I have spent most of this week in Coventry at Faith in Conflict, looking at this very subject. I was told conflict is not only normal, it is healthy – managed correctly. During one conversation, my working group leader said that a disagreement can be considered conflict. If we use this word in a more casual setting will we perhaps become less afraid of it?
Most people will avoid conflict at all costs, you get passive aggressive behaviour, denial, the yes man, and then you get the opposite. The person that says exactly what they think in any given situation but does so without thought for the feelings of those they are saying it to.
One of the questions addressed during the conference was ‘how do we live well in conflict?’, looking at the idea of conflict being normal. If you go to the bible there are extremes – Jo Bailey-Wells called our attention to Jeremiah, who told the exiled Jews to pray for the Babylonians only to go on to spend a few chapters condemning them to the depths of hell. Jesus called some a brood of vipers whilst calling us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Is this ‘conflict’ reconcilable? The resounding answer that came out of the conference was yes, some situations call for hard lines and some for open hearts. Scripture is both inclusive and exclusive.
Jo spoke about the need for ‘conflict resilience’, the ability to accept the inevitability of conflict and to react and respond in a way that will aid resolution rather than encourage greater dispute. One very interesting point, in leading us to a point of conflict resilience, is that we are all made in the image of God, and yet so different. Is it possible to see God in someone you fundamentally disagree with? We should. God created us different to reflect himself, however he himself is larger. I think of Ecclesiastes 3:11 at this point, which speaks of the incomprehensible nature of God. He is beyond our understanding, conflict is not definitive, and in our difference we are reflecting part of his glory.
This however, is easy to say as theory, harder to practise. As when you are having a major disagreement with someone it is very hard not to hurt or get angry and create separation through either reaction.
Jo offers three pointers towards conflict resilience:
In Lament, she speaks of ‘Fierce conversation’, however, lament is not something that is essentially a very loud argument, or gossip. It is saying it all to God. Directing your pain, your hurt, your frustration at him. All of the prophets did this. We can follow the example set and send it all to him. To allow ourselves to give conflict to God and have fierce conversation with those the conflict is with, but take into that conversation the grace that God gave us in Christ.
We need to say when we are hurt, however, doing this badly often inflames conflict. It was mentioned that those who know suffering are the best at lament; they have a refusal to be consoled by anything but God. There must be some comfort there for it to be a place they go to in great pain.
However, Jo said, beware the logic of lament; in going to God and lamenting the conflict, we may find that the answer comes to us and this will often (dare I say always?) involve some level of sacrifice. Whether that be material, our pride or something else is irrelevant. Sacrifice is hard, and unfortunately once we have chosen to lament we will find that avoidance of conflict is no longer an option.
It is in this sacrifice, however, that hope emerges. It says in the bible that God does not test us beyond what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), yet Jo put this so brilliantly in saying ‘our capacity for hope is part of God’s equipping. So, looking to the bigger picture, beyond the moment, to God for aid in reaching a place of reconciliation can bring the hope needed to pull us through the sacrifice.
Actively pursuing shalom for our enemies is exactly what God EXPECTS from us.
This was a brilliant conference, and far too much was learned to get down here. However, as a church (not Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, etc. but as the body) we need to learn how to gain conflict resilience.
We do disagree, we differ, there is no way around that. The question is how will we respond to it. Will we see it as an insurmountable obstacle, or will we gather together, seek out relationship, pray for our ‘enemies’, seek out an opportunity to find common ground and learn to see the ‘enemy’ as the brother we disagree with?
We will not all agree. That is not normal. Conflict is normal. When we accept that, and learn to do conflict well, we might just find that we have a lot more peace than we thought was possible.