Sometimes, in an effort to find inspiration for this column, I surf some internet news sites to catch up with the events of the day and reflect on what it all might mean. Today (I am writing on September 10), that was a remarkably troubling decision. The House Republicans, distrustful of a deal negotiated by six nations, are thinking of suing the President in an effort to stop the Nuclear Development Treaty with Iran. Would-be presidential candidates are questioning each other’s faith. (After all, don’t we all know that theology is the single best determinant of one’s ability to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.) In Hungary, a journalist demonstrated the “highest” of professional ethics by tripping a refugee who was carrying a child and fleeing to freedom. What this all means is that civil society is under constant siege, that the understanding that the best way to get a point across is to attack the integrity and intelligence, if not the very humanity, of those we disagree with is on the rise.
I do not intend to wax eloquent on the demise of civility in our culture, although that point can be made. I would like to point out that the way we deal with conflict and tensions reveals much about our inner selves and that, as Christians, we would be well-served to develop a theology of conflict so that we could view this fundamental reality of life through the lens of faith.
As a starting point in a theology of conflict I would assert that conflict is a normal, rather than abnormal part of life. Where we find people we find conflict. Thus, the central stories of the Bible, by and large, arise out of conflict. The great spiritual insights of Scripture flow from the experience of conflict. Great insights into self and life are discovered in the context of conflict. Some conflict is toxic but not all. In the face of conflict it is almost always helpful to ask, “What is going on here?” It is not always helpful to ask, “What is wrong with us?”
A second understanding important to a theology of conflict is that there is no time, place, setting or circumstance where God is not. I do not believe that God is the cause of all things; yet, I do believe that God is with us completely, present in our lives eternally. When we are arguing with our spouse God is not likely to be the cause of the conflict but God is present as we argue. When we are in heated debate with a co-worker that debate may or may not be the will of God, but God is most certainly present as we make our points. God may indeed be the source as we confront unjust systems but God is also present with us as we make our stand. This means that the gifts of God, such as wisdom, love, mercy, grace and peace are available to us when we need them most.
A third, and for the purposes of this essay, final component of a theology of conflict is that conflict often accompanies growth. It reminds us that as individuals, communities, countries and species we are always in the process of becoming, that we are always being presented with opportunities to grow. Conflict stands as a lasting reminder that God, indeed, is never “finished” with us.
I do not want to be naively optimistic about conflict. It inevitably brings a level of pain and discomfort. Yet, it is such a regular part of our experience, I think it would be a mistake to try and hide it away, to leave it unconsidered. Let’s agree to at least give it some thought, to consider the ways conflict actually makes us better people and improves our community, to be open to the possibility that conflict can be an itchy and scratchy gift of God.