Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17

1st Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

by Ken Sehested


        Mohandas Gandhi is popularly known as one who confronted empires. Yet those who knew him, or have studied him since, acknowledge the Mahatma spoke often of a more complex struggle against tyranny. The conflict is not only with the British, he would say, but also within our own communities and “with myself.”  The Pauline vision generally, and the specific pastoral advice in this text, is rooted in just such a multidimensional understanding of reconciliation. There’s a seamlessness to the task which communities of faith are forever separating and assigning graded priority.

        Empires do dominate, then as now. But such domination has its claws in us, too. Which is why the struggle is not merely against “flesh and blood”—against particular personalities or ideologies which guide the beastly ravaging of governing regimes. The struggle is also against what Paul elsewhere spoke of as “principalities and powers,” the spirit of those regimes whose cunning capacity transcends political structures. We, too, who claim allegiance to God’s Reign, are standing in the need of prayer.

While it’s true that this epistle to the church at Colossæ is a deeply felt entreaty, it’s a mistake to read these admonitions as a first century call to civility. As something like, “y’all play nice.” The Colossian correspondent is not saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

        This tutorial is more than tactical instruction for an orderly march into the mission. Rather, the mission itself entails a disciplined pattern of redemptive life together.[1] There’s more than functional purpose for being clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bearing with one another (especially with the inevitable knuckleheads), forgiving each other, binding us to each other—such work is not for the faint of heart. This is not conflict avoidance advice. Forget putting on a happy face and accentuating the positive. This is about what to do when bare-knuckled emotional brawls break out.

        Our common experience is that the most blistering disputes are among intimates, with people we know well. Rarely is anger and the impulse to vengeance so ravenous as between those who spend a lot of time together, have shared memory and coherent purpose. Maybe it’s precisely because of our proximity that our familial disagreements get so prickly.

        Years ago and late one night, while packing for an early-morning trip, my spouse and I got into a disagreement that escalated beyond a difference of opinion. Somehow it got personal. (The definition of conflict is difference plus tension.)

        Too tired to carry on, we simply ditched the conversation and cut the lights. And it was still rumbling in my gut the next morning as I sat in the airport lounge waiting for a predawn flight. I finally worked up the resolve to put a quarter in the payphone, dial our home number, and mumble a brief “I’m sorry about last night.” “Me, too,” came the blessed response. We didn’t attempt in that moment to resolve the difference—I don’t even remember what it was about. What I remember is that simple exchange drained the poison from the moment; and the initiative[2] took more resolve than any of my trips into conflict zones as a professional peacemaker.

        Let’s face it: We live in a culture that faintly praises kindness, humility, meekness and patience. But these qualities are neither honed by nor honored among perceived history-makers. Such qualities are upheld as a kind of etiquette for the personal sphere but ignored (even scoffed) by real-life decision makers. Being “tough on crime” and “strong on national defense” are coveted reputations among electoral candidates; but such perceptions typically translate well in all leadership circles, often in the church.

        Among the most promising direction in Christian discipleship training is that of “conflict transformation” theory and practice.[3] Among the key insights are these:

        1. Conflict is a given in our personal and public lives. The question is what we do when, not if, it erupts.

        2. Fear is the quality that makes conflict so explosive. And Scripture has a lot to say about the struggle between faithfulness and fearfulness.

        3. You don’t have to be a saint, or a rocket scientist, to develop the skills in handling conflict. Everyone can learn to analyze the dynamics of conflict and develop habits of redemptive response.

        4. The traditional responses to conflict are: fight or flight. But there is a third option, which Jesus taught and Paul reinforced (most eloquently in his letter to the Roman church).

        5. Conflict is an opportunity to deepen relationships. Think of your nearest, dearest relationships. Chances are good you’ve been endured turbulence together.

        6. Practicing nonviolence within the family of faith may be the best training ground for the work of reconciliation in the larger world. Dealing with conflict—like what the Colossians were facing—is itself part of our spiritual formation, and not simply a nuisance to be managed or resolved with the least amount of energy and time.

        Practicing nonviolence is, in fact, another way of talking about forbearance and forgiveness, notions which frame this set of pastoral recommendations. Reconciliation is not the suppression of conflict than peace is the absence of violence. Ditching the conversation and cutting the lights is actually a form of apostasy—a denial of the holy, beloved calling which has gripped us.

        The practice of forgiveness is neither simple nor easy. It certainly doesn’t mean “forgive and forget”—at least, not in the way that sentiment is commonly used as a cover for subservience in the face of injustice. Our ability to forgive others is reflective of our lived experience of being forgiven by God. This is our distinctive insight.

        As with any insight, however, an imperative is implied. And with this imperative, a discipline, which involves tutoring and training. Practice leads to habits; “memory muscle” is formed. So that the word of Christ comes not just to visit but to dwell (v.16). And inch by inch, step by step, our words and deeds become consonant with that Name.

        That’s worth singing about.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is the modern classic on this subject.

[2] Glen Stassen coined the wonderful phrase, “transforming initiative,” indicating the small but significant steps (risky ones) that individuals and groups can take—both interpersonally and publicly—to reduce violence and allow for negotiation, as the first steps toward reconciliation, justice and the peace it engenders. See Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992).

[3] Building on earlier theories of conflict mediation and conflict resolution, conflict transformation also factors in the question of justice. An excellent resource is Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and Lawrence Ressler, eds., Making Peace With Conflict: Practical Skills for Conflict Transformation (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ONT: Herald Press, 1999).

©ken sehested @ Reprinted from Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminister John Knox Press, 2009