Of faith, compromise and onions

By Marshall Scott

When I was young, my father’s profession took him at times overseas. He would attend meetings and discuss problems and solutions with folks from far away – such exotic places as England and Belgium and Germany (well, to a young boy they seemed distant and exotic enough). It gave him an interesting perspective on cultural differences.

Once, after a trip to the UK, he spoke of a meeting he had been to, and how it seemed different than those he commonly attended. The resolution of the discussion was a compromise; but my father found it interesting. He told me that in England, unlike America, a compromise was basically a good thing. True, no one got all he wanted; but everyone got something. In America his experience was that, no one having gotten all he wanted, everyone saw the compromise as loss. No one got everything, and so there was nothing one could celebrate.

The Oxford English Dictionary has several different denotations for “compromise.” Two (in the Compact Edition of 1971) sound similar, but have some subtle differences.

4. Coming to terms, or arrangement of a dispute, by concession on both sides; partial surrender of one’s position for the sake of coming to terms; the concession or terms offered by either side.

5. Adjustment for practical purposes of rival courses of action, systems or theories, conflicting opinions or principles, by the sacrifice or surrender of a part of each.

These sound a lot alike, don’t they? And yet they are different.

They are different specifically in intent. The first definition is about coming to terms, with some concession from both sides. The second is about making pragmatic sacrifices to a rival. The first is about meeting of minds and mutual efforts. The second is about suspending conflict and grudging truce. The first is about comprehensiveness, and even communion. The second is about that other connotation of compromise: polluted, infected, stained, and shamed.

Now, I can’t say now that the difference my father saw still obtains. Perhaps it was the setting or the topic or the times that made the difference. My own observation is that there seem to be quite enough competitive, convicted folks in the UK as to make “compromise” as distasteful to folks there as to folks here in the U. S. In any case, it seems to have been the first sense of compromise that moved the Episcopal House of Bishops; and the latter that moved the loudest voices on either side of the issues involved.

It is a hard time that way. I have heard again and again Revelation 3:15-16: “15 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” It is from the challenge to the Church in Laodicea, a church apparently comfortable in the pews. But the call to be either hot or cold is apparently about the faith as a whole, and not a single issue. And while those who quote it most frequently want to portray their interest as “19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me,” the tone and context seems more indicative of “21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Separated, verses 19-20 are about, I think, the first sense of “compromise;” while verse 21 is about the second sense. (Indeed, I have come to feel that for some the secret favorite passage is no longer from Revelation 3:14-22, but from Psalm 83.)

And that is the problem with this quotation, and with the second sense of “compromise:” it begins with separation and seeks to institutionalize it, to reify it. It is much like our current cultural and political context, parodied well by Stephen Colbert in his character for The Colbert Report. It’s all about rage and passion, and thought and reflection only undermine strength of purpose.

But “being neither hot nor cold” need not be so stark. Readers may have noticed by now that I love to cook. One of the things I have to work at, still, is noting that some things do better with long, steady cooking at low heat. What comes to mind are onions. Many recipes start with onions that need to be “sweated” – cooked slowly over low heat to bring out the sugar in them, so long hidden by the sharpness of sulfur. Rush to cook them quickly and you either undercook them or burn them; and everything you add to them will take on the flavor of the sulfur that remains or the charred sugar that has been added. It’s worth noting that this is also known as “clarifying” the onions; for as the sulfur fades away the onions go from opaque white to translucency, almost transparency. It’s not that the onions aren’t hot. It’s that the slower, more patient process has brought out in them beauty and flavor that you wouldn’t know from the raw form, and that no other, faster process would have produced.

We know this well in human experience and in the Christian faith, even if it sometimes gets short shrift. It is, after all, how we come as persons to wisdom, and how we distinguish wisdom from knowledge. It is as William James described in writing of those “once born”: a gradual growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord not dependent on one or a few moments of conversion (even though those moments do come). It is what we mean in the Catholic west by “sanctification,” what our Orthodox Christian siblings mean by “theosis:” the gradual growth in grace and in awareness of God’s presence and God’s action that is the result of the Spirit’s continuing work in us.

It is, I think, an aspect of Paul’s statement that “God is working in all things for good for those who love him:” in all things, and not just in those that move us in passion. It was lived out in the life of Peter, whose passions drove him while Jesus lived. His anger rejected Jesus’ prediction of the crucifixion. His rage cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. His fear denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. It was in quiet and reflection that he understood his mission to tend and feed Christ’s sheep, and that he realized that God could proclaim acceptable what his children had long rejected. And yet we would not suggest that either Paul or Peter was ‘lukewarm’ about faith in Christ.

So, perhaps all of us who are determined, committed, “hot” in our faith in Christ need to reflect again on what we mean by “compromise.” Shall we see one another as colleagues to whom we might in good faith concede; or as rivals to whom any concession constitutes surrender? It’s an important question for the Episcopal Church and for the Anglican Communion, and for each of us as individuals. Will we be moved by hasty passion, or trust in the slower, arguably harder and less comfortable process by which the Spirit seeks to bring us into all truth? How will we answer the question? The direction of the Church, and perhaps of our souls, depends on the answer.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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