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Today we welcome a guest blogger to The Twelve: Mara Joy Norden. She pastors an RCA congregation called The Community in Ada, MI with her husband, Billy Norden. Conflict transformation in congregations is the topic of her Doctor of Ministry degree, which she is pursuing at Western Theological Seminary. She delights in a [mostly] conflict-free life with her husband and two sons: a funny and independent 3-year-old and a jovial 8-month-old.
Have you ever heard of The Root Canal Strategy for Conflict Resolution? You might be surprised to find out that almost everyone around you is an expert in this strategy. I’ll let you in on the secret.
- Step 1: Pretend the conflict doesn’t exist.
- Step 2: As the ”non-existent” conflict continues to become more uncomfortable, use all means possible to numb yourself to its existence.
- Step 3: Wonder how much it would cost to fix this ”non-existent” conflict if it did, in fact, exist.
- Step 4: Admit the conflict is not non-existent. Add ”fix conflict” to your to-do list.
- Step 5: Perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide that the pain of the conflict might be more bearable than the pain of fixing it.
- Step 6: Find out that your spouse made arrangements for you to fix it. (Darn it, you thought you had been keeping this problem to yourself!)
- Step 7, option 1: Show up to fix the problem as spouse arranged.
- Step 7, option 2: Return to Step one and repeat.
Experts in The Root Canal Strategy for Conflict Resolution commit their lives to ”keeping the peace” by keeping conflict at bay.
It’s nice to be rooted in a community of experts like these. It’s calm. It’s pretty and polite. Lots of churches, neighborhoods, families, and workplaces dwell in this kind of peace. It’s nice, but what we’re keeping here is not peace. Conflict is uncomfortable, but the avoidance of conflict is not peace. It’s Frederick Buechner who tipped me off to this: ”Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of love” (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC).
Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of love. I’ve been living with these words of Buechner for a year, and I still can’t write them without my mind being blown. What? Peace and conflict can live in the same place, the same relationship, the same congregation, at the same time? Yes, when love is there with them. (I think we need to redefine love, now, too!). My skeptic self pushes back: that sounds like the profound musings of a theologian and writer who is stuck in the ivory tower. I bet it doesn’t work that way in REAL human conflict.
Except that it DOES work that way in real human conflict, so we’re not off the hook. John Paul Lederach, a proven international peace process practitioner, says, like Buechner, that conflict is not the enemy of peace: ”Conflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor of change.” (The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, page 4-5). Conflict is normal. Conflict is a motor of change. Conflict can drive us toward peace, which, as it turns out, might not be so much a destination as a transformation of our journey.
(I say this the most loudly to myself:) ”Attention Root Canal Strategy experts: your method of living with conflict is antithetical to living in the way of Christ!” I am becoming more and more convinced that the many-splendored work of Christ can be summed up in the concept of peace. Peace with God. Peace with neighbors. Peace with enemies. Peace with the earth. Evidence abounds in scripture, and Ephesians 2:14-16 (NRSV) is a good place to start:
For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
The way of Christ it to make peace. Christ is our peace. Christ brings together people who have been separated by breaking down hostility and putting it to death.
At first glance it might seem like Christ’s putting to death hostility might mean we that we should avoid conflict. But consider how he put it to death: through the cross, which involved not running from conflict but leaning into it, submitting to it. Christ’s leaning into conflict even to the point of death is the motor of our change. Following in the way of Christ means leaning into conflict. Not to be pushy or argumentative, but in trust that God’s way of breaking down barriers and bringing peace requires some hard work on our part. Ignoring conflict does not bring the kind of peace God wants for us. ”Keeping the peace” really only means staving off the conflict that God can use to transform us.
The way we lean into conflict matters, of course, as we follow in the way of Christ. Telling stories, asking questions, and bringing healing were some of Jesus’ preferred methods. He’s not always gentle, but he always finds ways to protect the weak, define his ministry and identity, and hold up the radical standard of God’s love without violence. That’s one of the ways we know Jesus was fully divine in addition to being fully human – he could navigate conflict with perfect love for the other party. What human can do that without significant help?
Today I commit myself to living with conflict in the way of Christ. Tomorrow I’ll have to commit to it again. It’s hard work to lean into conflict, and I trust that this is one of the ways that God’s much-needed peace is made real on earth.