Principles of Conflict

Conflict. I think I speak for many of us when I say that there are days when we may suffer from conflict exhaustion.  Conflict is everywhere, it seems, these days. It may even be an appropriate theme for 2020. Sometimes, conflict may even be good for us. There are certainly very good reasons for us to be confronted by our failings, for the times when we, as individuals, and we, as a society, fall short of the message of Christ to love one another and to love God with all our hearts. 

Unfortunately, too often we seem to have forgotten how to face conflict with the loving Heart of Jesus. We trade memes on Facebook and create ways of dehumanizing those with whom we disagree in an attempt to relegate them to the status of “other.” We carefully construct impenetrable information bubbles that ensure that the only opinions we hear already align with our own, whether right or wrong.  Conflict is hard, it’s uncomfortable and, therefore, understandable perhaps, that we construct shields around ourselves. This can be problematic, and we need to ask ourselves, how are we to grow into the disciple we have been called to be, if not for some conflict?

 Today’s reading offers some very practical principles for us to draw on.

First, in conflict we should strive to reconcile, not revile.  Constructive conflict seeks to find reconciliation, forgiveness, and community. It’s not a mistake that the very next verse after this Gospel passage is, “Then Peter, approached, asking him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” (Matthew 15:21).  Jesus’s answer is, essentially, that we must always forgive.

Second, conflict is to start in private, not in public. In other words, don’t gossip. And in today’s world, that means more than just refraining from talking about someone behind their back. Now, we can spread gossip and publicly chastise one another, and even strangers, on social media with a thoughtless tap of our fingers. Gossip is especially dangerous, because it spreads like wildfire and, often, the blaze gets beyond our control.

There‘s a story about a man who went about gossiping and telling stories about other people without restraint. He would hear stories and—sometimes with little additions or changes to make them more entertaining—share the stories with everyone that he knew. He loved the attention that being the “storyteller” would bring him. Before long, his friends and neighbors became upset with him and went to their rabbi to make him stop. The rabbi took the man aside and gave him a bag of feathers. He told the man to spread the feathers over the village and return the following morning. The man did so, and returned the next day. The rabbi then told him to go gather up all the feathers and bring them to him. “But, Rabbi!” the man said, “That’s impossible! The wind has spread them everywhere.” 

“Exactly,” replied the rabbi, “just as it is when you gossip and spread rumors about others. You can never take it back.”

If a one-on-one conversation isn’t productive, bring in just a part of your loving community. Not everyone needs to know, and not everyone can provide support and advice.

Third, truth without love is abuse, love without truth is enablement. Sometimes, conflict can’t be resolved in a way that satisfies both the truth as we understand it and the feelings of everyone involved. If, after open-minded and love-centered discussion, we find ourselves entrenched in disagreement, it may be time to step away. Being open to another perspective and experience doesn’t necessarily mean compromising our own standards or pretending that nothing is wrong. Continuing to love and reach out for reconciliation doesn’t mean allowing or accepting behaviors from another that are harmful to ourselves, to others, or to themselves. But it is a loss, and the loss needs to be grieved. When conflict has caused harm in relationships, it can damage intimacy, and we feel the loss of the closeness we may have once had with another. As Jesus says in our Gospel, we must then treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector. What Jesus doesn’t say, however, is that they should be treated as less than, or somehow inferior. How does Jesus treat the Gentile and the tax collector? He loves them, engages them, and, ultimately, sacrifices his life for them.

Conflict is not going away anytime soon. Our world, and God’s people, are suffering and we are all trying to find the solutions that can get us through it. We all really just want the same things mostly. My prayer continues to be that we will keep our eyes on His Truth, our minds open to His Wisdom, and, most importantly, our hearts bursting with His Love.

Lisa Amos
Director of Mission and Ministry

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