Sermon by Rev. Rich Tafel
October 2, 2021
Conflict is on the rise.
We see it globally as new war zones break out.
We set it nationally in our polarized political life.
We set locally as Washington DC among other cities is witnessing a dramatic increase in crime and gang murder and decades.
There’s hardly a day we don’t see someone arrested in the airplane where they’ve seen the most dramatic increase in conflicts in a viral video.
Divorces have spiked during the pandemic.
Churches are not exempt of this conflict. A recent report showed that post-pandemic churches are dealing with the highest levels of conflict and minsters are leaving their churches in record numbers.
Just this past week, I had a call from pastor friend of mine asking for strategies to deal with conflict in his church that has him very likely to leave a job he loves.
With conflict on the rise, what lessons can we learn to help us navigate it?
Let’s begin by understanding that conflict is natural and necessary. Emotionally and spiritually, we grow through conflict.
Spiritual conflict impacts our decisions daily. The old image of the angel and devil on our shoulder giving us different advice is not far from the truth. Daily we have conflicting messages whether to operate from compassion or selfishness.
Today, I’m going to speak about three styles of conflict.
- Healthy Conflict
- Avoiding Conflict
- High Conflict
Healthy conflict is the way we learn to deal with ourselves and others. It requires us to be less selfish and it to listen more than speak. Learning how-to walk-through conflict is one of the greatest measures of our spiritual development.
Many people confuse avoiding conflict with healthy conflict, particularly spiritual people. When we avoid it, we miss the chance to grow. We also often empower bullies and narcists who can sense that we don’t like conflict and they can get their agenda through.
Americans today find political conflict so toxic they avoid politics all together. This empowers narcissists an extremist on all sides who ratchet up the conflict for their agenda.
Bailing out of conflict is understandable, but not often we miss a chance to grow.
In her insightful book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley, the author shares her study of how conflict becomes the driving force in our behavior citing examples from politics, war, and gangs. In High Conflict we become addicted to the negative energy associated with the battle. We get wedded to our team, tribe, and our side. This conflict is not productive and leads us away from empathy and compassion. Conflict defines us and it feels great being on the side of good versus evil.
What can we learn from Scripture on conflict?
The two gospel lessons we read today demonstrate the tension of the differing roles of conflict. When you read them together as we did today, they appear to be, well, in conflict.
In the first reading, Jesus says to turn the check and walk the extra mile. Some interpret this to me that he’s teaching us to avoid conflict at all costs, however, the point he is making is that regardless of the conflict we are called to love our enemies. He’s trying to teach us that this love for others must go beyond those in our own tribe. We must learn to love those we conflict with. The ability to love those who hate us, is a gift given through God.
In the second gospel lesson, Jesus is saying he came to bring division and pit us against one another. How does this message fit with our view of Jesus as the prince of peace?
Jesus is teaching us a reality of healthy conflict and the danger of avoiding it. For any spiritual evolution to take place in the world, there needs to be conflict. The old must be confronted. We must be willing to stand against what we were to what we must become. We must be willing and ready for this conflict to come in many places in our lives, maybe even our family. The gospel of love creates conflict.
If you stand for love and justice, conflict will find you.
What are some strategies for us to know when we seek to work through healthy conflict?
Swedenborg on Conflict
Swedenborg’s description gives us some insights noting that angels enjoy healthy conflict which includes teaching, discussion, debating, and confrontation to help bring the truth to us on earth.
They also teach us to engage and love those we’re engaged with, even our enemies as Jesus taught us.
In facing conflict, can learn to be remain calm, be patient and really listen. We can even become curious by asking questions.
Conflict is an essential path to spiritual growth.
There will be conflict; the only question is how we show up for it.
In addition to angelic strategies let me turn to other strategies.
- Avoid “Us v Them” Thinking
We must avoid “Us v Them” thinking author points out the most common attractors for this is binary thinking, our good side vs. their evil side. One of the flaws of our political system is that it was set up without political parties but quickly descending into a local government versus national tension, which has created two parties. When there are only two choices, the chances of conflict escalating into high conflict grows.
She recommends whenever we hear ourselves saying “us v them” to pay attention as we are getting sucked into high conflict and think of additional “thems”. Also, consider how they are us.
