Let’s begin with the biblical texts that we read in preparation for this evening’s discussion. In St Paul’s letters to St Timothy and St Titus, the apostle encourages his younger brothers to avoid conflict and to avoid antagonistic people whenever possible: “Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know how they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone” (2 Tim 2.23-24); “But avoid stupid controversies…” (Titus 3.9). However, St Paul is also clear that conflict must be dealt with in a straight-forward manner; he tells St Timothy that the work of the “Lord’s servant” includes “correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2.25), and he gives these instructions to St Titus: “As for a man that is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him” (3.10). In the passage from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and in St John’s Third Letter, we see both apostles dealing with conflict directly and decisively, and the instructions that Christ Jesus provides in St Matthew’s Gospel contain a four step process for handling conflict—and each step involves person to person interaction.
But it is precisely this personal interaction that is finally missing from Jayber’s relationship with Cecelia and Troy. Jayber has a number of confrontations with Cecelia: there’s the famous rock-throwing incident at the Grand Stand, and then there are years of snubs and slights. However, Jayber never confronts her or tries to heal the rift between them. Towards the end of the novel, Jayber states that he “forgave her easily enough for her dislike of [him]”, but he also admits that “she never asked [him] to do so” (p355). So it’s difficult to see what forgiveness actually meant in this situation apart from the fact that Jayber, at one point, stopped being angry with Cecelia. And Jayber’s relationship with Troy works the same way: Jayber never even tries to speak with Troy about the way he mistreats Mattie, and he never even tries to confront Troy about his arrogance and dishonesty. When Jayber finally is able to forgive Troy, there is some practical content to that forgiveness—Jayber actually becomes Troy’s friend. Nevertheless, there is the distinct possibility that Troy never knew that Jayber was ever anything but his friend.
Of course, to expect Jayber to deal openly and honestly with the conflict in his life is to also step out of the world of the novel. Because in small, southern towns, that’s just not the way conflict is handled. Folks in these communities gossip about conflict—and, of course, there is a whole lot of gossip in Port William—and sometimes conflict even erupts into actual violence—and there is a certain degree of violence in Port William. However, in the south, it is still considered rude to acknowledge a conflict with anyone other than a family member, and even family conflicts are dealt with in other, more nuanced ways. For example, Athey and Della Keith never intervene in Troy and Mattie’s life, but they also leave the farm solely to Mattie. So, in Jayber Crow, culture is more powerful than the specific teachings of Holy Scripture. Jayber does work through his conflicts with Cecelia and Troy, and his efforts are motivated, in part, by his Christian convictions, but those convictions are also culturally conditioned.
But what this finally means is that, when it comes to the real test of community, when it comes to conflict, the membership of Port William fails. In just about every other dynamic that we have considered, the characters in the novel provide us with an example of what authentic community looks like. But when there are strains and ruptures in their community, the individualistic nature of the Port William membership kicks in, and folks regard the troubles of others as something to be observed and commented on, but something that also, ultimately, isn’t their business. Related to this particular failure is the absence of any real spiritual authority in Port William. The clergymen who serve that small town are only there on a temporary basis; everyone knows that they are just passing through, and so they do not have the authority that comes from years of stability and trust and experience. So to expect any of Port William’s preachers to try and intervene in Jayber and Cecelia’s relationship or in the conflict between Troy and his in-laws would be, once again, to step outside of the world of the novel. Nevertheless, it is significant that the inability of the people of Port William to deal with conflict in a straight-forward and proactive way is never challenged by any of the men who are supposed to be providing the town with spiritual leadership.
Of course, Port William is not alone in its inability to deal with conflict. Badly handled conflict destroys a great many parishes and congregations. Most of the experimental Protestant communities that were started in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s fell apart because of conflict, and the book that many of us read about the current crop of similar communities reveals that nothing has really changed in the last thirty years: conflict is a huge problem. In analyzing conflict, Protestant and Roman Catholic thinkers frequently draw on the insights of psychology and the social sciences, and, while there is nothing wrong with that, we must never forget that, as Christians, we have a unique perspective on the subject. For example, the folks who study conflict from a therapeutic or sociological perspective like to say that it is just a part of life, and that is certainly true; however, it is also important to remember that Holy Scripture never regards conflict in a positive way since the presence of conflict presupposes the presence of sin. So even though conflict may be a part of life, we should never interpret that to mean that it is somehow a normal feature of life in community.
So how should we handle conflict in our community? Christ Jesus provides us with the paradigm in chapter eighteen of St Matthew’s gospel. As we mentioned earlier, there are four steps in this process:
1. The offended person is to talk to the person who has caused the offence. In most communities, the entire process goes off the rails right here at the beginning. Most people who are offended would never dream of talking to the person who has offended them—they would rather stew and mope about the situation, or they would rather talk about that person with their friends or family members. Our job in these sorts of situations is to, first of all, model the sort of behavior we want to see in our community by actually doing what our Lord and Master has instructed us to do, and, second, to encourage others to do the same thing, either by pointing out that stewing and moping won’t do them or anyone else any good, or by refusing to listen to their complaints about the person who has offended them until they agree to go and talk to that person.
