Inner and Outer Conflict

One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, from the city of Thyatira, worshiper of God, listened and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. After she and her household had been baptized, she offered us an invitation, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home,” and she prevailed on us.

Acts 16:14-5

They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me.

John 16:2-3

In the news this morning the visit of the United States President to Saudi Arabia is being reported, a visit that is getting for the most part positive appraisals. The heart of the speech the President gave is a proposal of a common alliance based on common interests, central to which is reaction to a common enemy, ISIS and Iran. As I read and listened to these reports, I found myself struck by the simplistic binary understanding: the conflict is a simple case of good (that is us) against evil. There is certainly no disputing the evil of ISIS and the demonic behavior of those who seek to impose their will and their power through the use of the most horrific and arbitrary brutality.

On the other hand, I thought of how in the past week the people of Iran had voted for moderation and for greater opening to the world. With over 70% of the voting population casting ballots, there was overwhelming support for a stance of opening to and engagement with the wider world. The population of Iran, as of much of the region, is very young. The theocratic leadership in Iran is, on the other hand, very old. The world is constantly changing before our very eyes, and yet the old “war horses” in every country continue to view the world through the prism of an antiquated and arrogant self-interest. I wondered where the response was on the part of the United States to these young people, to those who are the future of their country, of the region, and of the world. Why, for the sake of short-term interest, would the leaders of a democratic people cast their lot with autocratic and repressive regimes instead of pausing to allow new and not yet understood realities to enter into consciousness and inform them? The consistent pattern lies in the alliance of the powerful with or against each other as over and against the possibilities of the people, especially the young who have not yet succumbed to the old and tired models of the world that continue to hold sway.

Today in Acts we read of Lydia, who “listened and the Lord opened her heart.” She then offers an invitation to stay in her home. She listens and the Lord opens her heart, and the result of that open heart is hospitality to the stranger. As we have read these past weeks from Acts, we have seen how for many and for some time in the early Church, the other remained evil: Gentile for Jew, Jew for Gentile. The nature of spirit, however, is openness. It is openness to the other, both externally and within oneself. The Church learned that the Spirit is universal.

The reading from John reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus will not universally end fear and closed-mindedness. Jesus tells the disciples that a time will come when people will kill them and see that killing as a service to God. When a rich country like the United States sells billions of dollars in arms to people whom they then declare as engaged in a war of good against evil, is this not the very reality of which Jesus is speaking? There is evil, to be sure, but none of us are exempt from its presence and influence in our own lives. Those who murder and butcher people must be stopped, but we must not think for a moment that we are thus obliterating evil so that we, the good, may continue our own ways of greed, power, and dominance. In violence, we can never claim to be acting for God. As Lincoln reminded us, the ways of God are true and just, but they are not simplistic and do not accord with our own understanding and interpretation. As we struggle against evil in the world, we must never cease the struggle with our own conflicted and sinful selves. If we remember who we are, we shall live more openly and hospitably with the others around us. In such hospitality, we may discover the Spirit in places we would have never expected.

And when you’re conflicted, you do things. badly, awkwardly, angrily. You communicate awkwardness and anger, In general, the physio said, much of the pain that was experienced in the world was the result one way or another of people’s state of conflictedness. They didn’t want to be doing what they had decided, or had been told, they had to do.

Tim Parks, In Extremis, p. 15

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