative concept packed inside Boersma’s admonishment is consumer choice. The marketing and entertainment culture that subsumed modern society following the development of imaged-based media has become the air which we breathe but do not see. It may not be the origin of the balkanization of Christianity in the modern world but it is a significant accelerant.
Those of us who sit in judgment of others’ exercise of consumer choice tend to be unaware that we may have merely inherited someone else’s consumer choice, either those of a parent, or of a friend/significant other who introduced us to a particular church. Social preference has turned “neither Jew nor Greek” into choosing to be around only Greeks. McKnight’s “fellowship of sames” is the fellowship of an affinity group.
The problem with doing church as an affinity group is that it plays straight into our ancient history. Before we were citizens of nations, we were ethnicities and people groups. Before that we were kinship-based tribes and clans. And before the domestication of animals and mastery of agriculture, we were small kinship bands, a state which probably accounts for most of our history as a species. Affinity groups can easily slip into very tribal behaviors. Boundaries form to protect “us” and exclude “them.” Common perceptions and habits of interaction get reinforced and social pressure gets applied to conform to accepted norms.
But modern tribalization as affinity groups may be a step down from this. For good or ill, we are often attracted to people who behave in ways we got used to while growing up. Which unfortunately includes attraction to people with shared similarities in dysfunctional family histories and social habits. Their misbehavior feels normal. This dysfunction is apt to include overlapping blind spots — as participants in an affinity group we can lose an appreciation of our personal frailty. We forget what we have been forgiven and cease to forgive.
This is not a recipe for healthy navigation of inevitable personal and group conflict. The “fellowship of sames” deprives us of any real experience of God’s help in navigating real differences.
Without exposure to real difference we also lack experience in navigating real reconciliation. And the reconciliation of God and man becomes somehow insufficient for man and man. The end result is not peace. It is only armistice, with the participants avoiding notice of each other across the minefields and barbed wire.
Perhaps in addition to talking about how to make peace with church we ought to be talking about what it takes to make peace in church. We need to regain the “fellowship of differents.”