Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Funston’s Firefighting and Christian Conflagrations: A Parallel?

Gen. Frederick Funston
Thirteenth Avenue in San Francisco does not exist. At least, there is no street by that name. Between Twelfth and Fourteenth you will find Funston Avenue where the unluckiest number is replaced with a name that some consider to be far unluckier.

During the cataclysmic fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, in order to extinguish the blaze, the commander of the U.S. Army post at the Presidio sought to rob the advancing flames of combustibles in their path. General Frederick Funston’s orders to use explosives to create a firebreak resulted in smoldering and flaming materials being scattered ahead of the fire lines, igniting still more fires. While Funston was initially hailed a hero for his decisive actions (in addition to his questionable firefighting techniques, other unforeseen side-effects allegedly included the deaths of innocent residents when “shoot-on-sight” orders were issued to prevent looting), later evaluations were not so charitable. Thus, renaming Thirteenth Avenue has been seen as either signifying an improvement or irony, largely depending upon which view one takes of General Funston.

This all came to mind as I was reading a post by Paul Louis Metzger that describes a variety of firefighting techniques, building an analogy to conflict resolution and its myriad strategies and tactics. Dr. Metzger compiles them into three categories when he writes, “some situations call for starting conflicts, some call for containing conflicts, while others call for putting out conflicts.” (His post can be found here.)

Some who follow my blog know of the conflicts that continue to smolder at my alma mater and former employer. Those embers that have long been smoldering, occasionally erupted, and have at times explosively removed those whose passions were seen as fuel to be eliminated, or whose talents and contributions were seen as expendable, or both.

How can it be easier to unite under this banner...
Among those overheated exchanges, several attempts at conflict resolution and relational reconciliation failed to rally cooperation due to disagreements over the purposes and priorities of those who sought to establish what the outcome would be, before seeking to engage in the dialogue that would lead to it. Dr. Metzger writes, “The purpose of generating such unease and conflict should always be redemptive.” But the priority of removing those who fail to fall into line with the dominant narrative seems to contradict any claims to resolution and reconciliation.

It is not just at the rarified altitudes of academics and administrators where these conflicts are so decisively ended. At this writing, two more church buildings in my area stand vacant. Both on the main highway that connects Redding to the northeastern California town of Alturas. Both were victims of conflicts that were certainly brought to someone’s conclusion, though not to a resulting cooperation and collaboration.

...than under this one?
Where Dr. Metzger’s point is to encourage “inter-religious or inter-faith dialogue,” he offers the example of a beloved friend who saw the conflicting values and beliefs, “but probed them critically and charitably to cultivate understanding to reduce conflict wherever possible and build trust as neighbors and friends.” It was my privilege to meet Dr. Metzger’s friend on two occasions. First, during an inter-faith gathering of students from Multnomah Biblical Seminary, George Fox University, and our hosts for the event—The Dharma Rain Zen Buddhist Center. The second event was the dedication of their new facilities just over a year later. Abbot Kyogen Carlson, a Zen Buddhist priest, fostered dialogue and sought to resolve conflicts, just as Dr. Metzger does. But where they have sought to do so, and have done so successfully among very different groups of adherents, the means to such ends seem to be beyond the grasp of those who, theoretically, serve the same Christ within similar Christian traditions, or even, as is the case with Simpson University, within the same faculty, staff, and administration who assent to the same doctrinal statement of the same denomination.

I do not mean to downplay the severity of the conflicts that some of us have endured. But I do mean to question how it is that those who share an allegiance to Christ can so easily disregard our allegiance to one another, especially when some who hold mutually-exclusive beliefs find ways to resolve conflict, reconcile relationships, and actively cooperate and collaborate toward mutually-beneficial ends.

Perhaps the first step for us as Christians, toward bringing our conflicts into clearer resolution and reconciling our relationships with one another, might be to swear-off General Funston’s strategies.

Stop blowing things up; and stop shooting anyone who’s not in our uniform.

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