If one were to pull back the layers of any conflict as far back as were possible, at some point one would land on the question: Why do we engage in conflict at all? What is it about the human condition that seems to cause us to land in the sea of conflict again and again?
A quick look into our own lives and those around us tells us something quite simple but for our purposes quite important: We are limited. The book of Genesis, which among other things is a long series of conflict stories, points in this same direction. We read: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper as his partner.” Neither the man nor the woman is complete alone. In other words, both the man and the woman need one another in order to survive. This may not be a revolutionary thought – indeed most of us run up against our limitations every day even if it is only to eat food that was purchased and hence, that we did not produce ourselves. In our limitations we are dependent on others – others who by virtue of their differences from us are precisely those on whom we must depend. Herein of course, lies the rub.
Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Mary and Martha… again and again we read stories in the Biblical text that point not only to differences (in this case between siblings) but also to the struggle to live together with those with whom we differ. In other words, I am dependent on another precisely because he/she is different from me yet it is this difference that causes me pain. The Apostle Paul leaps headlong into this issue when he writes to Corinthian Christians struggling with their differences:
“Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (I Corinthians 12:14 – 16, NRSV)
As Paul suggests, we need those who differ from us, yet as Paul and any observer of human behavior knows, living well with those who differ from us is not always easy, leading at times to disagreement, conflict and even violence. This is why Paul does not stop at 1 Corinthians 12. Instead he moves on in 1 Corinthians 13 with his famous ode to love.
It is worth remembering that 1 Corinthians 13 was not written for people about to be married. Instead it was written for the church, specifically the people in Corinth, who were struggling to figure out how to live well with those with whom they differed. Hear the words of 1 Corinthians 13 again. Read it aloud and listen to its words not from the perspective of marriage but from the lens of the human community we call church:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13)
It is not always easy to live with and especially to need those with whom we differ. Despite this, the apostle Paul holds out a vision for how to allow this to happen – a vision based on tremendous humility, grace and above all, love.