“So you strain the Scriptures and mislead your reader.” The frustration and antagonism in the writer’s voice was palpable. He wanted me to unequivocally condemn another writer for his view. I wanted the respondents to engage each other in honest communication about their biases, commitments, and background reasoning to their social commitments. I failed to draw anyone into that kind of discussion. Some were encouraged, some were enraged, some were disappointed, and some were ruthless in their proclamation of what I should have said.
The conflict among my group of friends rapidly jumped from disagreement to an ugly display of religious proclamation, fixed attitudes, hardened identities and closed hearts.
I generated an argument between people who found it easier to throw ideological stones from the safety of a fenced off belief system than engage a dialogue with real people.
One observer shared his candid observation of the discussion with me off-line. He said, “I also observe that the tone and content of some people’s words are not one of work or inner turmoil, but rather of hatred and of aggression. I believe the absence of passion in the moderator [myself] of a discussion can be a critical tool in advancing the discourse. However, the absence of passion (or decisive marginalization) in the face of persistent, willful, hateful rhetoric is, in my view, corrosive to the soul; yours, and the other participants in the discussion.”
I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. Where did I drop the ball? More importantly, am I clear about my own convictions and statement of logical starting points? In this blog, I outline ways to manage conflict with comments about how well I did or didn’t deal with the conflict I generated and make my own assumptions clear for those who wish to engage me in the future.
First, how is conflict approached? Mark Gerzon identified three common responses to conflict: demagoguery, management, and mediation with the later being the most effective.
The demagogue addresses conflict through fear, threats, and intimidation turns opponents into scapegoats. The demagogue dehumanizes others and resorts to violence to dominate and destroy the other. I had one especially insistent demogogue in the argument. I felt like turning into a demagogue myself in the face of mounting stress. However, throwing back the same kind of rant I was being served would not do a thing.
The manager faces conflict on the basis of an exclusive or limited definition of “us”. He/she defines purpose in terms of the self-interest of his or her group and cannot or will not deal with issues, decisions, or conflicts that cross boundaries. Managers are very effective in directing and controlling resources and the activities of other people for the benefit of a particular group. Gerzon points out that this approach is limited.
I recognized a wide variety of people who served as the audience to the argument. I knew that every intransigent statement, every belief hurled in anger, every example offered as a proof text would only exacerbate the argument. I attempted to pull back the participants – to get them to listen to each other. They were not ready and I failed to provide them a bridge to get there. Each wanted me to side with them or absolutely disagree with them. I failed to state my starting point clearly and as a result, I failed to bring the appropriate people together.
In contrast, Gerzon states that the mediator approaches conflict by striving to act on behalf of the whole (cf. John 3:16 as a definition of the church’s scope of concern). Mediators have the capacity to discover the whole and to act in the best interest of the whole. Mediators work on the collaborative principle which Gerzon defines as:
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
The mediator thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning. The mediator builds trust by building bridges across dividing lines and seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict. I wanted to go here, I did not arrive.
In hindsight, I failed in the ability to ask questions that unlock essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform conflict so that it becomes an opportunity. I failed to communicate that the point of inquiry is not the loss of conviction or strong beliefs but the realization that one’s views are discovered and renewed through inquiry. Mediators of conflict naturally want to learn more; “What else can I learn about this situation?” “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?” “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?” “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”The rule of thumb in facing any conflict is: inquiry must precede any form of advocacy.
My other conclusion is that social media used as a discussion point requires a highly structured set of rules for engaging a discussion that participants must agree to before entering and that must be enforced aggressively to create an environment where listening to clarify positions is the goal. Clear convictions can be communicated without expressing hatred. But when participants are dehumanized and made into moral positions only, it’s easier to just shoot at them.
Will I engage another such discussion again on social media? Yes. Why? It allows an audience who deeply wrestles with difficult questions to work through their thinking by listening to others. I will encourage concise statements of conviction, and then encourage inquiry to dissenting views. To what end? Understanding and respect. Can my goal be achieved with every person? Here I have to agree with Machiavelli, no. Why? Because there are evil people whose only goal is the destruction of others. Additionally, there fundamentalist individuals who disallow any dissenting opinion from their own.