2. If the initial conversation doesn’t go well—if there is no reconciliation—the next step is to talk to the offender with one or two friends. Again, in most communities, there is no precedent, and there are no guidelines for this sort of thing. But that is all the more reason to actually make sure that we set those precedents and establish those kinds of guidelines. This is the point where people will often ask me to get involved in these sorts of situations, but what that effectively does is collapse the steps that Christ Jesus has laid out for us. In other words, they ask me to go with them to talk to the offending person because they are apprehensive about the conversation, and because they haven’t had the courage to talk to the offender themselves; however, this is skipping step one, and combining steps two and three, because, when the priest gets involved, then the Church is involved, but that isn’t supposed to happen until the offended person has tried to reach out to the offender at least twice, once by themselves and once with a friend or two. The reason we have been given these steps is so that we can take personal responsibility for the conflicts that intrude upon our lives, so that we can take up the cross and offer up our pain and fear and heartache and stress as a sacrifice for the transformation of this world, but that won’t happen if we wimp out.
3. If the second encounter doesn’t lead to reconciliation, then the person who is offended is to tell the Church. The holy fathers interpret this to mean that the offended person is to confide in a clergyman, and then that deacon or priest will attempt to deal with the conflict. Unfortunately, most clergymen not only try to avoid taking sides, they also try, at all costs, to avoid offending anyone. This is a recipe for frustration, misunderstanding, and all-around disaster. In these sorts of situations, clergymen should speak clearly and compassionately; they should be able to tell the offending person what to do; they should be able to tell the offended person what to do. In other words, they should be able to provide caring and decisive spiritual leadership.
4. If the clergyman is unsuccessful in bringing about reconciliation, then Christ Jesus states that the offending person is to “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (18.17). This is not excommunication. In the Church, only a bishop can excommunicate someone, and that is typically done only as an official acknowledgement of actions the offending person has already taken (for example, leaving a spouse and moving in with a lover; joining a Protestant or Roman Catholic parish; publically and repeatedly rejecting some of the basic doctrines of the Church). What this refers to is the distance that is always a consequence of any refusal of reconciliation/responsibility. Some of that distance is going to be official in nature—for example, I would never ask anyone who refused reconciliation/responsibility to serve on the parish council or to help out with All Saints’ Club or to assist in the altar. Some of that distance is going to be of a personal nature—the tension and the awkwardness that is introduced into relationships whenever this sort of refusal occurs. Unless the offending person is antagonistic or dangerous, there is no reason to exclude them from the worship and fellowship of the community—again, that is what happens when someone is excommunicated; nevertheless, this ‘interim’ distance is real, and it must be acknowledged. In fact, one of the primary dynamics which causes conflict to become embedded in a community is the tendency that most people have to try and ignore it.
But to pretend that nothing has happened—or to act as if the conflict has been resolved when it has not—is dishonest, and this kind of dishonesty only generates even bigger problems. However, as uncomfortable as this last step might be, it is not intended to be punishing or punitive, but redemptive. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes that “love never fails”, so even when others have given up on any possibility of reconciliation, we must not. We must always be prepared to try again, if and when the appropriate opportunity presents itself.
And this is something that we can learn from Jayber Crow—the persevering patience and hard hope that is required of us when we are dealing with broken or damaged relationships. Because if we are committed to community, if we accept the requirement of stability, if we don’t simply leave when conflict arises, then there is a good chance that we will have to live on an on-going basis with a lot of unresolved conflict—and, further, we will have to live with the on-going possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. This is where the symbol of the man in the well comes in—and it is such a powerful passage, it’s worth quoting again:
A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost.He does not believe this easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani”. (p357)
Jayber didn’t follow the biblical paradigm for dealing with conflict, but he also didn’t give up on the people with whom he was in conflict. In a sense, he was willing to get down in the well with them and abide their anger and resentment and dishonesty and fear. That kind of faithfulness is not easy, but, in the end, it paid off, both for Jayber and for Troy and, even, in some way, for Cecelia.
If we will follow the biblical paradigm for dealing with conflict, then our community will be healthy, and it will flourish—but that does not mean that all of our conflicts will be successfully resolved; even our Lord and Master does not have that expectation. However, if we will respond to those broken relationships the way Jayber did, with patience and hope, then none of us, not a single member of our community will finally be lost. Because there will be miraculous rescues; we will be pulled up out of the well of despair by something that happens at Forgiveness Vespers or during the Kiss of Peace or even on a Saturday of Souls. Our job is to simply never, ever give up; our job is to put into action, in this specific community and with these particular people, the “love that never fails”.