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The Rev. Dr. Peter Samuelson The Rev. Dr. Peter L. Samuelson

The Rev. Dr. Peter Samuelson is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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Conflicts and Disputes: where do they come from?

September 19, 2009


The 2nd reading for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost from the common lectionary is from the letter of James, the third and fourth chapters.  It seems, from reading James, the more things change, the more they stay the same, for the writer of James asks in Chapter 4, verse 1:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?

The level of conflict and disputes in our political system seems to have hit a new high (or is it a new low?) when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) rudely interrupted President Obama’s speech to the joint session of congress last week by yelling “You lie!!”  Pundits and pedestrians have been called on to answer St. James’ question – these conflicts and disputes, where do they come from?

Do they come from racism?  There are many wise people who seem to think so.  President Jimmy Carter has lent his voice to this conclusion.  As a white pastor of a predominantly black congregation, I have often had to question within myself whether or not my actions were motivated by racism or racist attitudes.  There have been times when I have had to make similar judgments about others.  I have come to employ a simple test to see whether or not racism is involved – I switch the race of the participants in the situation and imagine the ensuing interaction.  Do the dynamics change?  Then it involved racism.  Imagine if a black congressman had interrupted any of the many white presidents as one of them addressed a joint session of congress.  What would the reaction be?  Would that black congressman be treated differently than Rep. Wilson?  I will leave you to make your own conclusions.

As to the source of all these conflicts and disputes among us in our civic discourse, I think the writer of James may have the answer: “You want something and cannot obtain it so you engage in disputes and conflicts”  (James 4:2b).  The disputes among us are about power and powerlessness, about the shift of power from one party to another, about the reigns of power in the hands of a man of African origins, about changes in our country that are leaving people feeling powerless and out of control when they had felt powerful and in control. 

Envy and selfish ambition breed disorder and “wickedness of every kind,”  according to the writer of James (James 3:16).  If our politicians would turn from insisting on what is good for them and turn instead to the common good,  perhaps our differences would not rise to the level of disrespect shown by Rep. Wilson’s outburst.  According to James, this should be the way all good citizens and people of good will should go. 


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