On this Labor Day weekend we pause to give thanks and pay tribute to the blue collar workers of our community and nation. The focus of the holiday is on those of labor as opposed to management. In reflecting on this day there are many worthwhile paths to take. One can consider the value of honest industry, free enterprise, stewardship, pride in work, justice and so forth. But there is an aspect of the Labor Movement that seems to me to have particular relevance to us in this Church today. And that is conflict. Any honest reflection on the history of labor in our nation must include a serious look at the turmoil and discord that come so close to characterizing it. Conflicts with management are well known but there have also been conflicts between competing trades, competing nations and even with the advances of science.
The conflicts associated with labor are important to us because our Church is involved in a serious conflict right now. Our trouble du jour grows out of the decisions made at the General Convention held earlier this month in Minneapolis. Especially those decisions related to homosexuality. Liberals and conservatives in the Episcopal Church are right where labor and management often find themselves. We view the same point from different angles and come to incompatible conclusions. We threaten to walk out if our view is not accepted. The truth is made dizzy by the spinning we put it through. And healing seems a dim hope. I would like to talk with you about conflict and healing this morning. It is a key issue in the history of labor, the history of the Church and — lest we forget — our homes, our schools, our cities, our nation and our world.
When there is conflict at any level of life, a common first reaction is to rob our opponents of their human complexity. “Those People” and all they stand for can suddenly be summed up in a word. Management is just greedy. Workers are simply lazy. Arabs are terrorists. Israelis are oppressors. Liberals have no standards. Conservatives are insensitive. And we all know what kind of a person she is! It is the kind of half truth that allows hate to happen and makes healing impossible. The whole truth is that people are complex. We have mixed motives. Some we hold with pride, others with embarrassment, but we all have them. “Those people” are just as sincere, shallow, convinced and doubtful as we are. My most recent conflict was at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church where I was privileged to be close to the center of action. The tendency to demonize and simplify others was strongly present, but do you know something? It did not take hold. The press commented over and over about the civility with which sharply divided people dealt with one another. Bishop Griswold pointed out that the press did not know it but what they saw was the Love of God at work. It was there in Minneapolis. But I have not seen much of it since and that concerns me. There is a brittleness in our midst. An absence of generosity, a willingness to trash others, write them off, bid them good riddance. This is a problem because no healing will happen until we understand and respect the dignity of those who differ from us. Unions, corporations, churches, cities, nations and homes ignore that fact to their peril.
When there is conflict, there is a natural tendency to pull away from the other. Have you ever had an argument with someone while holding their hand? I doubt it. Disagreements demand distance while healing requires connection. Here the Church has something to learn from labor. We get upset and announce that we are leaving, pulling back, pulling out. Individuals want to leave congregations, congregations want to leave the diocese, dioceses want to leave the American Church. It is an understandable reaction. Of course we want to be with people who agree with us. With that reaction we need to learn what labor and management have learned. We need each other. We don’t make any sense apart. What is labor without management or vice versa? They cannot be what they want to be apart from each other. They have to stay at the table and work it out. It is the same thing that St. Paul was telling the Corinthians and the whole Church. We are one body and we need each other. We do not make sense apart. We cannot be what God created us to be when you are separated. We have to stay at the table and the altar. We have got to work it out. Leaving is not the way to go. One reason God calls us together in community is that we need the enrichment we get from our differences. “Those people” make us think and wonder. They also remind us that we cannot and do not hold the whole Truth in our hearts, minds or theologies. The other fact is we cannot really leave. God bound us together in creation. We can deny the reality of our connectedness, pretend that others don’t matter to us, avoid what holding hands does to an argument, but when we do the truth does not change—and healing does not happen.
When there is conflict there is often confusion. Confusion marks the difference between a disagreement and a misunderstanding. In a disagreement, people know what the other person is saying but they differ. In a misunderstanding, people do not know what the other is really saying and they go on arguing anyway. If you cannot state your opponents position to their satisfaction, you are having a misunderstanding. Good things can grow out of a disagreement. Misunderstandings just make people madder and situations worse. Our Church is in the process of having a serious misunderstanding regarding Gene Robinson. Everyone acknowledges that he is an openly gay priest who is about to be a bishop in this Church. Most people think the key point is that he is a homosexual person. That is important but it is not the word that characterizes the Convention decision. The key word that tells the story is “openly.” Does anyone really think Gene Robinson will be the first homosexual bishop in the Church? Or the first cleric to have a sexual relationship other than marriage? Of course not. What is new is the openness of it.
We have talked much about the theology of homosexuality. It is time for us to begin to discuss the theology of openness. All is open to God. We begin each service with a prayer that reminds us that to God all hearts are open, all desires known and no secrets are hid. What kind of sense does “Don’t ask, don’t tell” make before the throne of such a God? Good theology, like good therapy, good contracts and good relationships, tells the truth about what is really going on. When we tell the truth as we know it there is a chance to grow or to find out that we are wrong. In the open there can be an answer that great prayer which asks God to” fill the Church with all truth…where it is corrupt purify it; where it is in error direct it; where in anything it is amiss reform it. Where it is right strengthen it…where it is divided reunite it.” (BCP p. 816). None of those things can happen without the openness we opted for in Minneapolis. We may be wrong about Gene Robinson and about same gender relationships. And we may be right. But we would never know without this decision to be open and honest about what is rally going on. The key word is open and it makes healing possible.
The Labor Movement and the Church have much in common and much to learn from one another. We both embody the best and worst about people. We both can tell stories of great courage and sacrifice. Neither of us are strangers to conflict. We struggle with others over issues both great and small. Labor is far better than the Church in knowing that they need the other side and must work out their differences. The Church may be better than labor at knowing the importance of truth in the process of healing. Neither is perfect. Both are essential. And God still holds us all in the cup of his hand.
Thanks be to God.