Irreconcilable Differences

All that night and through the morning prayers I wrestled with the notion of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable. Aware now that there were two sides to the sanctuary, I found myself on the right, with the Protestants, and eyeing the priests on the left (I realized now they were not just Brothers but ordained priests) who were serving the Catholic faithful. The glib voice in my spirit wanted to cry out, “Seriously?” Do any of us really think that Christ would delight in these divisions? Shouldn’t we all be a little bit ashamed for allowing them to continue. And yet I knew, this was deadly serious stuff, not so much for me, who was not really raised in the church and did not cleave to these distinctions— most of which seemed to me to be based on proving that one camp or the other had a stronghold on the real, real Christian truth— but for millions of people around the globe who declared proudly and righteously that they were Baptist or Episcopalian or Catholic or Lutheran. What can I say— human beings are inclined to choose teams and then spend a lifetime shouting, “We’re number one!”

In the U.S., the divide in Christendom seemed to me to be far less about Catholics and Protestants and more about politics. A few decades back, just about the time the dwindling wealthy, white majority realized that they would be needing a very large pool of voters to stand a chance in Hell of staying in power, they encouraged the creation of the Religious Right, a group which began to brand Christianity in the eyes of the secular world as a force of judgment and small-mindedness. Gone was the grace, compassion and joy. This was a new strain of an old finger-wagging faith, more concerned, it seemed, with taxes and other people’s sins, than with reaching people who longed for wholeness with the love of God. And so it was that the divide in Christian America came to be between those who endeavored to live out their faith in their everyday lives, especially the calls to justice, mercy, and the Great Commission, and those who believed that God had called them to be vocal, unyielding, and devoutly capitalist and to reclaim this as the American way. So shrill and snarky and utterly political have the voices of the latter grown that most nonbelievers in America don’t even realize that there is such a thing as the quiet faithful, when in fact, we are the majority.

I left the morning prayers in a fog, shuffling through the food line, filling my tray with roll and chocolate and my cup with coffee and powdered cream. I sat with a few of our new English friends, and a few others whom I hadn’t yet met. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but it was a subject that was often on my mind of late, one that dovetailed easily into this larger schism: the new challenges in male and female roles. I shared with the group my growing concern about men in their 50s and 60s who had been cast out of the workplace before their time, and, due to a grueling economy, might never find the dignity of good work again. They were becoming more and more bitter and I feared for their lives, their families. “I think for a lot of them, the idea of having to adapt and learn new skills is just too much. Woman are used to having to adapt. This is one of the reasons they’re becoming increasingly successful.” Several of the people at the table nodded, leaned in. “That and the fact that the female management style tends to be better at bringing out the best in all members: most men still have a kill-or-be-killed approach.”

The man to my right had not said much but when he did speak, I could tell that he was English, likely not from a big city. His face reddened, “Is that so?” he said, and physically pulled away.

“Well, that’s been my experience, yes,” I said.

“Well, what I’ve seen is that a lot of asserting women have pushed the men out and robbed them of their dignity.”

I froze. It seemed clear that I had become in that moment one of these women to him; I recognized now that he was one of the angry, cast aside men. He got up to clear his tray and I wondered how I would manage to speak to him again. All through the day I thought about him, about how, if I could understand his pain, his point of view, I might better be able to connect to those men I knew who were struggling back home. He was nowhere to be found at lunch, but just before the afternoon groups I saw him in the tent. “I’ve been thinking about what you said all day.”

“Really?” He looked startled, curious, maybe even flattered. But not angry.

“Would you mind talking with me a little longer. I’d like to understand better what you meant about the asserting women pushing the men out.”

We talked for a half an hour, while our respective groups hovered in the distance. He was surprisingly quick to share with me his own pains, how he had been raised by a distant father and vowed he would never be that way with his own children, how he did everything possible to be there for his wife and kids— the soccer games, the family outings, the providing for— until ten years in, his wife up and left him for another man. We talked about the fragility of the family unit, the downside of women’s independence, and the matter of giftedness regardless of gender. Finally he laughed, “Hell, we all know that woman are better at getting things done.”

And when we hugged, I brushed up against the reality of communion. This is my Body, broken for you. And the path to reconciliation.

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