A creative solution to conflict is rarely found by living at the extremes. Usually the solution to a conflict needs the center – the “middle voices”. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” – Albert Einstein.
The “middle voices” – a creative center
Mark Gerzon in his book The Reunited States of America notes, at p. 19, that the largest political cohort in the US is neither Republican or Democrat. Rather it is Independents, and those who refuse to vote, that make up the largest groups.
In churches it is often the same situation. Whenever an issue becomes so contested that the extreme voices dominate the conflict, one could be forgiven for thinking that they form the majority views in the church. However that is rarely the case. Very often it is those who have not chosen to be partisan, or who have withdrawn from the debate, which form the largest groups.
It is among these “middle voices” that it is possible to find a creative way through a conflict. The non partisan members of a church are the key to a deeper insight into how to respond to a conflict.
Conflict – what keeps it going?
It is only natural that we want to have our views confirmed. Our opinions and values are key elements in how we define ourselves. For people of faith our convictions can carry the extra weight of being associated with what God wants. If we sincerely believe that something is the will of God then we will hold to it very dearly. The first thing that keeps a conflict going is that to change may mean changing our understanding of ourselves and God. That can be very hard to do!
Validating our identity and faith by having our views reinforced by others is a comforting place to be. “Confirmation bias” is seeking and valuing information that confirms our opinions and reinforces our preconceived ideas, while avoiding and dismissing information that challenges us.
Conflict often keeps going because people only listen to like minded people. This consolidates the rightness of their point of view. It hardens their resistance to receiving, and taking seriously, alternative views.
Conflict – what can diffuse it?
Gerzon (p.29) tells the story of people going on a 30 media fast. During the fast they stop listening to, and reading, their normal diet of news. They stay away from the information that confirms their bias. Instead they pay attention to the alternative news sources that they usually reject because they speak the “enemy’s” point of view.
He is offering advice for people wrestling with the problem of being hyper partisan around politics. But could Christians in conflict benefit from a 30 day media fast? What would it be like to attend carefully, respectfully to the people who have the opposite view to you on critical issues in the life of the church? The issues are many that have the potential to divide Christians around the world: abortion, euthanasia, LGBTQI ordination or marriage; what evangelism means; justice advocacy; etc.
This is not an encouragement to get educated, but to get empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of another without having to make them your own. Empathy is about trying to understand the other person and their point of view – to walk in their shoes for a moment.
Conflict – be part of the problem or the solution
If you are in conflict with people then you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. One way to contribute to resolving conflict is to genuinely understand the people who think differently to you.
- Stop listening only to those who think like you
- Listen to the “other side” – not to critique them but to understand
- Try to discover the grey parts of an issue and not just the black and white
- Respectfully express in your own words what the other side is saying
- Talk to people who are not at the extremes – why are they in the middle?
Conflict continues because we don’t value the other person or their point of view. Respect one another. Show respect by listening to those who have a different perspective. As this listening happens more people will understand that issues can be complex and solutions are not so simple. When this insight comes then more people will move from the extremes to the middle. In the realistic middle the issues are properly understood and the solutions can be found.