Conflict resolution

a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics?

I’m in the midst of trying to write an article on Christian apologetics — the art of negotiating conversations in which you answer objections and tackle common ‘defeater beliefs’ about the Christian faith.

And I’ve come unstuck (evidently — otherwise I’d be writing the article rather than posting this).

Why? What’s my problem?

Well, first a bit about me:

I’m someone who’s read numerous books and articles, attended training courses, and even run my fair share of training on apologetics. I’m not an expert. But I do have a bunch of answers under my belt. And a few tricks up my sleeve — ways of nudging these conversations in more fruitful directions (e.g., where they’re more likely to end up focusing on Jesus rather than some obscure details about the origins of the universe — which, to be honest, neither I nor most of my conversation partners actually know anything about).

And yet I’m no longer confident this is the kind of thing envisaged in the most frequently quoted prooftext for the enterprise of apologetics (1 Peter 3.15-16):

In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

I’m more and more convinced that the sanctifying Christ as Lord in our own hearts bit is the key to the rest of it. And that readiness to make a defence doesn’t equal carrying concealed argumentative weapons into every conversation and trying to hijack it so that it goes where I want it to go.

Rather, I suspect all the stuff there about gentleness, reverence, and keeping a clear conscience is the main game. (This would certainly fit with the overall thrust of the section of 1 Peter running from roughly half-way through chapter 2 through to the end of the letter.)

What this means is that we need a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics — a set of strategies to break out of what Holly Weeks in her book Failure To Communicate calls the ‘combat mentality’, the inclination to see every potentially tricky conversation as a battlefield either to be avoided or upon which to fight.

And I’m not sure I’ve found any of those in my reading about apologetics.

…and the God of peace will be with you

I’m starting to work out how to ‘switch gears’ between (say) a deep pastoral conversation and Bible study prep and banter about theology. Some days these — along with other kinds of demands — seem to bombard me thick and fast, leaving me little mental or emotional space in between to ready myself for whatever’s next.

So it’s nice when different things actually come together. Spooky even.

This Monday, I led a workshop on ‘Living in grace … when you feel frustrated’. My aim was to help people grapple with how to deal with conflict Christianly.

I drew, in part, from Ken Sande’s excellent book The Peace Maker. Sande advocates a shift from competition to collaboration. Obviously, there’s a lot of common sense in this — and Sande also highlights some biblical wisdom to back this up.

I then got thinking about some of the theological ‘deep structures’ that make this make so much sense in the world God has made. And I attempted to put this into words in a nerdy theological footnote which read:

Adopting a God-centric approach to conflict resolution (rather than either a me- or you-centric approach) doesn’t mean that we become doormats for God. The assumption made by many that for humans to become great, God must become less (and vice versa) is unhelpful. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for us, isn’t a cosmic tyrant who wants to grind us under foot. His intention has always been for us to flourish in relationships of mutual love that echo the inner life of the Trinity. Because love and relationships — not power and possession — are at the heart of reality, we are free to set aside our own selfish interests without thereby missing out on what life is really all about.

Then — and here’s the spooky part (sort of) — I sat down to read Philippians 4.2-9 with a guy yesterday.

In this passage, Paul deals with helping each other resolve conflict just before he weaves together promises about the presence/nearness of the God of peace and some concrete strategies for joyful Christian living.


people don’t moan unless they own

A Christian leader I once worked with was fond of saying, ‘People don’t moan unless they own’.

I guess it was his way of highlighting the reality that grumbling and complaining aren’t necessarily the opposite of ‘buy in’. They could actually be indicators of it!

So if a group of people you’re part of start vocalising dissatisfaction about how they’re pursuing their shared goals (or questioning what those goals should be), it doesn’t automatically mean they want to give up. In fact, it may speak volumes about how safe they feel to be able to articulate their dissatisfaction in the first place.

Some writers on leadership would call this evidence of an ‘adaptive challenge’.

An ‘adaptive’ challenge, according to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky — the author’s of ‘Managing Yourself: A Survival Guide for Leaders’ (Harvard Business Review, June 2002) — is one that can’t be fixed with a purely technical solution.

