Antagonism is that spirit of opposition that seems so prevalent in society today. The world runs on antagonism, says David Fitch. Do any of us really disagree? Us vs. them seems to be the default worldview in our culture; indeed in most cultures. This is of course a direct result of the Fall. It started with the very first family, when, as result of sin (not as part of the Divine Plan) God says to Eve that her desire will be for her husband but he will rule over her (Gen. 3:16).
It continued with many heartbreaking examples from the Old Testament. The estrangement between Joseph and his brothers, the relational and power struggle between David and Saul, even the bickering among the disciples all stand out as examples of an antagonistic world view continuing even into the New Testament.
If you want to see antagonism in the present time, check the news. Log on to Facebook. Maybe just go to your next family get-together. You’ll find plenty of antagonism between individuals. You’ll also see it between political parties, Christian denominations, and along racial lines. There’s a lot of disagreement, a lot of tension, a lot of hurt out there, and while it’s often out in the open, it also sometimes hides under a thin veneer of sugary sweet niceness.
Antagonism says I know best, I should be in control, you’re probably wrong, you don’t deserve to be forgiven, and that’s that. If you don’t like how I do things, maybe you should leave…My way or highway.
We don’t have to look far to discern a spirit of antagonism. And we don’t have to use a lot of our imagination to see where antagonism leads us. Antagonism necessarily leads to broken relationships, divided societies, emotional and physical violence, and–ultimately–death. This stands in direct opposition to Christ’s mission to bring life, and life abundant, and by submitting to death reconcile all things whether on heaven or on earth to himself (Col 1:20) So Jesus gives us a better way. He gives a discipline and a mission of reconciliation, starting with Matthew 18.
This process Jesus gives us seems so simple (first talk to the person, then bring another person, then, tell it to the church, etc), and yet it’s so rare in our churches today! Actually, it’s always been rare in churches. Even very old commentaries lament the fact that so few congregations even try to live out Jesus’ instructions on this point. Why does it seem so difficult?
I believe it seems so difficult because most of us wish to avoid conflict, and of course we wish to avoid conflict for a variety of reasons that all boil down to fear. Sometimes we are too prideful to consider that we may wrong. We have this pride because we think if we are wrong, that means we are somehow less valuable, powerful, or loved. Sometimes we’re afraid of damaging the relationship by moving into confrontation. The irony is that more often than not avoiding the confrontation actually does more damage. Sometimes, we think we’re being divisive by being open about being hurt, frustrated, or confused regarding someone else’s actions. Yet the fact is that the relational division is already there—ignoring it does nothing to move us toward healing, but frank, open, and kind confrontation does.
Of course, we don’t do any of this alone. It’s in this very specific context of confrontation, forgiveness, and reconciliations that Jesus promises that wherever two are three are gathered in his name, he too will be faithfully present. Part of the Good News of Jesus is that you don’t have to be afraid of confrontation anymore, because you yourself are secure in Jesus, and he is with you in the Spirit! You don’t have to be afraid because your own reconciliation to God through his death on the cross has already been accomplished! Because he was raised from the dead, you can have confidence that you too will be raised from the dead. If there’s no reason to fear death, there’s no reason to fear anything—even a little confrontation.
2 Corinthians 5:14-16 says,
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh…
This means now, because Christ died for everyone, no one is our enemy. Not really.
Because we have been reconciled to God, we don’t have to respond to any offense or antagonism in kind. We can offer a message of reconciliation as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). I believe the discipline of reconciliation starts with each one of us personally submitting to Christ and being reconciled to God. This happens as we examine ourselves and repent of our sins. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever consider the idea of a “lone Christian.” All the writers of the New Testament assume Christians live, work, and worship together in extraordinarily intimate ways. So it follows that as Christians, we neither sin nor are forgiven in isolation. If this is true it also means our sins can never be wholly personal and private. They always have an impact on the community, and it is often helpful, even for sins that seem to be very private, to receive a pronouncement of forgiveness from an authorized representative of the church. Throughout the New Testament we are urged to confess our sins to one another. This is why we offer the sacramental rite of reconciliation with a priest for anyone that wants to take advantage of it. This is why I make my own confession regularly to a priest as well. We can start reconciliation in the community of the faithful by making a habit of confessing our sins, receiving forgiveness, and following through with the process Jesus has given us in the Bible when we have personal conflict in the Church.
We can’t neglect the discipline there as we meet for table fellowship with our friends and neighbors, because reconciliation is essential for table fellowship. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul urges Christians to settle their every day disputes in the church, and not in the courts of the world. He is talking about situations where nonbelievers will witness what is going on…and how we settle disputes among ourselves is a witness to how we are discerning and tending to the presence of Christ among us.
David Fitch says, “The discipline of reconciliation extends into everyday life. But it is always preceded by presence.” We have to be willing to be with the people we have wronged and have wronged us. We have to be willing to stick it out, to engage in the process of reconciliation in our every day lives by continuing to meet together faithfully throughout the week and in doing that, our neighbors see Christ. They see a Kingdom where differences are handled differently than in the rest of the world.
Living this out in the world is hard and challenging, but simple. I think we all know there’s brokenness everywhere…at our work places, in our neighborhoods, in various social situations. What we do in those places is prayerfully consider where God is calling us to simply be with the broken. We don’t go to fix their problems, their marriages, their conflict. We can’t fix those things. We simply go as a guest, listening with compassion and looking for a simple opportunity to offer the gift of reconciliation that we have been given in Jesus. This can be as simple as saying, “I hear you, and my heart breaks for you. I believe Jesus loves you and has forgiven every wrong done by every person. What would it look like to receive or extend forgiveness? How can I pray for you or support you in this?”
I believe Christians have special responsibility to be present wherever there is antagonism, injustice, and brokenness. I believe Christians have a responsibility to be present in prisons, among the homeless and with the mentally ill. I think Christians can and should be present at protests—sometimes as participants being faithfully present advocates for justice, sometimes as chaplains, offering and modeling a better way. Christians should be present wherever there is an opportunity to offer healing, wholeness, and reconciliation in Jesus.