I often say that ‘conflict is simply two or more ideas trying to share space.’ In this regard, conflict is inevitable but it is not inherently bad, evil, or even problematic. In fact, conflict is never good or bad, it just is.
It is not the conflict itself, but, rather, our response to conflict that creates most of the concerns. People often recognize the existence of conflict in their midst when the responses are negative or destructive of community. One of the natural reactions to conflict, especially in the church, is to establish zones of separation. If conflict happens because our different ideas are trying to share space, a natural response may be to divide up and create separate spaces. Sometimes we create separate spaces by physically leaving the community; other times we stay and carve out separate spaces in terms of who we speak to, who we accept, and who we believe or trust. Often, we give theological rationale to the existence of destructive conflict and to our avoidance responses.
Usually as part of our response to different ideas, especially divergent ideas, our desire is to change the other person and change their ideas. Or, if that doesn’t work – we avoid them or, if we are able, cast them out.
My friend Byron Bland at Stanford University has helped me make a very useful distinction between a shared vision of the future and a vision of a shared future.
A shared vision of the future requires that we either:
- persuade the other to see the error of their ways;
- find common ground; or
- reach compromise.
A vision of a shared future, on the other hand, requires that we imagine a place that allows for each party to have full self expression in an interconnected way that doesn’t impede others from also having full self expression.
The first requires that one person or both change, the latter requires that we change the container in which the ideas are being held. Conflict is two ideas trying to share space. To resolve conflict we usually think about changing the ideas and overlook the possibility of changing the space.
The JustPeace way takes a systems approach to conflict because we embrace transformed communities – communities that have space, resources and relational practices that can include all in loving and supportive ways. If conflict is simply two ideas seeking to share space, we don’t always have to change the ideas or the people who have the ideas, sometimes we can change the space in ways that lovingly embrace our different ideas.
And when the space is transformed, we will also be transformed. A transforming community is one that includes and accounts for all in loving and nurturing ways that allow all who enter to also be transformed.
How do you approach the process of transforming community? The first three steps are clear:
- Engaging Conflict – the people aren’t the problem, the problem is the problem
- Welcoming Conversations – An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard; and
- Honoring Relationships – maintaining the I-Thou posture that recognizes the spark of God in every being.
After taking these first three steps the transforming and transformed community will emerge from within the engaging, welcoming, and honoring spaces. But, as Spanish philosopher Antonio Machado advises: “Traveler, there is no path. We make the path by walking.”
The journey to just peace is made by walking; and we at JustPeace welcome the opportunity to accompany you on The Way.