Conflict Transformation As A Spiritual Practice

Jesus had a remarkable gift for seeing through everything superficial, for peeling back the layers of the dusty, superficial robes of identity we wear,  to peer into a person’s inner soul.   Whether speaking to a Roman Centurian, to a Samaritan adulteress, or to a distinguished Rabbi,  Jesus always seemed to see beyond title or position and to respond to the deeper thoughts and real need of the individual he was relating to.

(From Wikimedia commons:  Guercino, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well)

This is no surprise, is it?  We expect God to know us!   Moreover, since there is no chance we will be embarrassed by meeting God in the supermarket tomorrow, it is relatively low risk for us to reveal in quiet prayer the yearnings of our deepest, secret places.

But wait!  What if, as the song says, God were one of us?  Would we be willing to reveal ourselves to God, in that case?

Consider Matthew 25:37-39:

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

What if God is among us, gauging us and knowing us even more, by every response we make to an other.  What if, by our responses to others, we reveal our self to God?  What if God is, in a real sense, in the other person?   And, if God is present in our interactions with an other, what does that say about how we ought to relate to that other?

Consider  Matthew 7:12:  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

This is getting tough.  Does it make a difference if the other is my enemy?  Peter already asked that question.   God does not let us off the hook.  Jesus’s reply to Peter (in Matthew 5:46) was, in so many words, “no excuses:”

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  . . . And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?

Herein is the root of our calling to engage in Christian conflict transformation, not just conflict “resolution”.  Resolution may find a superficial solution, but it does not heal the conflict.  Resolution may address causes, but Christians are more or less directly instructed to go deeper, to see the other as Christ sees the other.  We aim to see, and to be seen, on a deeper and less superficial level.  Which is, more or less, to say that when we rise to this challenge, perhaps we begin to see ourselves and the other more like God sees us.

When we do this, we enable the cause of conflict to be addressed on a deeper and more fundamental level.  Our experience of the conflict is transformed.  This is what is called “conflict transformation.”  When our understanding is transformed,  our positions and views shift, and this new viewpoint often can cause shifts in how we respond to the conflict.  To call this merely “compromise” is trite.  It is the difference between the earth shifting as the result of an earthquake, versus moving a fence line.  Perhaps when the earth moves, the fence is no longer even needed.

Can we do it?  Yes, by the Grace of God, yes, it is possible.  The principles work whether we are Christian or not.  Kenneth Cloke, a secular mediator, speaks about conflict transformation in his book The Crossroads of Conflict  as follows:

Every conflict presents the parties… with a… choice. They can cling to safe territory, keep the conversation focused on relatively superficial issues and avoid mentioning deeper topics, remaining locked in impasse and placing their lives on hold.

Or they can take a risk, adopt a more open, honest, empathic approach and initiate a deeper, more dangerous, heartfelt conversation that could change their lives and result in transformation and transcendence.

Which path they take will depend partly on their willingness to engage each other in heartfelt communications.

A heartfelt conversation that could change our life.  Are we ready for it?  Cloke explains the secular side:

Transcendence occurs when people gain insight into the attitudes, intentions and perceptions that sustained their conflict, improve their ability to learn from it, work collaboratively to prevent its reoccurrence and evolve to higher levels of conflict and resolution.

On the spiritual side, we are doing nothing less than what our Lord demands.  We are challenged to see the Other, and to see ourselves, more like God sees us.  Through this new revelation, and by developing skill in relating to one another with love, we grow and learn more about how to exist as the spiritual creatures that we are.  

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