Ethnography 2: Unringing a Bell

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:1-5).

Listening and asking questions

It all begins with talking and listening and asking questions.  Trust increases, and vulnerability is no longer hidden behind defenses, then a picture emerges.

As I sat with two respected elders in the church, I began a series of frank questions.  The setting seemed almost inappropriate, as I was speaking to these two men who were twice my age as if they were being sent to the principal’s office for misbehavior.  

Together they worshiped, they were in the same Sunday School class, they saw each other throughout the week at the café, the grain elevator, at the implement dealer. I had met with them in some of those settings, often with both present.  These two men were in each others lives.   

Sitting with these two elders who were at odds, my task to was to move a congregation toward reconciliation and transformation.  Something had happened.  An angry word spoken.  A hurtful comment, a demeaning response, and without attempting to, the repercussions extended outward in ever larger circles, networks, and relationships which were now tearing a congregation into two adversarial camps. My job was to un-ring that bell.

“Unringing the bell” is a phrase from the courtroom.  When a witness, or lawyer, or some other participant makes a comment that is not admissible, the jury may be asked to ignore that testimony and the clerk is asked to strike the comment from the court record.  If the comment is too damaging, the judge can declare a mistrial on the basis of the comment since it would prejudice the jury.  That bell, so to speak, cannot be unrung. 

The best thing I could do was listen for the ringing, still reverberating in the controversies in the congregation.  Investigating from where and what direction the ringing was coming, I had to trace it back to its source.  But like sound waves, or ripples in the water after dropping a stone in a pond, it was already calm at the point of the origin.  But this conflict had been public and witnessed. 

When I met the congregation, it was on the verge of a split.  Through listening to their stories, I discovered splitting off was part of their one-hundred-year history.  Having arrived in the country from over fifteen separate villages in Europe, over their life together in the United States, whenever a conflict emerged, it was along old village lines and identities that the fault line was seen.  In Ron Susek’s book, Firestorm, church conflicts are less described as large cataclysmic events with immediate shock and surprise, and more as event of slow burning embers (Susek, 1999).  A tree’s root system can smolder underground, long after visible signs of fire had vanished, only to get a gasp of oxygen and erupt again.  There was excess, generations old, baggage carried into every conflict.  Even the smallest infractions could tear at their patchwork quilt of community. 

Listening for source stories

Following the present conflict back to its source, these two men who now sat in my office, was not difficult.  It was basic ecclesial detective work, or what might be called ecclesio-pathology.  As I recounted my conversations, my awareness of the situation, and my understanding the state of the congregation, I asked them to tell me what had happened.  With some embarrassment they explained that that was old news and that they had gotten beyond that.  They had already discussed it, shared forgiveness, and tried to move on.  The ringing sound of their conflict had gone out and drawn others into its sound.  But their reconciliation was silent.  We could not unring the bell of conflict, and it was not going to likely be advertised that these two had made amends.  So we had to consider other ways of ringing a new bell.

Listening for the emerging shared story

Listening to stories is time consuming.  Listening to multiple and sometimes conflicting stories is a puzzle.  But as each story modifies the one before it and creates context for the next story to come.  Reflecting back to the congregation and the storytellers the larger story is challenging, but necessary.  Not everyone will agree on all parts of the larger narrative.  But if told with care for the dignity of all the stories and storytellers, many will be able to see themselves and their part in the larger story.  Engaging in ethnography takes time, but also creates space for reflection.

For the remainder of my time with that congregation, the focus was two-fold.  For one, we emphasized multiple layers of forgiveness and restoration, and God’s call to mission in the community.  Following Jesus’ way of offering forgiveness to even the unrepentant (“Forgive them, for they know not what they do”) created the awareness of the old baggage carried too long.  Then, consequently, the reviving the mission of the kingdom of God and their role in the community.  We did not seek to do these one subsequent to the other, as if, God’s mission would be something to be entered after “we get ourselves put together”.  Healing was something that took place in mission, not something separate from it.

Some bells cannot be unrung, even the memory of the sound may still bring grief.  But new bells, new ringing can be sounded and bring healing.