All of us live with conflict. We experience conflict in relationships; we can be the cause of conflict at work. This article will explore the inevitability of conflict and encourage us to reflect its shape and how best we might use conflict to deepen understanding and enlarge our sympathies.
The following two examples reflect conflict in beliefs. In the first we note that friends are not bound together by a shared political view of how best to provide for the common good. In the second group we are confronted by difference over very firmly held convictions about church, human life and the nature of theology. In both conversations conflict emerges. Let us see if we can understand what is going on.
First, it is General Election time. A group of friends gather to watch the first televised debate between the main party leaders. Over supper we declare our allegiances. Some of us have always voted in for a particular party. Part of our intention is shaped by a strong preference for the particular personality and look of a leader. The debate proceeds and amidst some good humoured comments none of us seem ready to change our preconceived positions. Voices are raised; whatever is said is not likely to make much difference.
Second, an experienced group of educators and theologians gather in a theological college to learn about Continuing Indaba in the Anglican Communion – a process designed to introduce us to a ‘journey of conversation’ so that relationships for mission are deepened across difference. There are people in the group that I know I disagree with. I have listened to their voices and read their words. We are all aware of the destructive shape of conflict between Christians and its power to detract from our shared commitment to living the Gospel. It does not take very much time for conflict to emerge. This takes the shape of challenge (whose voices are we listening to?), others question the process (where is the power?), we all wonder about the reality of who is included and who is excluded from the table. Some have the courage to speak while others remain silent.
Conflict might be defined as the opposition of facts, needs, methods or values. This may relate to how we read and interpret scripture and tradition. We disagree about how far; if at all the tradition can develop to accommodate change. Liberal attitudes to sex are, for some, the symptom of the Churches malaise. Conflict may be shaped by our class, gender and culture. In certain areas of the UK people vote according to the tradition of their class. Women look for different things in the political process than men. They are less likely to look for confirmation of their default voting choice and more ready to assess merits of the alternative programmes of Government.
The first thing we need to do is to name the nature of the conflict. We might become more aware of what shapes our determination to disagree with others. In the first group the need for change in Government overrides any attention to the arguments of the Labour party. Two friends follow the voting pattern of their parents. Our experience, personality and education bear upon the views and beliefs we hold. Some regard not knowing or change as weakness.
In these situations conflict and its resolution seems impossible. We therefore have to live with the resulting stresses and tensions. We may say things, in frustration, that we come to regret. We my come to blame or hate others who do not share our values and world view. We may want to hold onto the cause for conflict and seek revenge. We can all direct our comments in the most personal of ways. Sometimes conflict is based on superficial reasons: we disagree with someone simply because we do not like what they look or sound like.
If our expectation is certainty and the elimination of contradiction or paradox then it is unlikely that we shall want to engage with conflict or understand the roots of conflict. Some may want the Church to be clear, unambiguous, and direct especially in the area of ethics. We may simply misunderstand what another attempts to express because we have dismissed what we believe their political views to be. We may want power and control at the cost of others. We may not understand that any political position can contain within itself a variety of sophisticated convictions. There are always voices that are convenient for us not to listen to or dismiss as irrelevant or untrue.
We all have to learn to live with the consequences of conflict. Conflict can be destructive when it absorbs our energies, polarizes people; reduces cooperation, increases or sharpens difference. There may be people in that room I disagree with but I should attempt to listen and be challenged. We might even be changed for the good.
This is not to argue that conflict should be avoided. Conflict can be constructive when it results in clarification of important problems and issues. The Indaba process at the last Lambeth conference enabled a listening that held difference and where people were empowered to become part of the solution through offering a process of authentic communication. This builds cooperation among people through learning more about each other.
We might want to resolve conflict by surrendering one’s own needs and wishes to accommodate the other party. This is unlikely to happen in either political choice or in the present crisis in the Anglican Communion. More likely we avoid or postpone conflict by ignoring it, dismissing it or choosing not to be challenged by the deeper wisdom of it. This avoidance can be useful as a temporary measure to buy time or as an expedient means of dealing with very minor, non-recurring conflicts. In more severe cases, conflict avoidance can involve severing a relationship or leaving a group. This is a reality Anglicanism is living with.
In this process collaboration must always be a possibility– working together to find a mutually beneficial solution. This collaboration is time-intensive. If conflict is to be resolved and agreement reached most often this will mean compromise. It will almost certainly demand patience.
The Bible pictures human life as a conflict between good and evil –in both testaments it is set in the context of a heavenly warfare and the cross is the paradoxical herald of victory. Christians are realistic about the realities of relationships and living. We know that conflict lies at the heart of the Gospel, its scheme of redemption links the conflict between good and evil with personal salvation. If we are to make this real then it will need some patience. Patience makes possible a life of deferred gratification,attending to arguments and waiting for fruit to ripen before harvesting it. It is difficult to imagine a more countercultural way to live in our materialistic, fast-paced society.
Knowing that this life is not all that there is, that Gods time is not ours, and that God’s future is far better than we can imagine, makes possible a life of open-handed generosity. This generosity should be especially extended to those we find ourselves in disagreement with. We should also be patient with ourselves. We groan and grumble. Paul uses the word groan to describe the way all creation groans together, eager to be freed from “its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21-23). Christians are not to stand aside from that groaning and pain and yearning, but to share with all humanity in suffering and hoping for God’s salvation.
Patience involves a capacity to suspend such judgment, to live with unresolved problems and relationships. We need to nurture the gift of space and time so that we can live with the reality of contention, animosity and discord. We do not need to impose a quick fix on messy situations. We shall certainly need to give room to continuing to attend to those we are in conflict with. Only in this way, living in the light of God’s judgment and salvation, might we cultivate mutual understanding. We don’t have to force events by ignoring or dismissing those who threaten us with their opposing positions, or to manipulate relationships in order to get what we think we want. Rather, we have give ourselves and others the room and time to understand how people come to their convictions about human flourishing both in religion and society. Accepting diversity might help us grow into the kind of fellowship of love asked of us by the Gospel.
The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them. The patience to listen, to withhold judgment, to attend to each person’s or group’s or country’s concerns, is a major part of diplomacy, whether in pastoral care, family life, church politics, or international relations. James calls this kind of diplomacy the “wisdom from above,” which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17).
This is challenging work. In and through conflict we are offered the possibility of transformation. It will involve us in taking risks. So befriend your enemy – they may well be the source of a wiser living. Look for the sound and good in those you least feel have the right to be your teacher. Coalition thinking might help us to think about more than the preservation of self and narrow theological or social views.