Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Engaging Conflict: The Man in the White Hat

This Sunday was a bit rough.  My sermon, which was technically a fundraising sermon, was brutal in it's frankness.  Leavened with humor, sure.  But the message was clear:  all is not well.

The Bible study that followed was equally rough.  There's much to commend the little community I serve, but it faces some immense challenges, challenges I feel unable to meet.  As we enumerated the issues facing the church, like a huge building that slurps up precious time and resources and a fellowship life that is deep and strong...but more like a family than a church startup...I made a point of noting another challenge the church has faced over the past several years. 

That challenge was my own dislike of conflict.  And I do dislike it.  Having watched as conflicts blew apart the church with which my community is yoked, and having worked to resolve the tensions within my own fellowship that have sapped and impurified our precious spiritual fluids, I know how destructive conflict can be.  I naturally prefer to be collaborative, to find consensus, to seek common ground.  But sometimes, that just doesn't work.  Barack, I'm talkin' to you, my friend.

Conflict can be necessary.  Communities that are undergoing change must experience conflict if they are to grow.  Systems that haven't worked, don't work, and will not work need to be dismantled if a community is to thrive, and honey, that means somebody's gonna get riled.  The question is, how do you go about that?

One of the gathered group joked that my fear of conflict might mean I "fought like a girl," and made flappity motions in front of himself to demonstrate.  I joked back that, no, I fought mostly from an armadillo-like fetal position.

This, however, isn't really true.  This church has required me to intentionally engage in conflict.  I perhaps haven't done it as much as I should have, but Lord knows I have had to do it.  When I have, it's usually in the form of simply being firm and clear about where I stand, and why.   It's about being strong but not hostile.   It's about presenting people with truth, but not beating them up about it.  Do I get angry?  Sure.  Anger can be useful, but only as an emotional indicator that something is wrong.  Acting while in the heat of anger only deepens wounds.   Instead, you have to be willing to use that energy to actively resist broken things without contributing to the brokenness.

As I was writing this post, I encountered a striking video (thanks, Jonathan!) that shows some pretty amazingly constructive use of conflict.  It's a scene of mob violence in San Fran last night, shot from a police helicopter, in which a drunken crowd "celebrating" the World Series attacks some people in a car that tried to drive through them.  It's ugly stuff...but watch it, and look for the Man in the White Hat. 

He enters from the bottom of the screen at around 10 seconds, as the mob pounds on the car.  For the next two minutes he aggressively asserts himself.  He talks people down.  He pulls people away.  Finally, he interposes himself physically between the remnants of the mob and the people in the car.  He stays there until the cops arrive...and doesn't leave until the event is over. 

Is he engaging in conflict?  Yes.  He's right there in people's faces.  He is physically moving them.  He is physically preventing them from doing harm, and in doing so is taking a significant risk.  He is hardly passive, and hardly nonconfrontational.

But his attitude is clearly not one of anger, and it makes a difference. 

That is conflict done right.