Romans 13.8-14 Matthew 18.15-20
Is the world getting angrier? When we contemplate the demonstrations and protests which have taken place in recent weeks, or the strident voices which resound in the echo chambers of social media, or the angry exchanges which took place across the dispatch box in the House of Commons this past week, one might be forgiven for thinking that the world seems pretty angry at the moment.
In a book written a couple of years ago, the Indian author Pankaj Mishra argued that we live in an Age of Anger. In the Introduction, he notes that he started writing it just after the Indian elections in 2014 when voters elected Hindu supremacists to power. He finished writing it during the week in 2016 when Britain voted to leave the European Union. It went to the printers in the week that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
Mishra argued that ‘each of these earthquakes reveal fault lines that I felt had been barely noticed over the years’. Those faultlines lay between conservatives and liberals, between Western Power and the majority world, between cosmopolitan elites and those who foment extremism, between the secular and the religious, between the haves and the have-nots, between us and them.
At the time, the book provoked some controversy – well, I suppose somebody was bound to get angry about it. Part of his thesis is that this anger, this resentment, is a particular feature of modernity. The events that he describes are not some kind of peculiar aberration interrupting a long history of progress and increasing prosperity. He argues that the chaos, aggression and conflict, manifest in an age of anger is in fact a consequence of modernity – a project which has led to the tearing down of traditional patterns of community, which when accompanied by profound economic instability and a vulnerability about one’s identity, lead inexorably to a sense of rootlessness and dislocation, a sense of disillusionment, a sense of nostalgia for what is usually a highly romanticized, partial and sentimental recollection of the past, but which nevertheless creates a sense of loss. And so often when we are confronted by loss or grief, we get angry, even resentful.
Of course, there is more to be said, and I think it is fair to say that while emphasising the bonds of community and the significance of personal identity, he draws a veil – rather too conveniently – over the casual racism, the sexism, the homophobia and xenophobia that too often characterised those traditional communities. But it is also fair to say that one of the problems today is that the echo chambers of social media sometimes serve to accentuate these feelings of disillusionment and discontent. The algorithms of social media platforms expose us to enraging stories and opinions (and anger has a habit of spreading more effectively and virally than other emotions). We may imagine that social media platforms are full of bigots and trolls and blithering idiots, but we forget that the algorithms are in fact designed to torment us. Someone who understands the art of managing social media may use it to torment you and to exploit your anger.
The gospel reading today appears to begin from a place of conflict and anger. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘If another member of the church sins against you….’ and what follows is an exploration of how we deal with conflict, how we deal with anger and offence, how we cope when relationships break down, when reconciliation becomes too difficult.
Chapter 18 in Matthew’s gospel is a chapter devoted to the church. It’s interesting that Mark never mentions the church once. Luke leaves all that to the Acts of the Apostles. But Matthew talks about the church, the ekklesia, the gathering. In Chapter 16, Matthew has introduced Peter’s confession of faith, when Jesus responds saying, ‘You are Peter, the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church’. Then last week, the story continues to unfold, and everything goes pear-shaped for Peter. He is revealed not as ‘the glorious leader’, but as a rather frightened and vulnerable human being, who wants all the glory without any of the responsibility. He remonstrates with Jesus, who tells him bluntly, ‘Get behind me Satan’. And then this week, things appear to have gone pear-shaped for everyone else, as we wrestle with the question of conflict in the church.
In thinking about this passage, one feature that can easily be overlooked is the fact that the story that comes immediately before this passage is the parable of the lost sheep: the shepherd has a hundred sheep, and just one of them has gone astray, when he finds it, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost’.
This is the sentence that comes immediately before this passage about conflict: ‘It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost’. Suddenly today’s gospel reading begins to read rather differently. This is not a little case study in finding an effective way of excommunicating the people we find difficult or anathematizing the people who make us angry, rooting out heretics or confronting people with whom we just disagree – of course, we all like to be right. This is about working out how to respond when we are lost to one another. How do we overcome our anger and our resentment in order to find a way of resolving conflict? And when there is conflict, however tempting it may be to rehearse those devastating one-liners and express your rage, either in your own mind, or in the echo chambers of social media, the most important thing is to come face to face with the person with whom you disagree. Remember that not one of these little ones should be lost.
And yet, one of the challenges of our times is that face to face encounter is rather more difficult at the moment. Our faces are veiled in shields and masks. We avoid each other’s gaze. We can only dream like St Paul of unveiled faces.
But even when we speak face to face, sometimes the anger is too much, the resentment is too strong. If there can be no real listening or engagement, reconciliation is too hard. It is too difficult. Perhaps the silence imposed by months of lockdown has enabled us to hear not only the angry rhetoric that characterizes so much of public discourse, but also to attend to the feelings of anger, frustration and resentment that are hidden away in the depths of our own hearts.
When Jesus says ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’, he is telling us that the stakes are high – but he also reminds us that ‘when two or three are gathered’ in his name, ‘I am there among them’. It’s a familiar passage. It often gets quoted in a rather self-deprecating way when only a few people turn up at a church event. But look at the passage again – Matthew has mentioned two or three people just a few sentences earlier – those who have been brought as witnesses to challenge or confront a hurt that has been caused or damage that has been done – but Jesus says, ‘I am there among them’. Why is he there? To confront? To console? To challenge? To comfort? Perhaps he is there to remind us that when our anger and resentment compel us to exclude or reject others, not one of these little ones will be lost – because every single one of us is held in God’s loving embrace.