waging peace: conflict, christian unity, & power

Those who hate conflict will avoid it like the plague, but I'm not one of those people. It's not that I like to fight, balls-out, guns-blazing, I-will-CUT-you. I just happen to believe that conflict is inevitable, necessary, healthy, and not inherently indicative of battle lines drawn, Us vs. Them, or all-out-war. My life is full of people with whom I disagree about a million things, and we manage to love each other all the same.

I'm realizing that my (relative) comfort with conflict is a minority position in many Christian circles, where disagreement can be conflated with attack and one of The Worst sins: disunity.

Whenever Christians get to disagreeing, as we're wont to do, someone inevitably waves the "UNITY!" banner, imploring folks to pipe down and get along. This is understandable, to a certain degree. We are supposed to be known by our love and what-not.

But conflict itself is not a threat to peace, and those pleas for unity rarely occur on neutral ground. When the Supreme Court was considering marriage equality, I read arguments by Christians on the right and the left about how disagreements were a distraction from what God really cares about.

It may be natural to prioritize our own passions, but one person's "issue" or hypothetical thought exercise is another's actual life. If I, as a straight, cisgender person, can ignore the fact that LGBTQ Americans do not share many of the rights that I take for granted, my "opting out" is a luxury and privilege, proof more of my callousness than enlightenment. It's also a wildly presumptuous leap to project my own apathy onto God. 

Unity pleas rarely occur in a vacuum, and they can come off as silencing dissent when issued by Christians for whom the "fight" is not personal. Those without a horse dismiss the race with record speed, but not having stake in the battle du jour should never be confused with the moral authority to explain how there are bigger fish to fry--or the ability to impart God's own perspective!

There are uneven power differentials at play within many conflicts. Glossing over them not only misses the heart of much disagreement, it impedes the very reconciliation those unity pleas strive for. The most heated conflicts are deeply personal, and injustice and hurt may bring the most heat of all. We all have unique perspectives and intrinsic value, but if someone is being hurt, silenced, marginalized or oppressed inside a conflict, that inequality bears profoundly on its resolution.

Unity pleas sound noble, but they cannot bring about healing or justice, and without those, there can be no real unity--just the appearance of it (and even then only from select vantage points).

Conflict must be worked through and harm accounted for, even the hurt we never intended. We rarely hurt each other on purpose, but good intentions don't mean never having to say you're sorry. We are responsible for our words, actions, and inactions: meaning well alone is not absolution. 

I generally mean well, and I hurt people all the time, usually the ones I love the most. Everybody does, and we rarely intend to at all. Christians who believe that we're all sinners should know this better than anyone, but again and again, we act as though meaning-well covers over a multitude of (our own) sins.

But that's not how it works. People rarely intend to be racist or misogynistic, and yet well-intentioned people say and do hurtful and oppressive things all the time. This doesn't make us bad people but human people, and part of being human is being accountable for our behavior. We all mess up, and hurt isn't any more palatable just because the offending party didn't intend it. 

If a wounded party has already experienced marginalization because of race, gender, sexuality, abuse, etc., conflict is often experienced within a deeper, systemic context and repeated pattern of social inequality, which cannot be ignored if we care about unity, peace, and love. If someone lets me know that my words or actions caused pain, I need to account for that, especially as a person of privilege. I need to listen, and I need to make it right.

So yes, by all means, let's assign positive intent. Let's not assume that people intended us harm (or that our own critics are picking fights for sport or being too "sensitive"). But then let's also choose to acknowledge the power dynamics at play and take responsibility for our own behavior before pleading, "Can't we we all just get along?"

There are no shortcuts around conflict into unity. Unity involves forgiveness and loving well, but it is also about righting wrongs. Conflict is not a threat, especially to a unity that did not exist in the first place. If there are inequalities within a community, pleas for unity can function as unwitting endorsements of existing hierarchies and an unjust status quo. Real peace is not kept but made: forged in fire and hard-won. Unity is like peacemaking, and it won't be achieved without the kind of love that sees conflict through all the way to the wholeness of shalom.

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