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Divide and Conquer is a Game Every Child Knows How to Play

toys at storeThe smallest children must rely on adults to supply all their needs, but soon, they learn how to get their own way. They want something they’ve been told they can’t have, and the wheels start turning. If Mom is decisive and consistent, she can withstand these forays. But, if she is the least bit equivocal, they plead and they whine. They cajole and convince. As soon as they sense Mom is wavering, they up their efforts. They can smell victory. Now, they’ve got her. What’s a few dollars to avoid a scene?

Kids hone these “negotiation” skills as they get older and the stakes get higher. No longer is it the My Little Pony or the Transformer toy, now it’s… Who can I hang out with? What am I allowed to say? How far can I push back curfew? Same kid, advanced version.

If Mom and Dad have discussed this child and agreed on the proper response to these onslaughts before the heat of battle, they can stand firm in the withering fire. But, if the child senses the smallest crevice between the two – perhaps Mom is willing to give a little while Dad is rigid and won’t discuss it (or vice versa) – the child knows this instantly. And plays it to his advantage. He approaches one without the other. He panders to one and not the other. He plays one against the other. Something inside of him knows, without ever having been taught or trained, how to drive a wedge between his opposition.

What is this inside us that seems to arrive with us, which convinces us we should have what we want or what others have and seeks things for our own good even though we aren’t old enough to know our own good? How is it that a ten or twelve year old knows that if she can set her opposition to arguing about their differences, she gets the upper hand? If she can sow distrust and division, perhaps even get them fighting among themselves, she can get away with whatever she wants.

How?

  1. It’s born in us.
  2. It’s taught to us.
  3. It’s confirmed in us.

We are born with the desire to make our way. We are taught we should make our own way. We see that if we are very good at it, we can get what we want. In spite of, in the face of, in ignorance of, or in defiance of, the needs, wants and desires of every other being. That ‘good’ may displace the very humanity born in us.

We must guard against any desire we see in the other who seeks to set us at odds with our friend, our neighbor, our spouse, our child, or our best selves. It is a very clever force. When it senses wavering, indecision or dissension in us, it preys upon this. That’s how it gets its way. That’s how it wins.

It’s child play. And kids can be a holy terror, can’t they?

One Table, Many Chairs

banquet tableSomething special happens when we insist on one table with everyone around it. Oh, we may not like everyone there. We may not have seen them in years. We may not even recognize them. But, when the first rule of gathering is that everyone gets a seat at the table, the dynamic changes.

It seems that rule #1 has gone missing. We feel just fine with one head table and a banquet hall filled with rounders of 10. Or, let’s just scrap the head table sit with our friends around a 6-seater or a 4-top. Why not a deuce?  Hey, we’re completely happy with our laptop and our tall latte at the table for one as long as there’s an outlet. As long as I can plug into “my community” and access all the wisdom the world has to offer, I’m good.

This is the direction we’re headed and we’re good with it. Our private truth feels fine. And that’s fine until we are confronted with different: different looks, different ways, different beliefs. Nothing wrong with different, we say, take that seat over there. Way over there.

Separate but equal, that seems fair. Just like it did when segregation seemed fair. And, in practice, people thought it made sense, until it didn’t.

What’s wrong with each one having a seat and a table to himself is that it doesn’t cause us to squirm. It doesn’t require us to listen to the difference, consider the different, and frame our response in respect to the one who differs. We dearly need rule #1: there is one table.

As soon as separation is an option, it’s an out. A reason to pack up our differences and find people who agree with us. In our own clusters we can justify our actions and find support for our opinions. We may work up a sweat and convince ourselves this is the work we are meant to do, this holding the line against those who would invade from that other table across the room.

But it’s hard to hear across the distance. And in the rabble of a million voices, each speaking his truth, where can we find a common language?

There’s only one way I know: One Table, everyone around it, no exceptions.

Yep, it will be nearly impossible to find union there, and the struggle to find a unified voice will nearly kill us. But it’s the presence of the opposition, not its absence, that force us to find it — faith, word, answer, method — a way forward that includes EVERYONE around the table.

One Table with as many chairs as there are people who seek a seat. One microphone and one scribe. When we love, we listen.

It would nearly kill us all. But out of that near death experience what life!

What’s hiding behind our platitudes?

I hate platitudes. I know hate is a strong word, but that’s how I feel. They’re good for nothing.

Really, they’re dismissals. Things “we can all agree on” so we can take our attention away from where we don’t agree. I see their usefulness. I just don’t like them.

Don’t get me wrong. Most platitudes are nice expressions. Good things. In fact, they’re good by nature.

  • God is with you.
  • Let’s be generous.
  • Let’s just get along.
  • It’s all about ….relationships, love, etc.
  • Let’s just agree to disagree.

My most recent disfavorite is “it’s all good.” That is code for, ‘It’s not, but I’m just not gonna let that bother me,’ or ‘I’m not gonna deal with it.’ Can we please just say what we mean? “I’m choosing to set this aside for now.”

Even the famed Serenity Prayer seems complicit in this:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.”

It proposes that my choices are only these: to accept things as they are or to change things to the way I think they should be. Understood, but not spoken in this is, if I can’t change it, I should just accept it and God, grant me peace.

But most of life is not either/or. Platitudes encourage us to live it both/and. But most of life, indeed the courage of life, is to live in the 90% or more that requires navigating in the middle.

  • deciding what needs changing.
  • asking, what can I do to bring about or move things toward the change?
  • asking, what new approach is not being considered?
  • considering, how can I relate to this discourse in a healthy way?
  • reflecting on, is there something in me that unbalances me in the consideration?
  • asking myself, have I looked fully, listened intently and prayed consistently about what God is showing me here?

Sometimes we are guilty of looking at structures and supposing they are fixed, or approaches and considering them exclusive, or patterns and imagining they are carved in stone. So, seeing no alternative, we punt. With platitudes. Instead of working toward a middling or as yet unseen, solution. That may take a very long time. Longer than we have. Perhaps longer than we live.

That’s the risk we take when we refuse to white-wash, but also when we are people who fast and pray. Like Esther did when the destruction of her people seemed imminent and she, an innocent member of the king’s court, lacked the courage which would risk her life. In this impossible circumstance she heard,

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” ~ Esther 4:14

Esther didn’t say ‘it’s all good.’ Which she could have said, for herself. She entertained the idea that God might be doing a new thing and she might have been cast in the lead role. The lines she was to deliver would take inhuman courage and the actions, resolute attention. She would need to walk on the tightrope of God’s will and not look down.

She could have stayed on the sidelines and let bygones be bygones, forgive and forget, and just gotten over it. But platitudes ring hollow when life and death is at stake.

Times such as ours require people willing to navigate the middle, with all its dangers, while holding steadily to the One who promises,

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland. ~ Isaiah 43: 19

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