Would you rather have a conversation or an enemy
Updated: Apr 7
I don't know what the experience is of the ELCA writ large or of Christ Lutheran in specific, but there is a stereotype among Episcopalians that we are bad bad bad at evangelism, and I find it to ring true, if not universally at least in small ways. The thing is, I am not bad at evangelism categorically. I'm bad at evangelism for church. I'm great at evangelism about other things. When I showed up in Fredericksburg, I probably got two dozen people drinking spindrift brand bubble water before I even figured out how to evangelize The House. At every chance I get, I'm asking folks, "hey have you been to Agora downtown, it's great, it's my favorite place, do you want to go with me I'll take you." Lately I've been literally making people watch the American, British, and Australian versions of my new favorite reality tv program called Traitors.
And the latest object of my evangelization is a little book I've had on my list for ages and only finally picked up, called Conflict Is Not Abuse. In it, the author, Sarah Schulman talks about the many, many ways that we both as individuals and as a culture tend to escalate and vilify one another in conflict than to address and resolve conflict.
She talks about how, for instance, rather than addressing small pinches in a relationship with someone at work or school, we let them fester over time until it erupts into ad hominem attacks.
Or she talks about how when we have been hurt by someone's actions, we might choose instead of talking directly to them, talk to everybody else but them and slowly build out a team of people who are mad at the person with you, although they had no involvement in the original hurt.
Or how sometimes, we assess the terms of a misunderstanding or hurt and determine that rather than resolve it, we punish the other person instead -- to shun them or ice them out or last out at them in an effort to inflict the same hurt we think they've done to us or in the name of teaching them a lesson.
The underlying idea of her thesis is that often, we would rather deem someone a new enemy than simply hash out a problem. All too often, we weaponize minor conflicts or disagreements just normal everyday tensions to excommunicate people from our lives or to write them off as villains.
I've thought that this book is so good because it cuts me in a very real place -- she'll describe a maladaptive or punitive problem escalation method and I'll realize "oh I did that this morning" or "oh they taught us how to do that in div school" or "oh that's why that interaction felt so bad to me five years ago". And it's not often that I find a book that hits me so squarely between the eyes.
I'm talking about this book because, last year when I preached this sermon on this day, in this church, I believe I called the Last Supper a "dinner party" and upon revisiting it, I believe it is much more apt to call the Last Supper a murder mystery party (or perhaps an episode of the TV show traitors). You get all your friends together, Jesus is the omniscient narrator, there's one traitor, and the other eleven faithful are all trying to figure out who Jesus means when he says "one of you will betray me." It is the conflict in the story, not just the sentimentality, that makes this story what it is, and it feels like a worthwhile question to ask: why did Jesus take to the table with his betrayer? Why didn't he outsmart Judas and keep his mission going? Why didn't he turn everybody against Judas, why didn't he fight harder, why didn't he flip that table too? And all I can think is simply that that is not who Jesus is -- that's who we are. And we are not God.
It's easy to hear from the pulpit that it is your call to take to the table with your friends or that it is your job to make friends with as many people as you reasonably can. It is much harder to hear from the pulpit that sometimes your job as a Christian is to take to the table with your enemies, and not just to punish them or be punished by them, not just to fight, but to encounter one another. Part of what Sarah Schulman points out is that the idea that someone is our enemy often precedes the actual person. Whether it's one fault blown out of proportion or a rumor shared with us by another that this person is bad news, that someone is 'an enemy' is often a simple story told from a small bit of information that does a disservice to a multi-faceted real life person. The same is true in reverse, if somebody has concluded that we are their enemy, perhaps the solution is little more than to give them the chance to actually know us.
Schulman says that "Nothing disrupts dehumanization more quickly than inviting someone over, looking into their eyes, hearing their voice, and listening" and I'm aware that that is the shape of the Last Supper, that inviting someone over, looking in their eyes, hearing their voice, and listening is the shape of what Jesus is what happened at the Last Supper, it's what Jesus did with his betrayer, and it's what he instituted as the way that we are to memorialize him for all time. He did not ask us to memorialize him by double-crossing our enemies, by talking trash about them in the break room, by shunning them into submission or icing them out. He asked us to memorialize him -- he centered the practice of the Christian life -- by sitting at table with friend and foe alike, with faithful and traitor alike.
If it feels foolish, that may very well because to the rest of the world it is, though I might remind you that very few of us are at the same kind of risk as Jesus, very few of us are at risk of martyrdom at the hands of the Roman empire, very few of us have a Judas and a Pilate conspiring to end us. Most of us have a lot more to gain than to lose by sitting across from an enemy, and it may even be that what we have to lose is an enemy, and what we have to gain is a friend.
There's a reason why the shape of our communion service is to confess our sins, share a sign of the piece, and meet one another again at the table. I wonder simply what it would be like if we memorialized Jesus in that same shape as much outside of the church, as often as we did sacramentally within it.