Think of a car that needs to be repaired over and over again because of the way it’s being driven (rather than a design fault). Tackling this problem is an adaptive challenge — it requires changes that run to the springs of human behaviour: our values, motives, and affections.

I find this all massively liberating as well as thoroughly challenging.

It’s liberating because until now I think I’ve been tempted to view low-level, repeated complaining as something to be overcome.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing that needs to be done about whatever people might be moaning about. What I am saying is that the moaning itself need not be discouraging.

What’s challenging is that while it may offer a brilliant diagnosis (I was already inclined to find ‘systems’ approaches like this one thoroughly compelling), knowing how to apply it is a whole different thing — something, no doubt, for a future blog post!

how not to argue online

Natalie pointed me in the direction of this list from King of Bloggers, Seth Godin. It speaks to what does and doesn’t count as a genuine discussion online.

Point number 5 (about acting anonymously) particularly resonated with me. In my experience, anonymous — or near-anonymous — ‘drive by’ comments are rife on theoblogs.

I totally get how you may react to something you read on a blog and feel compelled to comment (even though you’re unlikely to subscribe to the comments feed or sign up to be notified by email about the unfolding discussion). I’ve done it myself. More than once.

But that’s a long way from the ideal Seth pins to the board:

Earn a reputation. Have a conversation. Ask questions. Describe possible outcomes of a point of view. Make connections. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Align objectives then describe a better outcome. Show up. Smile.

I really want to take seriously the fact that blogging is all about conversation — constructive collaboration. I want to respond to stuff I read not just react to it. When I make a comment about something I find odd — or even off the wall — I want to do so out of curiosity, because I’m fascinated and want to understand not because I’m frustrated and want it to be known that I’m right.

At the same time, as a blogger — and this will hardly surprise to anyone who reads my stuff even semi-regularly… — I don’t always produce fully thought-through, coherent or comprehensible stuff. I even sometimes waffle!

But, besides the silent majority who keep reading through all our worst moments, what I really love are contributors who care enough about us to discuss something they disagree with rather than simply sniping and then melting into the background.

What say you — Yay or Nay?

begging to stay?

What might recompense, or what Baxter called ‘satisfaction’ require of us who arrived since 1788?

iv. We would ask the indigenous people if they wanted those of us who have arrived since 1788 to leave [Baxter’s ‘Resititution’], or to provide an equivalent recompense [Baxter’s ‘Satisfaction’]. Leaving would be a drastic and complicated action, but, as I have pointed out, it has happened in India, Africa and Indonesia in the last sixty years.

This was probably the most contentious statement Dr Peter Adam made in his lecture “Australia — whose land?” on Monday night. It was definitely what the Herald article highlighted. I was emotionally caught between wanting to say a wholehearted ‘amen’ and blurting out ‘but that’s totally impractical!’. I had to actively remind myself to first ask the question (without focusing on how we might do it) is it worth doing?

I have found it challenging to dwell on this and let it confront me. Thinking seriously about this claim and what it might mean for me (leaving all my family’s wealth and property behind for someone else) gives me a tiny little taste of what it was we took away from the Indigenous peoples of Australia. I realised I should not scoff. It is not absurd. This reflects what White people have already done in history.

My mum's family's farm in the Wimmera after a good rain

My mum's family's farm in the Wimmera after a good rain

But if we are really going to offer to do this, we have to be able to follow through. It’s harmful to make such an offer in the expectation that our Indigenous brothers and sisters will graciously allow us to stay. But the follow through is so very complicated and I can’t resist sharing with you some of the things I’ve been wrestling with while I try and take this seriously (beyond where would we go):

  • How many Indigenous Australians would need to say ‘please leave’ for us to act? Just one? All? Some sort of quorum?
  • In other places in his speech, Dr Adam suggested restitution should be made tribe by tribe in ways that are appropriate at a local community level. Yet this suggestion is a one size fits all kind of thing… how would we balance differing opinions in such an absolutist action?
  • For persons of mixed blood, does their Indigeneity trump their whiteness? How do you balance guilt and ‘wrongedness’ in the body of the one individual?

Also, I feel like offering to leave risks allowing us to be arrogant if we are given leave to stay: a “see! you can’t live without us, you need us to stay” kind of response.  Offering to leave also fails to embody how much we have come to love Australia and how connected many of us now feel to the land.

