14 August 2009

Triangles and Sin

Blessed is the servant who would love and respect his brother as much when he is far from him as he would when he is with him; and who would not say anything behind his back which in charity he could not say to his face.

--Francis of Assisi, Admonition 25

It is a commonplace in writings about leadership influenced by family systems theory (Friedman, Steinke, etc.) that one should attempt to reposition oneself when one finds oneself in a triangle between two or more other persons. Often we say to one person what we should be saying to another. At some level, this is natural to colonized protoplasm. It is one strategy that humans use to deal with the anxiety that comes when we find ourselves threatened by the near presence of difference. Reestablishing direct communication promotes self-differentiation throughout the system. It also puts the anxiety back where it belongs and removes the leader from the position of bearing responsibilities that are not his or hers. Friedman speaks of handing people back the anxiety that belongs to them. This is the first step in getting others to take responsibility for managing themselves.

Francis reminds us of a particularly pernicious form of triangle: the one that develops when we malign our brother or sister behind his or her back. All triangulation may be a consequence of the fall. And in fact, through the presence of the serpent, triangles develop in the course of the fall itself. Look at some of the triangles in the Genesis story (Adam-Eve-serpent; Adam-God-Eve; Serpent-Eve-God; Cain-Abel-God; God-Cain-Abel) etc. Francis identifies this tendency with both vice and sin, through the use of the word "charity." The problem with what we say behind other's backs is that we cannot say it "in charity" to their face.

Francis stands here on firm New Testament ground. Jesus himself urged direct confrontation when differences arose within his Church. See Matthew 18:15ff. He also modeled it in his conversations with others. Think about his confrontation with Simon the Pharisee or the woman at the well. Jesus urges his followers to direct, simple, and honest speech. For his part, Paul finds himself having to confront "quarrelling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder." (2Corinthians 12:20; cp. Romans 1:29). Paul addresses similar problems with the Galatians in a famous passage that contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit:

For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

It is no accident that Thomas Aquinas cites many of these works of the flesh when he deals with acts contrary to charity, the precise virtue that Francis calls to mind. The works of the flesh may be human and to some extent they may be unavoidable in a post fall world, but that doesn't make them right or normative.

In Christ, we are called to a better way. The Apostle describes this way in moving words appointed recently in our lectionary, which may have gotten lost in some of our congregations among the many fine sermons about the Bread of Life. In the fourth chapter of Ephesians, we find the following exhortation:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Ultimately, in this very brief passage from Francis, I think he is laying the groundwork for the same sort of life, one characterized by brotherhood and sisterhood in the Church, and ultimately in a far wider Kingdom.


  1. This reminds me very much of Bonhoeffer's own instruction in the underground seminary.

  2. Thanks, Christopher. I had Life Together in the back of my mind. We are going to read it with the new community that is emerging around sustainable agriculture work here in Athens.

  3. I enjoy your blog, Bill, but have to say that your first paragraph in this posting seems a paragon of strangled syntax. John Ralston Saul talked at some length in his book, Voltaire's Bastards, about how the modern world has created specialies that in their turn create a language that is exclusive to themselves as a way of validating the speciality and keeping the hoi poloi at bay. That is how your first paragraph reads to me. Are you a teacher reaching out with thoughts that will cause me to think, or are you a pendant sonorously droning on in the third person? I'll keep reading...