I have been reading Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) for the last couple of weeks (I read slowly as I reflect over the text). I just read paragraph 227 and was deeply struck by it. I think it is very relevant today as we watch conflicts between individuals, political parties, nations, and religions. So, I want to share it and some of my thoughts on it.
Before doing so, I think I need to set a context. In paragraph 221 Pope Francis writes
Progress in building a people in peace, justice and fraternity depends on four principles related constant tensions present in every social reality.
In paragraphs 222-225 he lays out the first principle, “Time is greater than space.” I should be honest with you and tell you that I don’t quite understand this phrase. The best way that I might explain here is that “time” is looking at the big picture (as Pope Francis writes “processes) as we deal with things. “Place” is looking at only the here and now. In paragraph he names the second principle as “Unity prevails over conflict.”
So, now I offer you the full text of paragraph 227
227. When conflict arises, some people simply look at it and go their way as if nothing happened; they wash their hands of it and get on with their lives. Others embrace it in such a way that they become its prisoners; they lose their bearings, project onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction and thus make unity impossible. But there is also a third way, and it is the best way to deal with conflict. It is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process. “Blessed are the peacemakers!” (Mt 5:9). (http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html, access date August 8, 2017)
I see Pope Francis describing three approaches to dealing with conflict. The first is found in the first sentence. You could sum it up in the word “ignore” or “denial.” Some people simply want to avoid conflict so they ignore the issue, hoping that it will go away on its own. Even priests like to avoid conflict. So, it can seem easier to ignore the problem. Others might deny there is a problem or that it affects them. There is conflict over health care in our nation. Some might refuse to see the problem, thinking their own health care is fine or denying it affects them and people just need to work harder to get health care for themselves. Here, some people try to deny that problems in other parts of the world like the Middle East, Korea, or Russia as having any effect on them because it is on the other side of the world.
The second approach Pope Francis describes to dealing with conflict refers to those who “embrace it in such a way that they become its prisoners.” Here’s where I want to refer back to Pope Francis’ phrase “Time is greater than space.” I think the people Pope Francis is referring as becoming the ‘prisoners of conflict’ come from those who focus on only the here and now (“space”) as they focus on winning the specific conflict while losing touch with the big picture (“time”). Here, I think of conflicts between political parties or national leaders. These people are more concerned about “getting their way” or “proving themselves right” that they totally lose sight of the big picture. In the Church, I see the two poles as “doctrine” and “pastoral” approaches. In reality “doctrine” is very, very, important. We need to know what our faith teaches but we also need to be “pastoral” in how we offer the teachings in a way that shows we want to help the people rather than judging them.
The third approach is to “face conflict head on.” I number myself among those who do not like conflict. At times I hope “problems” will “go away on their own.” Sometimes it is better to just let the little things go. We don’t want to make a mountain out of a mole hill. However, especially when the conflict keeps returning, often the best thing we can do with is deal with the conflict. We need to ask ourselves what is really important. Are we truly looking at details where comprise is possible or are we facing differences in principle that we need to work on how to explain our beliefs better? To “face conflict head on” we need to ask God to give us wisdom to know what to say and the strength and courage to actually say it.
It’s not about winning the conflict. It is about building up the Kingdom of God.