Beware of this in groups you are in and don’t feed it. National local relationships almost always become us v. them. In political groups it’s the local chapter versus the national office. In most church denominations, many local churches have a negative view of the national leadership, while the national leadership often has negative views of the local church. This comes about because each sees part of what’s going, but these energies can be fueled by people who thrive on rivalry and the comrade this creates.
When things are defined as “us v them” work to create a third way to break the binary conflict.
- Beware of Conflict Entrepreneurs
She calls People in leadership who thrive on creating and fanning the flames of conflict: Conflict Entrepreneurs. We need to be on the lookout for them in our lives. These people make a business or political career by playing to their side against the other. Beware of these people.
The three major cable news channels are good examples of conflict entrepreneurs. They are not there to enlighten but play to their audience’s fears and self-righteous. When we are around people whose only goal is to stir conflict, we might be wise not to follow.
I remember being on Chris Matthew’s Hardball many years ago and him whispering to me at the commercial, “You need to stop with seeing both sides. This guy is insulting you; you need to go for it.” I felt like a boxer getting coached. In another program I was on I could hear the producers encouraging my fellow guest to attack me and then came into my room a said the same thing to me. They profit from conflict.
Be careful what you circulate online because they flourish in this environment. Social media, like, Facebook and Twitter, also have played the role of taking our conflicts and spinning them up into likes and clicks and eventually high conflict.
Possibly the best example of this is Russian conflict entrepreneurs sending out messages to both pro and anti-immigrant crowds in Texas who both showed up to protest each other for a really created by fake online groups.
The energy of being in the tribe and on the right side in a dispute is magnetic. It takes some pulling apart to collaborate within the healthy conflict, but we can be leaders and break the cycle.
- Look for New Models of Politics
One other great example from the book “High Conflict” is the governance of the Bahai Faith. They believe all faith paths are good and share many similarities to our faith. Their governance is mind-blowing.
When they pick leaders, no one is allowed to run for office to lead the faith. Instead, leaders from around the world gather and, with a secret vote, choose the person they feel has the most excellent leadership skills. That person must agree to serve. There are no campaigns and no candidates.
She points out that our current political system in our nation and within congregational religions is more likely to attract people who have narcissistic tendencies because only those people would have the ability to put up with the bs necessary to run. Having worked with many Members on the Hill, her word rang true to me. Our current system attracts the wrong leaders.
The Bahai faith avoids that and offers us a new way to think about it. Also, they spend time debating which way to move forward as a faith. Once they have a majority in the agreement everyone else vows to serve that goal until it is clear it is not working in a new vote is taken.
- Remain Curious, Ask Questions, See Their Side
When you find yourself in a conflict try being curious and asking questions. This can be tough in the moment, but it is an excellent exercise. I recently was interviewed on a podcast call Meta-Ideological Politics for 90 minutes. These young men want to create a new politics in the world, and I think they are on to something.
Ryan Nakade, the founder of the group, is a trained mediator and he has developed the idea that we must “Titanium Man” our opponents’ ideas. He’s building off the idea of when you Steel Man your opponent’s argument by stating it as clearly and honestly as you can. His Titanium Man means we not only state it back, but we add compassion to make our opponents argument better than they could say it themselves. I believe he is on to the next level of conflict resolution. I’ll put their interview in the newsletter.
Try the spiritual exercise of writing down your opponent’s arguments and make their case better than they did.
Those are some good strategies to start with for us to better navigate conflict.
Conflict is critical to our healthy spiritual growth.
Our temptation to opt out of or become consumed by high conflict must be avoided. We need to walk through conflict with compassion, curiosity, and empathy as we do what we believe is right.
Followers of Jesus have a unique opportunity to learn to walk through conflict with the compassion and curiosity given to us by angels seeking to bring heaven to earth.
We need to navigate healthy conflict. We need to avoid Us Them engagements, beware of conflict entrepreneurs and listen, look for new models and understand our opposition so that we can make their case better than they can.
Today, I played the song Prayer of St. Francis, my all-time favorite prayer. In it we pray, to navigate conflict with that one stanza that speaks to our sermon today:
Make me a channel of your peace.
Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
That can be our prayer each day. If we can follow these steps, we can become leaders in using conflict for good to move the world and our lives forward to the good of all.