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The Promise of Conflict

John Leedy

July 13, 2014
Genesis 25: 19-34

While I was in graduate school at Abilene Christian University, I took a class called Managing Conflict in the Church.  Over the course of that class, and in the years since, I have read some of the great thinkers on the subject of conflict.  I have worked with family systems theory paradigms, conflict psychology, and even how different personality types respond during a conflict situation.

Yet despite my engagement with these learned methods, I find that the person who has most influenced my understanding of conflict management is none other than Bob Saget.  Yes, you heard me right.  That Bob Saget.

As a child of the 90’s, I would come home from school, grab a Little Debbie snack cake out of the pantry, and turn on the television to watch Bob Saget star in my favorite afterschool show, Full House.  For those of you unfamiliar with this gem from the late 80’s early 90’s, Full House tells the sprawling tale of a young father, Danny Tanner, played by Bob Saget, who, after the sudden death of his wife, enlists his brother-in-law and his childhood friend to help him raise his three young daughters.

Over the course of eight seasons, this TV show, in true sitcom fashion, followed the same basic plotline:  it’s just normal day in the Tanner family’s San Francisco home, when suddenly a conflict arises, a scheme hatches, a plot to ruin a date, hide a broken lamp, or sneak into the kitchen to get a midnight snack emerges, disaster and laugh-track hilarity ensue, and family members end up angry, upset, and can be found sulking in their bedroom.

It is at that precise moment, when the family is embroiled in conflict, that the magic of Full House happens.  Bob Saget walks into one of his daughter’s bedrooms, she looks away from him, upset.  Bob Saget would look at his daughter and say, “Hey DJ, we need to talk.”  Then like clockwork, the absolute cheesiest “deep conversation” music starts to play in the background, and in no less than 2 to 3 minutes, the conflict is resolved and hugs abound.

As a kid who watched I don’t know how many countless episodes where family feuds are resolved so quickly and with such idealized sappiness, it is no wonder that Full House became my latent paradigm for conflict management.  So powerful was this TV show’s influence over me that as I sat in my office contemplating this bizarre biblical text, I began to re-imagine the story of Jacob and Esau’s early days as if they were the plot line of Full House episode number One Thousand Nine Hundred and Thirty Four.

Esau throws open the back door of the family house, and drags in the lifeless body of the antelope he spent the day hunting.  He looks down at his hairy red arms, covered in mud and wipes his hands on his Levi’s Jeans.  He tosses back his long red curly hair and sniffs the air like a lion scenting his next meal.  “Boy, I’m so hungry I could eat a cow, or I guess in my case, an antelope!” (Cue the laugh track).  Esau kicks off his leather boots and lumbers into the kitchen where his svelte and sneaky twin brother Jacob is stirring a pot of his favorite meal, Hormel Antelope Chili – extra spicy.

Every time Esau laid eyes on his twin, he couldn’t help but laugh at how very different his brother was from him.  Despite being a skinny, sweater vest wearing momma’s boy, Jacob prided himself on his intelligence and cunning.   Whenever Esau went hunting, a hobby that endeared him to his father, Jacob was just skulk around the house, ruminating on his unfortunate circumstance of being the younger of the two sons.  But these thoughts were far from Esau’s mind as his stomach gave a painful rumble.

“Hey there baby brother, whatcha making?”  Jacob smiled and said, “Why Esau, you know exactly what I’m making. It’s your favorite.  Not to mention – you were the one who provided the main ingredient.” (Cue the laugh track again.)  “Then why don’t you serve me a bowl of it, I’m so hungry I might die!”  Jacob looks down into the pot full of the red chili and beans, and another sort of smile crosses his face.  “Okay brother of mine, I’ll give you some food, but first you have to sell me your birthright.”  (This is the point where the “live” audience on Full House would go “OOOOOOOO!”)

Esau thinks about his brother’s proposal.  A birthright meant two thirds or more of the inheritance, land, a house, and perhaps most importantly, future security.  But all that seemed like a distant reality as his stomach growled again.  “Fine, fine, the birthright is yours,” Esau says as he holds out an empty bowl.  “Not so fast,” Jacob interrupts, “Pinkie swear.”  Esau, now completely famished and getting weak in the knees, extends his pinkie, rolls his eyes and says “I swear.”

The scene cuts away to Esau sitting in his bedroom eating a bowl of chili and cornbread.  With his hunger now satisfied, the terrible implications of his pinkie swear to Jacob begin to dawn on him.  Frustrated and outfoxed, he begins to yell and stomp around his room until there is a soft knock on the door.  Isaac, his aged father, walks in, followed by an embarrassed and contrite Jacob.  “Hey Esau, I think we need to talk.”  (And cue the cheesy music).

Of course, as we all know, that’s not how today’s Bible story ends.  In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Even before Jacob and Esau were born, they fought each other in the womb.  So terrible was this pregnancy for their mother Rebekah that she prayed to God, “What is happening to me?”  The Lord replied to her with an ominous oracle “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

God predestines Jacob and Esau, by virtue of their relationship as two brothers born into the family of promise, to struggle in conflict with one another.

Throughout the scriptures, God predestines countless people, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Nathan, Jesus and the Pharisees, and even the church of Corinth, to struggle in conflict.

And in the same way, God has predestined us, by virtue of our relationship as brothers and sisters born into the family of faith, to struggle in conflict with one another.

Such a notion is troubling to us.  Don’t we worship a God of peace?  Isn’t the Shalom of God, the peace in the land a divine prerogative of the Most High?  Shouldn’t the story of Jacob and Esau have a happy ending, a Full House style resolution to their incessant bickering, so that God’s reign of peace may be established?

