Jacob has had children by four women — two sisters and their two slaves (start the ominous sound track). One sister was loved; the other was forced on Jacob. The latter had sons first, hoping each time that her fertility would endear her to her husband. The slave women were sucked into the competition between the sisters in an effort to raise the baby count for their mistresses. Finally, the loved wife had a son and named him Joseph. Another son ultimately followed, but at the cost of her life.
Jacob made no bones about his favoritism. Joseph was the apple of his eye, the first-born son of his beloved, and now deceased, wife. Of course, Jacob grew up in a home of blatant favoritism, so despite having seen the problems that can cause, he was probably just repeating the patterns he knew¸ as most of us parents often do.
At 17 years of age, Joseph was sent to help tend the flock. He wasn’t sent with the older brothers, though, but rather as an assistant to the sons of the slave women. Perhaps it felt demeaning to be made subordinate to them. Perhaps they seemed to be easy pawns to walk over on his way to climbing the ladder of influence in the family. Whatever the case, he ratted them out to his father for doing poor work. The brothers ended up looking bad in their father’s eyes. Joseph received a long, special robe for his efforts. It became a glaring symbol of his status as his father’s favorite.
When Joseph was later sent to check up on all his brothers while they tended the flock, the brothers saw their opportunity. They first resolved to kill him, then settled for selling him into slavery. That would end any question about what role he would play in their lives in the future.
So who sinned in this family? Who failed to do right in God’s eyes? Joseph, for rubbing his brother’s noses in his status as favorite? The brothers, for banding against him? Jacob, for his many decisions that led to this conflict spinning out of control? The sisters for their jealousy and competition? At some point, there was such a mess the question of “who’s to blame” was not even worth asking. No one’s hands were clean by the time Joseph was carted off by the Midianites.
Our Presbyterian family of faith is not unlike Israel’s first family of faith. We have been in conflict with one another over various issues for a long time. (Truth be told, open disagreement over theology, biblical interpretation and denominational policy is part of our DNA — there has never been an extended time when there has not been conflict in the Presbyterian family. Dividing into different denominations hasn’t given us the desired relief of conflict; it has simply resurfaced around
different issues and often led to more divisions.) Some are saying now that the Presbyterian Church has died, is “deathly ill” or is no longer Christian. The pointing of fingers about who’s to blame, who’s not being Christ-like or who’s apostate seems as fruitless an exercise to me as sorting through the brokenness of this first family of Israel. So much water has gone under the bridge, so many harsh words have been said, so many dismissive glances have caused their wounds.
When conflict escalates, it goes through some pretty predictable stages. Friedrich Glasl’s nine-stage theory of conflict escalation helps us understand how it works and what kinds of words or behaviors are indicative of escalated conflict at different stages. (I heartily recommend the article on this at www.mediate.com/articles/jordan.cfm). Glasl’s theory notes that conflict progresses through stages marked by differences over an issue, debating and arguing, taking actions and using power, and solidifying coalitions and images about opponents. By the fifth stage, parties feel they suddenly have new insight into the true motivations of those with whom they are in conflict. They now view their opposition as being driven by unholy motivations.
When we look into theories about how conflict escalates, we can realize that many people within our denomination have been struggling at a high level of conflict escalation for a long time. Temptations to overpower, leave or condemn become impossible to resist as conflict escalates. Temptations to dismiss others as manipulative, mean-spirited or ignorant can also arise as we fail to realize the limitations they are working under because they are at an elevated stage of conflict.
In the end, I believe, the claims that the PC(USA) is unbiblical, apostate or unchristian arise from escalated conflict. Taking such assertions at face value and believing them or getting defensive only causes us to join others in escalated conflict. For, truth be told, I believe virtually all Christians and all churches are at all times deeply accommodated to the subcultures they are part of in ways that cause them to be unfaithful to the gospel. Nevertheless, churches across the theological spectrum inside and outside the Presbyterian family still manage to allow the light of Christ to shine through them in ways that the Spirit uses to transform lives and communities. Our best hope at having our cultural accommodation exposed so that we might repent of it, be freed of it, and grow in deeper discipleship probably comes from those with whom we are most likely to be in conflict in the family of faith.
Are there theological differences in the PC(USA)? Sure! Do we interpret the Bible differently? Yes and no. We all bring our personal histories, our political views and our desire for the Bible to support a lot of what we already believe. Additionally, we all read some biblical texts very literally and read others contextually or metaphorically. And we all just avoid reading some texts altogether. However, we also all seek to hear something new from God as we read the Bible, we all seek to be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ and we all have some openness to having our worldview transformed by it. Because what we bring to Scripture is different, there are certainly many differences in how we read and interpret it, but I suspect there are far more similarities than we realize.
For Joseph and the brothers, the explosion in their conflict would be followed by over two decades of total separation. But that didn’t resolve their conflict. They carried their anger, their hurts and their guilt with them on their separate ways. God would finally bring them back together in a way that reconciliation could take place. By then, Joseph was able to see and affirm that though the brothers had intended to do him harm, God intended it for good. God was at work in their lives all along.
Like Joseph’s brothers, may we discover that the one we wanted to get rid of, the one whose arrogance drove us up a wall and the one who threatened to one day control us may be the very one God will use to save us or enrich our lives. Like Joseph, may we learn that the ones who berated us, the ones who dismissed us and the ones who did us harm may be the very ones God has sent us into the world to care for and protect. May we trust that God is at work to bring about good in our family even though we are experiencing conflict now. And may we even learn these lessons before subjecting ourselves, our parents and our children to decades of heartbreak and unresolved conflict. Trusting in the God who is at work in our lives, may we even manage to act in ways that leave us open to the Spirit’s work of reconciliation in our lives now.
We are the PC(USA). The PC(USA) is us. How will we allow Christ to shine through us even as we walk through challenging times?
DAN MILFORD is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas.