Difficult Passages: Conflict Old and New

Posted by on October 23, 2013 in Biblical Reflection | 0 comments

Photo from a plane over Denver

Photo from a plane over Denver

As last week’s lectionary passage from Luke resonates in our memories, I cannot resist citing a link to Rev. Cam Miller’s sermon for last Sunday [http://subversivepreacher.com/2013/10/20/the-physics-of-pain-or-gallstones-of-the-soul/. ]

His sermon calls us to look into conflicts that we avoid above all costs —even people that we avoid—as the judge does in the story of the widow seeking justice in Luke 18.  His sermon also challenges us to struggle with God, just like Jacob did on the night his name was changed to Israel (in Genesis 32). 

Dealing with and discussing these issues may also help us resolve that very difficult passage that is only one chapter away from the Jacob wrestling match—the story of the rape of Dinah in Chapter 34.  Dinah’s rape and the terrible revenge for it that Jacob’s sons took forces us to consider the position of women in that age and in ours.

It is so difficult to imagine ourselves in another culture, in an age when women were protected by their husbands, brothers, fathers but no one else, and could be traded for money, land, and power.   In the Genesis story, we moderns get the distinct impression that the rape was avenged not so much for Dinah’s honor as for the tribe of Israel’s honor.  The Israelites were offered assimilation by the Canaanites—what’s ours is yours, even our own wives and daughters—and they were having none of it.

Trust was surely an issue, of course, when it comes to cultures merging in such a way, and the narrator of this chapter in Genesis reveals in the story that something devious was happening as the Canaanites made their ‘generous’ offer to the Israelites: “Will not their livestock, their property, and all their animals be ours?  Only let us agree with them, and they will live among us” (Gen. 34:23).

And so the issues of living together were never put on the table and seen for what they were.  The list would have been long: who is your God?  Monotheism.  Laws.  Promises from God.  Who did the land belong to?   Would negotiating these issues  have helped?  Or would this discussion have prevented both sides from ever agreeing to joint living arrangements in that land?   What do you think?

In marital engagements, before the couple say the powerful three words (I love you!), shouldn’t they have a few fights first?  Shouldn’t they test whether they can approach and resolve conflict or will soon develop the habit of avoiding it?   Like a man in the ad saying: “Here I am in this bathtub, watching the sun set, and you are in the bathtub next to me, and we are supposedly waiting for the ‘time to be right;’ but as a matter of fact, it is always ‘right’ for me and doesn’t seem to be ‘ever’ right for you!”

Besides sex as an issue for conflict, there is money and who pays the bills and who does what work to keep the house clean and the refrigerator full and the clothes fresh and ironed.   “Are these habits we have fallen into OK with you?” a spouse might ask.   “Or are you just doing these things because you KNOW I don’t know how to cook and you hate the way I make a bed, since I never used to make mine at home?”

Cam Miller raises, but does not dwell on, a good point: when does too much conflict render you dysfunctional.   In the days of our government’s shutdown, weren’t the issues clearly on the table?  Both sides KNEW what the other side wanted and believed in.  But they just couldn’t go there.  There was no room for compromise, only capitulation.  Only the threat of chaos made SOME legislators change their votes to end the impasse.

Is this suggesting that some conflicts are unresolvable?  Or is it pointing to the necessity of leading combatants to WANT to resolve the conflict?  Of course, there is a whole science of conflict resolution and career diplomats, mediators, marriage counselors and other professionals who would have good advice for us, if we wanted to hear it.

The New Interpreters’ Study Bible  reminds us that Jacob was really angry that his two sons had reacted with such deception and violence against the Canaanites.  In effect, Jacob cut those two out of his will by not including their names in his final blessing before he died.    The Study Bible states that the story is meant to dissuade the reader from solving conflict by violence.

But we return to Cam Miller’s point: some conflict is healthy, productive and is avoided at the peril of killing future communication, not to mention deep love.  Some conflict should not be ignored, and confronting it, bringing it up, hashing through it will be extremely painful but need not be violent.  It can remove old bandages from wounds that have gotten infected and festered.  With the right treatment, those wounds can heal.

Jesus is a model.  He plowed straight into conflict.  He did not return the violence he met.  He said “Put away your sword” to Peter, who cut off the soldier’s ear, and then reached out to that same soldier with a healing touch.  Can we be led to want a similar stance, to stand like Samson between the two pillars of not avoiding conflict and yet doing that out of a sincere desire and a growing skill to be peacemakers?  What do you think?

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