What was the real story of World Youth Day? Was it the two million young people who gathered to celebrate their faith together, or the thousands who protested at the Pope's visit chanting 'God yes, Church no'?
For much of the media, the protestors claimed centre stage. To enter into conflict is somehow to become worthy of attention, to be the real story behind the paper thin bonds that bind people together. It is not just in the reporting of religious matters of course. Politics can only make sense when it involves furious claim and counter claim. Television or radio interviews are structured around the either/or of conflicting positions. All social unrest is presented as protest, even when much of it is plainly opportunistic robbery.
The rush to identify conflict is one of the hallmarks of our world. People are quick to speak of themselves as being outraged or offended, and we are quick to identify the culprit. As the poet Les Murray puts it
Brutal policy, and inferior art, knows whose fault it all is.
The Gospel pictures a very different world from the brutalising insistence upon conflict that mars our society. Jesus knows there will be conflict between Christians. He calls men and women to form the Church in this world in which we live, a world damaged by sin and the consequences of sin. But this conflict is to be wholly and completely moderated by the truth - the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.
When one Christian has a case against another, the first step will be an attempt at private reconciliation. This protects both parties from humiliation, and from forming a public position they cannot back away from. Only when this fails are witnesses brought forward, and after that it is brought before the Church publicly. This is perhaps a mirror image of our world, where we rush to public conflict, and only resort to personal reconciliation when all else has failed.
What Jesus calls us to is an unrelenting insistence upon the truth, a commitment to the truth whatever it takes, resisting the simplicity of the Punch and Judy show at all costs. What becomes clear is that it is not conflict that is the real story. It is the persistent hope that human beings are able to hear the truth about themselves, and to live that truth with joy, knowing that whatever we have been, the Lord is with us. 'When two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'
The world perhaps rushes to present reality as conflict, as it cannot cope with the truth. To know who we have been, how we have harmed our brothers and sisters, can be a burden too heavy to bear. To hear how I have failed another is to be confronted with a picture of myself very different from the one I want to project to others. But Christians believe that the truth can set us free. The true reality is not the conflict of we, the innocent, with the guilty, but the discovery of our solidarity in guilt, and so our solidarity in being loved by God.
There will always be conflict in our world. And so there will always be conflict in the Church as it passes through this sinful world. As GK Chesterton says somewhere, the Church is not an oasis of peace in this world of conflict, but a place of conflict in a world of false peace. Jesus instructs the Church on how to deal with this conflict. And the authority Jesus gives Peter and his brothers is an authority to bind and to loose.
Throughout history the Church
will have to have recourse to this precepts of Jesus, to deal with conflict and
when necessary declare that communion with the Church has been broken.
conflict is not the true reality for a Christian, thank God. When it comes we
should expose it at every step to truth, spoken in love. Then the real story of
a God who loves human beings and seeks to draw them into the communion of his
love can be glimpsed, and our world may encounter something of the truth that
sets us free.