Conflict and inner turmoil is the virus that creates havoc and often death of groups or organisations. I have been part of many groups over the years – sporting teams and clubs, school parent organisations, musical groups, churches and church organisations and groups, community groups… Most of these have experienced some form of dissension or conflict. This is to be expected when people gather together because we are all different and express different perspectives, views and opinions. All these are fair enough; each is entitled to their view unless, of course, it is basically untrue and/or slanderous, vindictive, unjust and so on, like so much public rhetoric.
In some of these organisations internal conflict has driven the agenda and completely side-tracked the group from any constructive life and work. I remember one particular group many years ago. A group of adults met around children’s issues to improve the opportunities for children – theirs and others. There was a good agenda and positive feel for a while. Then there developed some misunderstandings between two groups of people. Some of the issues came from other places and were brought into this group as a simple lack of trust. There were also power plays at work. In the end each gathering became a battleground for the two groups to throw darts at each other. The time between the gatherings was a power struggle to convince non-aligned people to come aboard one side of the other. The whole group became unworkable and limped along until eventually some people left and the group had to rebuild itself completely.
This is not a unique story and reminds me of how inner conflict and power struggles can destroy the spirit, direction and functioning of a group. Any sense of community and belonging is severely impacted. Struggles for power and control often dominate groups until one or the other emerges victorious. We saw this in the NRMA a few years ago. Sporting clubs and organisations have wrestled with power struggles and financial issues for decades all to the detriment of those involved in playing the sport.
On a broader scale, societies, cultures and nations use measures to control the populace and enable those in power to maintain power. We define people to either belong or to symbolise the ‘enemy’ and push them to the margins. There is a strong ‘us and them’ ethos that excludes and forms barriers to stop people coming into our group or organisation. These barriers are not necessarily physical, although programs like ‘stopping the boats’ create and use physical barriers to prevent people belonging.
Most barriers are through the creation of rules that define who is in and who is out. A culture of exclusion through limiting power of involvement so that only particular people can make decisions is also common. Most groups and organisations struggle to some degree with how to balance membership so that the purposes and ideals of the organisation are maintained but there is also openness to new members who may differ in understanding or even direction. There is no point in a football club including people who only want to play cricket and are actively working to turn football teams into cricket teams. It is more difficult when there are people who want to take the style of football club in a different direction or develop teams in a new way…
So we come to this week’s challenging Gospel reading from Mark 9:38-50. It occurs with Jesus journeying to Jerusalem and his death. He has revealed himself as the Messiah but one with a different kind of expectation to the popular opinion. He is not a military leader-king but a non-violent proclaimer of God’s peace, justice and love amidst a world of violent and power, injustice and struggle, pain and alienation. In this section Jesus makes clear his purpose to include all who want to be part of God’s Reign of just living, loving-kindness, inclusive community and peacemaking. He points especially to the little ones, the vulnerable and weak, the powerless and marginalised, and indicates that God’s Reign is as much for them as anyone. If anyone actively or ignorantly excludes these people from God’s grace they are working against the purposes of God.
The disciples are concerned because there are prophets and healers and others speaking the words of Jesus and doing things in his way, using his name, for the common good. They are concerned that ‘he is not following us’. They are concerned over the loss of control and exclusive ownership of ministry and ideas and the use of God’s power to transform. It is a common problem in churches and other groups or organisations where particular people wield power and control, usually for good but hold onto it until it becomes exclusive, even dictatorial. There is fear and a sense of responsibility, a need for particular order and to satisfy rules or polity or tradition and without realising it the whole enterprise closes up and excludes, builds barriers and keeps those who might belong out.
Jesus has some weighty words for those who would control and exclude in such manner, creating a stumbling block before these little ones, it would be better for you to have a millstone put around your neck and be thrown into the sea. It is be better, suggests Jesus, to enter into God’s Realm limping, wounded or scarred by the inner struggle of life and the spiritual journey that is transformative and sometimes hard – the road less travelled – than to be outwardly whole but never deal with the inner demons of life. As one commentator puts it:
The good news in this parable is not that Jesus expects us to show up in heaven completely intact, pure and unblemished. But rather that Jesus knows we will stumble and expects us to show up lame and scarred by the inner struggle to be true to our loyalty to God as frail and faulty human beings.
Another commentator suggests the following and asks these questions for us to ponder in the light of our own churches, organisations and groups.
This text invites communities to identify the self-constructed stumbling blocks that prevent flourishing. In other words, are there subtle ways in which the church sabotages its own ministries? Are the goals of committees in conflict with each other? Is the ministry of the church controlled by a select few whose needs and interests do not represent the larger body? Is the church clinging to a self-identity that no longer reflects its membership or a vision that no longer holds relevance? What’s keeping the church from discerning the will of God and pursuing Christ’s ministry? How can the church become Spirit-led rather than ego-driven?
I wonder how our churches and organisations will respond? I wonder how often we stand in the way of others experiencing God’s grace through our culture, rules or words?