President Obama’s trip through southeast Asia was supposed to be a time of peace and collaboration with America’s allies. Perhaps that can still be the ultimate outcome, as the regional meeting in Laos could certainly benefit relations between the various countries in attendance. However, the conference quickly became secondary to Obama’s meeting with Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte after, on Monday, the latter called the US leader a “son of a whore.”
President Obama, however, is not the first public figure to feel Duterte’s verbal wrath. The Filipino president issued the same insult to the US ambassador last month and to Pope Francis when he visited the country earlier this year. To his credit, Obama brushed off the slur by saying “Clearly, he’s a colorful guy.”
The comment came after Duterte—who has been compared to a Filipino Donald Trump for his tendency to say what’s on his mind with little regard to the repercussions—was asked by a reporter how he would explain the extrajudicial killings of over two thousand suspected drug dealers since he took office on June 30. Putting an end to drug trafficking and crime was a major part of Duterte’s platform while seeking election, when he promised his people that he would end all crime and corruption in six months while offering his support for police to use deadly force.
That topic may have been addressed when the pair of presidents finally met behind closed doors on Wednesday before a dinner that evening, but we can’t be certain. Little is known about their interaction beyond that they were the last ones to leave the room and that they then sat on opposite sides of the venue and didn’t speak to one another during the meal.
In truth, while we might like to know what was said, the conversation has little relevance for us unless it prevents the two leaders from working together when necessary. You don’t have to like someone to work with them, and there will be times where we simply don’t get along with another person. Whether that conflict is due to variances in temperament, past interactions, or any number of factors, what matters most is that we are able to set such differences aside in order to pursue a common goal.
That truth is perhaps more relevant in our communities of faith than it is anywhere else. A common misconception when it comes to our churches is that they are meant to be conflict-free places. While that would be great, in most cases it’s simply not realistic. As a result, how we deal with that conflict is a vital part of our effectiveness for the kingdom.
If our differences become more important than what we have in common—namely, that we serve the same Lord and share his goal to help other people know him—then we will be increasingly useless in accomplishing God’s plans for this world. However, there is no more powerful and relevant message we can share with a watching world than the demonstration that our common relationship with Christ is more important than the litany of factors that would otherwise separate us.
We need look no further than the disciples to see this principle at work. Jesus hand-picked twelve incredibly different people to serve as the founding members of his church. They bickered constantly over relatively meaningless issues (Luke 9:46, 22:24) and continued to do so even after Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended back into heaven (Acts 15). Yet, as long as they remembered their common bond in Jesus Christ, none of those issues prevented them from working together to accomplish his purpose for their lives and his church. The same can, and should, be true for us today. Is it?