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High Ground, Slippery Slopes, and Bottomlands (Part 2)

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Emperors and Elephants

Someone once observed, “It only takes one person to produce speech, but it requires the cooperation of all to produce silence.”36 History has its share of corporate silences. The Holocaust, for example, will not be remembered so much for the extraordinary numbers of people murdered in gas chambers as it will be remembered for the silent conspiracy that permitted such an unthinkable thing to happen.

A metaphor for this phenomenon is the familiar parable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the Hans Christian Andersen version, con artists have convinced a vain and gullible emperor that they have invented a magical thread that can only be seen by folks who are not fools. The emperor falls for the swindle and orders a new suit woven from the magic thread. His royal subjects will thrill to see him attired in this remarkable new cloth, and the enchanting fabric will help him spot the fools in his court.

Naturally, at his first fitting the emperor recognizes that he is completely naked. But noticing and acknowledging are two very different matters. To avoid exposure as a fool, the emperor oohs and aahs at the make-believe garment. His courtiers also pretend not to notice anything unusual. Instead, they encourage him to wear the new duds in a royal procession scheduled for the next day.

The next day, when the emperor’s entourage parades down the crowded avenue, his subjects enthusiastically applaud the rich colors and luxurious textures of his new ensemble. Of course, they’ve been told that only the brightest people in the land can see the exotic new fibers.

Then a boy, who has little understanding of the implications of what he is saying and no compunctions about exposing His Royal Highness, steps out of the crowd, shouting, “Look! The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

The story accurately describes a social phenomenon we are all familiar with. Entertaining as the tale is, real-world corporate denial can lead to devastating outcomes.

The elephant-in-the-room syndrome is an extension of personal denial. “Conspiracies of silence presuppose mutual denial.”37 They make a point of declaring that we don’t have a problem, creating a block between the private act of noticing and the public act of acknowledging.38

Silent conspiracies function within a subculture that is systemically organized to nurture no-go zones. These zones are to be treated as though they don’t exist. Communities (families, groups, congregations, etc.) leverage the power of a silent conspiracy whenever uncomfortable truths are hidden in plain sight. “By simply watching others ignore certain things, we learn to ignore them as well. (‘. . . Seeing that nobody around her ever mentioned her father’s drinking, Sarah likewise understood that it was something she was not supposed to notice.’)”39

A conspiracy of silence, like other cultural beliefs, can be passed from generation to generation. Everyone is expected to comply. Those who don’t are usually eyed with suspicion and treated as social deviants. “As such, [they] are the targets of various social sanctions.”40

The lad who observed that the emperor was naked hadn’t yet learned what he was supposed to acknowledge or not acknowledge. In real life, whistle-blowers pay a steep price for committing sins that threaten to expose the whole community.

On the landscape of the church, the close relationship between conflict and sin cannot be emphasized too much. But because we have (correctly) been taught to “put the best construction on everything,”41 God’s people are inclined to see conflict merely as two individuals with competing interests. Any mention of sin in connection with conflict is often met with overwhelming silence. No one close to the situation would ever see silence as a conspiracy. In fact, they have never really given much thought to the problem as being a problem.

The motivation for a conspiracy of silence is not necessarily mean-spirited, spiteful, or malicious. One of the great ironies of corporate conspiracy is that it is all about self-preservation and maintaining peace. A conspiracy of silence provides a kind of protective shell around information and communication. Protected by this shell, things can continue to function in a relatively normal manner for some time. But the shell also effectively eliminates any hope for reconciliation and healing.

Church subcultures can be very fragile. Talk about corporate sin has the ring of fighting words. To counter, we are willing to permit the elephant to live in our room as a trade-off for initiating a sequence of events that could spin wildly out of control. The known of a growing elephant is far less intimidating than the unknown of what could happen if we discuss the issue as an authentic problem. To put it another way, living with an elephant is seen as less painful than the pain connected with getting rid of the elephant. If the elephant is ever to be exposed (and removed), someone will need to blow the whistle.

Jeremiah blasted the Jewish leaders of his day for declaring, “‘Peace, peace,’ . . . when there is no peace.”42 The spiritual leaders had nurtured a climate in which the people whom they were called to lead were led to believe that all was well when, in fact, sin was running rampant. This elephant had been growing within the Jerusalem culture for several generations and was now endemic to Jewish faith life. The lie was literally leading God’s people on the path to spiritual ruin. Some knew this was wrong, but they did nothing about it.

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”43 Denying that conflict exists is as dangerous as denying sin. An old saw bluntly asserts that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. When one’s conscience says that speaking up is the only right thing to do, failing to speak is sin.

