Constructively Working through Conflict
By Angela Pleasants
October 1, 2021
I was watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The scene is set in San Francisco, depicting a small group of humans struggling to stay alive after a virus wiped out most of the human race. They encounter a band of apes led by one named Caesar.
Now, stay with me friends. In the movie, there is a moment when Caesar talks with his closest ally, an orangutan named Maurice. It has been ten years since either one of them has seen any humans. Maurice asks Caesar if he thinks about them, noting that for his part he only saw their bad side. Caesar’s response hit the core of my heart; “Good, bad… doesn’t matter. Humans destroyed each other.”
There is no need for a spoiler alert; I won’t tell how or why “humans destroyed each other.” But I will give a simple summation of what I think led to their destruction. A crisis arose that created conflict, and the conflict was handled destructively instead of constructively.
Conflict is defined as the opposing action of incompatibles. Conflict occurs when there is a difference of ideas, interests, needs, or drives. It is not necessarily bad; it’s how we handle it. If we do so badly, we essentially guarantee destructive outcomes.
Sometimes conflict is handled through avoidance because we don’t want to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Other times conflict is handled by authoritarian discipline. This style of conflict resolution tries to use control to ensure a desired behavior. Neither of these ways of handling conflict is constructive since they both leave no room for communication and relationship building.
In light of all that has happened in our world over the past couple of years, Caesar’s observation – humans destroyed each other – keeps coming to mind.
For a moment in early 2020, when COVID-19 was first detected, it seemed like everything stopped, and the motto in our country was, “we are all in this together,” but too soon, things took a turn. The country went into shutdown, and conflict began over how to handle the virus.
The debate has only escalated; do we mask or not, do we get vaccinated or not? Fights are happening on airplanes, people are being shot over arguments about wearing a mask, battle lines are drawn. We no longer talk to each other but over each other. This is when conflict becomes more than disagreements between individuals. It becomes rebellion against the ideals of another.
Again, I hear the words humans destroyed each other.
During the latter half of 2019, a group of United Methodist leaders representing various constituencies in the church hammered out the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Along with it was a commitment to de-escalate conflict and to encourage all parties to vote for the Protocol at the next General Conference.
When the Protocol was released in January 2020, many major media outlets reported the possible amicable separation of The United Methodist Church. But what has happened since that time? We have gone from open communication to attempts to restrict conversation. In some areas, groups are told it’s best not to discuss the Protocol. And in some cases, when discussions are held, groups are told they are being divisive.
This is unfortunate because when there is no communication, there is no transparency. When there is no transparency, it leads to fear and anxiety. And where there is fear and anxiety, there is a breakdown in trust and relationships.
Technology has given us many new ways to communicate with one another, but we often seem to be going backward in our behavior and relationships as we use them. We cry aloud about rights and the freedom to speak. But this does not mean we should use our freedom as an excuse to devour and abuse one another. Instead of focusing on who is right, we should focus on what is right.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you are always biting and devouring one another watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (5:13-15)
Let’s not destroy one another. Let’s find peaceful ways to work through conflict constructively. It begins in a heart posture of repentance. When bitterness and unforgiveness are rooted in our hearts, our words are filled with anger and strife. Instead of arguing over who is right and wrong, let’s start by focusing on our heart attitude. Pray for God to create a clean heart in us and renew our spirit in the Lord.
As we seek a renewed heart and spirit, it will open our eyes to seeing and confessing our part in conflict. Once we are in a place of renewal and peace, we can engage in gracious and peaceful conversations that seek to build up the body of Christ and expand the mission of God.
The Protocol is not a divisive plan. It is a gracious and peaceful way forward. It is a way congregations and clergy can continue to serve, worship, preach, and fully live into their gifts and graces.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was, of course, a work of fiction. However, when I look at where we are today, I sometimes worry as I see life imitating art. In a world where people are too often biting and devouring one another, let us, as Christians, profoundly demonstrate God’s deep and abiding love, no matter where we serve.
The Rev. Angela Pleasants is the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Vice President for Clergy and Church Relations. She is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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