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Conflict and Disagreement

An Analysis of Pope Benedict's Remarks Based on "The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee" and Conflict Management

The violent reactions including riots, killings, and the burning of Churches that followed Pope Benedict XVI's recent speech that quoted Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus lamenting the religious strife of his day shows that our time is no less volatile. Emperor Palaeologus' words were: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

(I am not criticizing Pope Benedict for using the Palaeologus quotation. Instead I attempt to show how scientific psychology suggests different ways of handling sensitive criticisms of other religions that can mitigate potential reactions.)

Help From Nature

St Maximus the Confessor taught that "grace builds upon nature" (Philokalia II). What can nature tell us? One thing is that quoting a Byzantine Christian opinion about Islam invites immediate rejection. A far better approach would be to cite Islamic interpretations of their own principles and actions. Psychologist Gottman (1999) wrote: "It's probably easiest to acknowledge this truth if you think about it from your own perspective." He goes on to say: "When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves."

Spiritual Basis of Response: The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee

St. Luke recounts the parable of the Publican and Pharisee:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (Luke 18: 10-13).

In all cases may I suggest the following as a model of a Christian response to Islam. Spiritually it is based on the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Psychologically it is based on "conflict negotiation procedures." With your indulgence let me write this in the first person.

Jesus' Teachings On Love

I would always start out with Our Lord's teachings on love and peace. This might be as simple as parts or all of the first epistle of St. John 4: 7-16:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

It might be quoting the words St. Matthew records: "Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword'" (Matthew 26:52).

Acknowledge Christian Brokenness

I would acknowledge the shortcoming, the falling short, the brokenness of those who have called themselves Christian and have unjustly promoted war (the Publican).

Once again the words of St. Matthew the apostle quoting Jesus could be of help here: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7: 15). Anyone who has started war and killed supposedly in the name of Christ surely is a "false prophet, and a wolf in sheep's clothing. "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). St. Matthew continues recording Jesus words: Thus you will know them by their fruits. "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers'" (Matthew 7:20-23)

Do Not Do Or Say As The Pharisee

I would never give my opinion of the Prophet or his followers (the Pharisee) There is an excellent text and video of an interview that was aired on Al Jazeera with a Syrian psychologist, Dr. Wafa Sultan who resides in Los Angeles. The interview sent a major wave throughout the Middle East and the world. In the video the Moslem female psychologist in Los Angeles is highly critical of Islamic teaching and practice. If a Moslem offers an opinion of his or her prophet or Islam, so be it. I will make sure no criticism comes from me. It is more efficacious for a Christian to ask a Moslem to comment on something that comes from an Islamic adherent, in an honest questioning respectful mode.

I would never quote a Christian opinion on Islam (as Pope Benedict XVI quoting a Byzantine Emperor) whether true or not.

If engaging Islam (in person, or in writing), I would simply quote from the Koran and ask questions such as: "How does this play out in practice?" "What is the meaning in terms of "....." and give specific detailed behavioral examples. (Psychologically, this is equivalent to letting the "facts do the dirty work for you.") If an atrocity is committed, simply ask the Moslem person how this relates to the Koran. I would never draw the conclusion myself.

In all encounters with people we have to put on Christ. In words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "We spread the Gospel by modeling Christ, always preaching sometimes using words." St. Charles de Foucault, a recently canonized Latin saint who lived among Moslems said: "If these unfortunate Muslims know no priest, see as self-styled Christians only unjust and tyrannical speculators giving an example of vice, how can they be converted? How can they but hate our holy religion." St. Charles didn't proselytize as such. His mission, he once explained, was to be a good friend and a good example: I must make people say this when they see me: 'This man is so good that his religion must be good.'" http://www.godspy.com/reviews/Charles-Foucauld-A-life-hidden-with-Christ-by-David-Scott.cfm.

This is a good lesson for all who call themselves Christian.


Gottman, J.M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J.M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. NY: Three Rivers Press.
Morelli, G. (2006, January 27). Understanding Brokenness In Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: October 31, 2006

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