It seems like a rule of nature that conflict is inevitable. While the last two decades has been witness to extremely polarized thinking in both ecclesiastical and political debates, the fact of the matter is that people have always been in conflict. We disagree with one another. We get angry. We fight. Such is life. On this side of the Kingdom, I’m just not sure we can avoid it.
But oh do we try.
When I meet someone who has opinions diametrically different from mine, my first impulse is to try to change their mind. I may not open with that, and really, I may not even pursue it in action, but that desire is there. While small differences in opinion are not only good, they’re necessary, there is something deep inside of me that is unsettled when someone claims something I find absolutely ludicrous. I must fix them.
Maybe you know this feeling. If so, then maybe you know what usually happens in these cases: nothing. In my whole life, in all the people I have met and in all of the conversations about politics, religion, philosophy, or the like, I’m not sure if I have ever changed the opinion of someone who started off diametrically opposed to me. Never. Instead, what almost always happens is that at least one of us gets frustrated at our inability to fix the other person and we leave the conversation worse off than when we started: same opinions held but a worse relationship between us.
What do we do now?
More times than not, we just let it go. Rather than carrying the burden of the frustration with us well after the conversation is done, we try to forget the argument and move on with our lives. And on the surface, this seems like our best option: adding resentment to an altogether meaningless conversation is not good for one’s mental or emotional health, and benefits neither you nor your opponent. Letting the conversation go is probably the best thing we can do.
Rather unfortunately, though, we often let go of much more than that. In my experience, when faced with a difficult person or opinion that we cannot reconcile with the way we view the world, we often let go of the person as well. Rather than having to deal with the frustration that such a perspective is out there, and unwilling to accept that it cannot be reconciled with our world view, we employ a defense mechanism that eliminates the problem: we determine that that person or opinion is fundamentally wrong, therefore not of any worth to our lives.
It’s a nice tactic, actually. Able to put someone in a box—no, they put themselves in a box away from reason, not us!—our commitment to them and their ideas disappears. Those people are so messed up, we say. That one is crazy, we think. Why waste time thinking about or engaging people who are so far from right thinking?
And yet, as nice and comforting it is to us, as neat and tidy as it makes our relationships, when we do this, we forget something rather fundamental to our lives: As Christians, we do not have the luxury of writing people off.
As much as we want to solve problems by cutting people out of our lives and forever ignoring them, we do not have the luxury: we are called to forgiveness.
As much as we want to put people down for being “so messed up,” we do not have the luxury. We are called to love even our enemies.
As much as we want to attack others, play the victim, or try to get people our our side against them, we do not have the luxury. We are called to be meek peacemakers.
As much as the world may find certain behaviors and ways of dealing with conflict acceptable, we do not have the luxury. We are called to another world.
As much as we want to hide from issues and people, avoiding conflict and saying that “it’s not my problem,” we do not have the luxury. We are called to imitate God’s justice and mercy in our world, building up the kingdom of God, not just for ourselves, but for all.
There is no doubt in my mind that conflict has existed as long as life has existed and that it will continue long after I am gone. I have no utopian dreams of creating a world in which everyone holds hands and gets along, all thinking and speaking with one voice. This side of the Kingdom, conflict is a reality at the center of our lives. As Christians, that should not free us from being who we say we are—Christians. No, Jesus himself came and lived in a volatile world with conflict all around him. In fact, it is mainly through conflict that we know what we know about him and how we are to live. As easy as it is to buy into the values of the world—to act like the leaders of camps we see around us, to improve our cause by putting down our enemy, to determine for ourselves who is worth engaging and who is not—we need to remember one thing: if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, we do not have the luxury of letting go of any part of the body of Christ.