Fault lines are fascinating things. Huge sheets of the earth’s crust butting into one another, scraping against one another, sliding over and under each other or spreading away from each other create some of the most amazing and awe-inspiring geographical features on our planet. Lake Superior, the Great Rift Valley of Africa, the Rockies, the Appalachians and the Himalayas are all the product of fault lines. One could reasonably argue that fault lines have shaped the world as we know it.
Of course, fault lines can also be incredibly unstable, dangerous places. The earthquake that destroyed San Francisco in 1906, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 all resulted from tectonic activity along fault lines. Seismologists, geologists and other scientists monitor fault lines very carefully, hoping to provide sufficient warning of major events to prevent these kinds of disasters, but even the best monitoring available today cannot predict every event or prevent every tragedy.
On a metaphorical level, the fault lines between people have just as much potential both to create beauty and to wreak havoc. We live in a hypersensitive age, when every mishap has to be picked apart, examined, and dissected to find out who is at fault and to make sure that the miscreant is publicly pilloried. Politicians from both parties pounce on any opportunity to blame their adversaries for anything and everything under the sun. Pundits, bloggers and talking heads make huge amounts of hay (and huge amounts of money) telling us what’s wrong and whose fault it is, and no matter what you think or what your problem is, there is someone out there who will me more than willing to tell you that you are right and just who is to blame for the fact that you’re not taller/thinner/cuter/wealthier/healthier/whatever. The advance of communication technology has made it easier than ever for us to cry out when we’ve been wronged and to assign fault for all the world to see. Most of this fault-finding and fault-assigning doesn’t make us happier, safer, healthier or better off. It just serves to drive deeper rifts between people and to perpetuate so many of the real problems facing us today.
Jesus seemed to know that this kind of thing was the way of the world, and so he gave his disciples concrete, specific, step-by-step instructions on how to deal with the faults of their neighbors. The “fault lines”, as Jesus lays them out in Matthew 18, run like this:
- If somebody sins against you, go to them alone and point it out. In other words, try to be reconciled at the earliest point rather than striking back, escalating the problem or publicly humiliating the person.
- If they blow you off, go back with one or two others as witnesses. This is a key point: the people you take with you aren’t there to help you gang up on the person, but simply to act as witnesses. Again, the emphasis is on the desire to actually resolve the problem and effect reconciliation, not to crush the other person or seek revenge.
- If that doesn’t work, then and only then do you take the problem public and tell it to the whole church, but still with the desire to effect reconciliation.
- “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now, we might be tempted to think that this is the point at which we can bring out the flamethrowers, cut the offender off from ourselves and the church and publicly flamespray them for their offense. The thing is, though, that’s not how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He healed the sick children of Gentiles. He ate in the homes of tax collectors, and called them as disciples.
The point, I think, is that as God’s people in Jesus Christ, we don’t get to flamespray, we don’t get to publicly pillory, and we don’t get to write anybody off.
It’s tempting to write this off as a pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic approach to conflict management in the 21st century, a relic of an earlier, simpler age. The thing is, though, that it still works today. When I was younger and (I hope) more foolish than I am today, I more than once got suckered into refereeing fights between church members, trying to effect reconciliation. What happened every time was that the fight got worse and before long both parties were not only hopping mad at each other, they were hopping mad at me and I was hopping mad at them. Fortunately an older and wiser colleague helped me to see the error of my ways and recommended that I start insisting on this model for dealing with conflicts in the congregation.
I took her advice, and when I did, the most remarkable thing started to happen. People would come to me, angry about someone else in the congregation. I would hear them out, then read Matthew 18:15-17 to them and ask them to try the method Jesus lays out. In my first three years of parish ministry, I probably went through that process a dozen times, and of those dozen conflicts, not one ever escalated beyond the first step. Most often, the offender would express shock and dismay, and immediately apologize for the slight they didn’t even realize they had committed. In the few cases I can think of where the person did know they had offended a brother or sister, the approach Jesus lays out and its emphasis on reconciliation rather than fault-finding led to reconciliation. Not only that, but people who had butted into each other for years, like runaway tectonic plates, suddenly discovered how to get along, and in more than one instance, actually became friends.
The reality is, none of us is perfect, and we’re all going to sin against a brother or sister sooner or later. When that happens, would you rather be approached when you are alone, or would you rather your faults be broadcast to the world? We’re also all, sooner or later, going to be the ones on the receiving end of bad behavior. Unless we become hermits and live in complete isolation, we’re going to get hurt, sometimes badly. We have a choice, though, about what results when someone else collides with us. We have a choice, either to let the collision become a disaster or to let it build something beautiful. It all depends what we choose to do with the “fault lines”.