I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
– Saint Paul in today’s second reading [1 Cor 1:10f]
There’s a story about executions during the French Revolution. It seems an architect, an attorney, and an engineer were all sentenced to be beheaded by guillotine… The architect went first; he knelt at the block, put his neck on it, and, when the executioner pulled the lever, the blade failed to drop and he was spared. According to law, he was released. Then the attorney placed his neck on the block, the executioner again pulled the lever, and again the blade remained stuck. He was unharmed and released. When it came the engineer’s turn, he had a final wish: He wanted to rest on the block facing upward, facing the blade and mechanism. The executioner didn’t care, so it was arranged. But just before the executioner pulled the lever, the engineer shouted, “Wait! I see the problem!”
I tend to think like an engineer.
Not about executions, but about the Scriptures. Paul gives us wise counsel today, and I’m sure everyone but the few who enjoy stirring up trouble would wish for being “united in the same mind and in the same purpose” in the parish, in the family, at work, and wherever we have to deal with others. But it doesn’t often happen. Rather than just repeating what doesn’t work, the engineer asks, “Why?” What causes division, disagreement, and disunity among people? And, once we’ve located the sources, how do we fix them?
People who study conflict say it can arise from four sources: facts, means, goals, and values. Sometimes people disagree because they disagree on facts: Who was baseball’s most valuable player in 1980? What did the parish do when Mrs. So-and-so asked for (x) kind of help? Disagreement on facts is easy to fix – if people will take the trouble to find them out and be guided by them. (How many budding arguments around the dinner table has Google ended?)
Disagreement on means isn’t hard to resolve either. If people agree on the facts, and agree on the goal but differ on how to get there, a wise person discusses tradeoffs, costs and benefits, and the rest: We agree the family will go to Florida for vacation: Fly, or drive? That’s a disagreement on means, and you’ve probably learned what works and what doesn’t in coming to resolution.
Disagreement on goals is more difficult: Should we aim our efforts as a parish at making the already-present members better Catholics, or at inviting the non-churchgoing to start on the path? But if there are shared values, disagreement on goals can sometimes be resolved by reference to them.
But disagreement on values is usually intractable. Is care for the poor more or less important than youth ministry? Is it better to be kind, or truthful? These conflicts have such deep roots that it’s often only possible to “agree to disagree,” or to live (somewhat) peaceably with the tension.
Why mention all this? Because often we’re not even sure whether we’re in conflict over facts, or means, or goals, or values. Getting clear on this is a first step toward realism, and to possible resolution. Do we need to find a fact we can agree is a fact? Or do our values differ, so that we’ll probably never agree? In regard to parish life, disagreements on values should be vanishingly rare – after all, the Gospel and the tradition and teaching of the church tell us what the values of Christian discipleship are.
Conflict has been a part of church life since the time of Saint Paul, and it’s not always a bad thing – so long as it’s managed civilly and is understood all around as a search for the best course for the whole community, not as a contest in which one “wins” or “loses,” or as a search for personal comfort or gain. We can all do better – and understanding is a first step. Until next week, peace.