If the show Full House taught me anything, it was that conflict is to be avoided at all costs.  Popular television and movies are riddled with instances where families, neighbors, and co-workers awkwardly avoid conflict until the tension rises to the breaking point.  Avoidance of conflict, it seems, becomes even more poisonous to the relationships than the conflict itself.  We are taught, however subliminally, that conflict, all conflict, is bad.  We have this innate reptilian instinct to protect ourselves from things that make us feel uncomfortable, in danger, or that sets our hard wrought relationships on the edge of precariousness.  Yet no matter how far we try to stick our heads in the sand to avoid it, the presence of conflict in our homes, schools, workplaces, our government, and even our churches is not going away any time soon.

We are not promised a life free from conflict.  We are not promised a life free from tension, awkward moments, or tears.  We are promised, however, that the work and will of God can be furthered through our conflicts.  Later in Genesis, we read how Jacob eventually flees from his brother Esau and takes Leah and Rachel as his wives, and upon returning to his ancestral home, encounters an angel of God with whom a wrestling match ensues.  The angel asks Jacob to release him, but Jacob, always looking to make a cunning bargain, asks the angel to bless him.  The angel changes the name of Jacob to Israel and promises that he will inherit the promise of his forefathers, and will be made into the father of many nations.  It is curious to note that the name Israel in the Hebrew language can be translated as “God struggles” or “struggles with God”.  It is out of our struggle with God, it is out of our struggles with one another, that the promises of God are made real and the works of justice and peace are labored for.

This past summer, the 221st General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church USA met for a week in which conflict was in no short supply.  Commissioners from around the country, including several from our own Mission Presbytery, worked hard to discern the will of the Holy Spirit on a number of difficult issues facing our church.  Among the more contentious issues was the matter of divestment.

Since 2004, the Presbyterian Church has been in negotiations with three US companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions to address the issue of their involvement with the Israeli government and the treatment of occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.  These three companies, in various ways, were found to be out of compliance with the ethical investment policies of the Presbyterian Church.  From providing bulldozers used in the demolition of Palestinian homes, to supplying logistics and communications systems in support of the naval blockage of the Gaza strip, to providing military surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements, these companies were found to contribute directly to human rights violations that harm our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

Despite a decade of negotiations with these companies, no agreement or resolution was achieved.  After several days in committee and a vigorous floor debate, the General Assembly voted to recommend the divestment from these three companies.  Having personally been to Israel and the West Bank and meeting the people whose families suffer the lack of basic access to food, medicine, and meaningful work, I support the resolution made by our General Assembly.  That being said, I am blessed with many lifelong Jewish friends who understand all too well the need for a secure and recognized homeland.

In the language of the resolution, the General Assembly also took great care to express that this was not a divestment from Israel, and that the PCUSA remained committed to Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state within secure and internationally recognized borders.  The General assembly also reaffirmed its commitment to a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people.

Also included in the resolution were further commitments to interfaith dialogue, transparency and accountability in foreign aid given to both Israeli and Palestinian people, and an encouragement for Presbyterians to travel to the Holy Land.  We here at University Presbyterian Church have a number of ways to further the work of this resolution.  This church is affiliated with iAct, a local non-profit that seeks to build interfaith relationships through structured dialogue and service.  In addition, the Session of UPC has approved our congregation to join with Austin’s Temple Beth Shalom to travel to Israel in March of 2015 for a ten day tour of the Holy Land.

We as a denomination, we as University Presbyterian Church, remain committed to supporting our Israeli brothers and sisters, as are we equally committed to ensuring that the human rights of our Palestinian brothers and sisters are equally respected and advocated for.  The matter of divestment was an issue presented to the General Assembly that was in no short supply of conflict.  Yet through our conflict, the glimmer of healing, of reconciliation, and of God’s work of peace shines just a little brighter.

We as Presbyterians can be a cantankerous bunch.  Our heritage as Reformed Christians and our polity in many ways predisposes us to be a church in conflict.  But it is through these conflicts that we wrestle with what it means to be God’s people in this world, living together as communities of faith and service.  When we engage the conflicts among us head on, we steer clear of the poison of avoidance and the façade of stability for stability’s sake.  Conflicts can be messy and painful and never work out quite the way they are presented on Full House.

But what if we stopped looking at conflict as a potential end to a relationship, and instead saw conflict as a way to deepen our relationships with God and with one another?  What if we canned the cheesy Fully House music, set aside our desire for surface level “I’m okay, You’re okay” relationships, and engaged the issues facing us, trusting in faith that God Almighty, and not Bob Saget, will be our mediator?   When we engage an issue that divides us, we do so always from the orientation of love.

We must love the person we disagree with so much that we must even entertain the possibility that we might be wrong.

We must love the person we disagree with so much that we are willing to listen to not just their argument, but to their heart and soul as well.

We must love the person we disagree with so much that the goal of our conflict must not be victory, but reconciliation.

We must love the person we disagree with so much that our words are never used as weapons to shame or injure.

We must love the person we disagree with so much that we are willing to place a relationship on a precarious edge, trusting in the promise that a stronger, deeper and healthier relationship will be waiting for us on the other side.

Walter Brueggemann writes that “Promise requires and end to grasping and certitude and an embrace of precariousness.”  The promise of God is not found in the avoidance of conflict.  Rather, the promise of God is found in the precariousness of conflict, when we soulfully and lovingly engage the deep matters of life, faith, justice, and peace with one another.  The promise of conflict is that God is with us, even in the midst of our vulnerability, our tension, our dialogue.  And in the end, the promise of God is that all people will one day be reconciled, and we will all dwell together in the full household of God.    Amen.