Religious convictions require another a short discussion about why the founding fathers of the United States wanted to limit the establishment of religion by the state? They saw in their own history the evil unleashed when political power is mixed with religious absolutism. My friends who want to legislate their Christian beliefs to the exclusion of other systems in civil society would only succeed in reducing civil society to the tyranny of their enforced moral codes. History consistently demonstrates the failure of this. Instead, civil society acknowledges the diversity of core moral conviction and allows for its influence in a discussion involving every participant. Hence it is, in my view, equally dangerous to prohibit the discussion of religion or religious convictions.
The American experiment used the foundation of compromise to create a form of government that allows for religious freedom and offers representation to a diverse populace. I prefer this form of government over others I have seen even with its flaws and limitations. Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to minimize the contrast of their convictions to a perceived norm or power.” As a result, fundamentalists consistently press for an oligarchy composed of religiously acceptable candidates who state religiously acceptable convictions. The hypocrisy and tyranny of such a system are constantly illustrated in the despotism that always results.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power.”
Second, in light of what others in the argument describe as my own fuzzy commitment, I thought it a good exercise to state my own commitments as clearly as possible. I am one who follows Jesus the Christ. I have an unapologetic and inquisitive faith that informs the assumptions I begin with when it comes to moral and social issues. But, I am not fundamentalist in my perspectives. By fundamentalist I mean a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam. I hold to the centrality of the Christian Scriptures and recognize that given their diverse literary forms (i.e., poetry, prose, law/statutory, prophetic, historical narrative, parable, and proverbial/wisdom) that a “literal” interpretation does a disservice to a proper interpretation of the text.
In full disclosure, I also understand Jesus made an exclusive claim when he said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11) Does this reduce me to a mindless automaton closed to learning and assuming full and complete knowledge of all that is spiritual? No, it makes me a disciple i.e., literally one who is learning. And as one who is learning, I recognize that I live in a diverse and pluralistic society from whom I can also learn. Has faith answered every question? No, it answered the main question e.g., about purpose and meaning and it opens new questions that I still ponder.
So, I reject fundamentalism as inherently flawed both historically and reasonably. I see a different model in the Bible particularly evident in the growth of the first-century church from a sect of Judaism to a multi-cultural entity. The rapid expansion of the church in the first century moved the faith community of the church from the comfort of a modified theocracy (often more an oligarchy of socially or religiously powerful and corrupt leaders) experienced in the history of Israel to existence as a unique community and social force in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Paul, the apostle most influential in teaching the fledgling church to live in a pluralistic world wrote this advice,
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:7-10)
So, if you hang out with me I will demonstrate this commitment to loving my neighbor. I also demonstrate a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. I am open talking about my relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that is neither in-the-face of my neighbor nor hidden from my neighbor. I understand that in loving my neighbor I fulfill the law and in fact, make its provisions clear as well as the promise inherent in the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ. I practice listening skills and invite those with whom I strongly disagreed to talk while I listen. We engage a discussion rather than a diatribe.
Are you looking for a way to love your neighbor? Do you want to be heard about your faith? Start by listening especially in a day when religiously induced hatred and hostility is passed off as indicative of Christianity. Listening skills may be tested by conducting a simple exercise. Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.
- Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
- Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
- Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
- Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
- Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
- Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand. It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
- Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience. Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
- Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
- Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
After doing this notice what difference this makes in you feel about your relationship with the other person. Pay attention to how your act of listening often (though not always and rarely immediately) opens others’ hearts and mind to ask about your faith. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before. One conversation does not have to resolve all issues, however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences. Listening is a good step in demonstrating the love God has for the world about you.
Want to know more about faith in Jesus Christ? Contact me directly. My contact information is listed on the “About Me” tab of this blog.
Want to know more about conflict? Read Mark Gerzon (2006).Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 273 pages.
Want to know more about where I attend church? See http://madeforfellowship.com/.