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on the transformative power of conflict.

January 15, 2014

I was recently asked by an acquaintance if I deliberately seek out conflict. This question came in the context of me sharing about my passion for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how I like to start conversations online (and in person) that tend to get a little heated. (Side note: during an interview once I may have said something to the effect of “I just fell in love with the conflict…well, wait, I mean, I fell in love with these people who are involved in a conflict and I want to help…well, crap.”) Anyway, back to the question at hand. I paused for a moment and my response surprised even me with its profundity. I told her that I don’t love conflict, but that I recognize the transformative power of it. There’s this amazing potential in seasons of conflict to bring about incredible change and transformation. The status quo is unable to be sustained and the parties involved in the debate, argument, frustration, cannot remain the same.

MLK Now, obviously, conflict has incredible potential to create much damage, pain, and suffering. That’s undeniable. But, I don’t think that pain is necessary. I have a deep belief in the idea that conflict, if it is well facilitated and mediated and stewarded, can create lasting positive transformation, both in individuals and large communities. Look at the Civil Rights Movement for example. The situation prior to the movement was unsustainable for the country. But we all know that change would have been slow-coming if not for the strong actions of the influential leaders of that day. However, at that time, those leaders were called troublemakers and instigators. Their actions were seen as inflammatory and unnecessarily confrontational. They created conflict. Conflict was necessary to bring about change. But what made all the difference for their cause was the manner in which their conflict was undertaken. MLK and others made conscious decisions to steward and mediate the conflict with the understanding that they were not fighting against a community or their fellow human beings, but against ideas and prejudices. The conflict was facilitated in a way that was able to bring about lasting change for two communities of people, instead of creating a win-lose scenario.

I see so many instances where conflict is seen as an inherently negative idea. In the conservative church environment that I come from, conflict over politics or disagreements over biblical interpretation are seen as a reason for leaving a community or for labeling someone a heretic. Facebook arguments about gun control or the death penalty end with digital shouting matches and name-calling. Conflicts in Congress are understood as a reason to move further and further away from the center, polarizing our nation.

What if there was a simple perspective shift that could dramatically change how we deal with conflict? What if we allowed ourselves to see conflict as a radical opportunity for transformation for an entire community? What if we decided to do a hell of a good job training our kids in conflict management and resolution? What if we decided to teach our leaders to do the same? What if we understood conflict as the way in which the status quo is done away with, in which we learn to listen to our neighbors and become the kind of society that we dream of being?

What if conflict wasn’t a bad word?

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