More About the Elephants Living in Our Homes

Family dysfunction often occurs when the agenda is to hide the shameful behavior of one family member. There is extreme pressure on everyone to maintain “a silence about things whose open discussion would threaten the group’s solidarity, . . . to break the silence [would be] considered an attack against the group, a sort of treason.”44

In such a family dynamic, it is virtually impossible to move forward, to grow in mutual love for one another, to serve one another, to learn from one another, to be completely honest with one another, to encourage and support one another.

When you have an elephant living at your house, conflict is not the immediate threat. Fear of being exposed is the engine that drives almost everything that happens. Everyone walks on eggshells. The pain of shame is internalized. Individuals become isolated. Honest communication suffers or becomes nonexistent. Trust grows fragile. Relationships deteriorate. Hope turns to hopelessness. Faith is placed in jeopardy. Resolution is seen as all but impossible.

Children will tell you that elephants eat a lot. When they eat, they poop. They keep getting bigger. They break things. They’re a lot of work. They are hard to hide. They don’t leave room for anyone else in the room. And they’re hard to control. Kids may not always be savvy about denial, but they know their elephants. Reread the observations that children have made about elephants, and you will immediately understand why it is so necessary to remove the elephants of denial from a dysfunctional home environment.

Getting rid of an elephant is not easy. But with God’s help it can be done. Here are ten suggestions to help a Christian family overcome the paralysis of corporate denial:

  1. Pray alone. Then pray together.
  2. Include God in your family conversations.
  3. Invite open and honest comments.
  4. Be prepared to accept your own flaws and shortcomings.
  5. Rehearse what you will say.
  6. Stay on topic.
  7. Speak the truth in love.
  8. Communicate at a rational level, remaining calm and unemotional.
  9. Provide constructive solutions.
  10. Extend the conversation.

An Urgent Matter

At the onset of the American Civil War, no one foresaw the tremendous cost of such a conflict, either in terms of lives lost or economic sacrifices made. The risks that accompany the choice of living with an at-war heart can be profound. Bad things happen in war—unexpected things. A conflagration can look very different before it is fought from the way the battlefield will look when the smoke finally clears. Casualties can far exceed projections. Political outcomes can be thoroughly unpredictable. Endgames are often elusive. There are plenty of good reasons for seeing conflict as an urgent matter and seeking a solution as a high priority.

God speaks about conflict in his Word as if it is an urgent matter. He wants his people to see peace as an important objective. Jesus used a word picture to drive this point home: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24). Can you sense the urgency? When conflict is looming, making an effort to reconcile takes precedence even over worship.

If anyone understands hatred, Jesus certainly does. He experienced it in the extreme. He knows pain too. Surely he is interested in the battle statistics of every human conflict. His work of curing the sick, healing the demon possessed, restoring sight to the blind, and raising the dead provides ample evidence of how deeply and compassionately he cares about our grief-stricken hearts. There should be no doubt about his loving concern for anyone languishing in the terror of real conflict, whether it is at the loss of a loved one who has made the ultimate sacrifice for his or her country or merely at the hurt feelings that come from a hateful comment.

But, for Jesus, the urgency is rooted in his desire to guard the hearts of those who get caught up in conflict. He knows how conflict can strip us of our humanity. He knows that when our hearts are at war, we will dwell on the injustices we have suffered in order to keep our hatred alive. He knows we need enemies to justify the evil plans we have for destroying them. He knows that our old Adam wants war more than it wants peace. He knows that the outward wars we engage in started because of inward wars that went unnoticed. He knows that an unresolved inner war is the very germ of human conflict.

As carriers, we are all wars just waiting to happen. And Jesus knows that the toll for engagement can be spiritually fatal. St. John wrote, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (1 John 2:9-11).

Could the stakes be any higher?

For Thought and Discussion

• Is there an elephant in the room at your church, school, business, or in your family?

• Make a short list of reasons why we need to address personal conflict as an urgent matter. Which item on your list is the most compelling?

A Heart at PeaceFrom A Heart at Peace, by Kenneth J. Kremer © 2014 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

36 Robert E. Pittenger, The First Five Minutes: A Sample of Microscopic Interview Analysis (Ithica, New York: Paul Martineau, 1960).

37 Eviatar Zerubavel, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

38 “Gotta Have Faith,” New York Times, December 17, 2002.

39 Jill Hastings and Marion Typpo, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics (Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing, 1984).

40 Eviatar Zerubavel, “Social Mindscapes,” unpublished manuscript.

41 The meaning for the Eighth Commandment, Luther’s Small Catechism, Gauzewitz Edition.

42 See Jeremiah 6:14.

43 James C. Humes, The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Treasury of Quotations, Anecdotes, and Observations (New York: Gramercy Books, 1996).

44 Everett C. Hughes, “Good People and Dirty Work,” from The Sociological Eye: Selected Papers (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1971).