And so, I’ve been wondering whether it would be more appropriate and shape our response better if, instead of offering to leave, we begged to be allowed to stay, offering Indigenous Australians whatever it takes to be granted leave to remain?

vision and conflict

For Christianity, true community means the freedom of people and groups to be different, not just to be functions of a fixed consensus, yet at the same time it totally refuses indifference; a peaceful, united secure community implies absolute consensus, and yet, where difference is acknowledged, this is no agreement in an idea, or something once and for all achieved, but a consensus that is only in and through the inter-relations of community itself, and a consensus that moves and ‘changes’: a concentus musicus.
(John Milbank, ‘Post-modern Critical Augustinianism’)

From my (limited) experience this is something leaders often struggle with. On the one hand, we’re all about consensus. That’s what we want to generate — not imposing our wills or coercing allegiance (that’s tyranny not leadership) but getting people on board, ‘casting vision’. On the other hand, getting explicit about vision can have the opposite effect. Actually sparking conflict.

Blue Helmets

Blue Helmets by riacale, on Flickr

Vision casting sparks conflict because by nailing your colours to the mast — saying ‘This is (or should be) our priority’ — you let people see where the proposed direction may not match their own priorities.

This doesn’t always happen immediately of course. It’s galvanising to be involved in something with a clear sense of purpose. Like jumping aboard a moving train. You’re going somewhere!

But things’ll change as time passes. And it’s more than a case of vision ‘leaking’. A vision that fosters ownership and growing maturity (my idea of a good vision) is already sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Or its own modification at least.

For ownership moves people from being passive observers to becoming genuine stakeholders, personally invested in the direction and outcomes as well as the shape and feel of the project.

Good vision casting is prepared for this. Expects conflict to follow. And knows it can be constructive. If the leadership is trusted and clear channels of communication are maintained, getting explicit about vision opens up debate about the direction and texture of the project. And, managed well, the resulting ‘mobile consensus’ binds together more tightly and truly than a static one.

church discipline as gospel?

I have to confess that I struggle with preaching from the Gospels. On the one hand they’re so unmistakeably about Jesus — exactly what we want for gospel ministry. On the other hand they’re full of stuff — e.g., ethical teaching for — that seems a little (ahem) difficult to square with the announcement of the achievement of God in Christ.

Matthew 18 is a significant piece of such interpretive gristle.

On the face of it, it’s loaded with practical advice for the church — specifically, how to deal with sin in the community of believers. (Our pastor Andrew Katay preaches a blinder on this and is well worth listening to). Yet the difficulty lurking below the surface is, How does it point us towards the narrative’s climax — Jesus’ atoning death?

I want to suggest that read carefully, Matthew 18 is neither a matter of ethics displacing the gospel message of Christ’s substitution for us, nor does its place in the Gospel’s unfolding narrative demands that we hold the ethical teaching at arm’s length — as some weird set of interim provisions, the contemporary relevance of which we struggle to see.

Church discipline? (Rubens's classic image, Saint Ambrose forbids emperor Theodosius I to enter the church)

Church discipline? (Rubens's classic image, Saint Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius I to Enter the Church)

Rather, the irreducible ethical nature of this chapter — it is about church discipline, providing principles to govern our handling of sin in the life of the community — is the key to its gospel function.

  • You see this in the call in this passage for church members to reflect the heart of God in their dealings with each other, like the shepherd who drops everything to pursue his lost sheep.
  • But you also see it in the sweep of chapters 18-20 which prepare for Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and installation as the Messiah — first in his public recognition then as he steps into the shoes of Isaiah’s suffering servant in his passion.

All told, the way church discipline heralds the gospel in Matthew 18 helps us see something that Oliver O’Donovan jumps up and down about: ethics is evangelical. This (I hope) is the key to preaching from the Gospels!

leadership and listening

Alexander the Great used to don the gear of a foot soldier and listen to his men.

Alexander the Great used to don the gear of a foot soldier and listen to his men.

I have always admired visionary leaders – the type of person who can get others fired up about a vision. In practice, though, it’s easy to think that being a visionary is about getting other people to do what you want them to. You have a brilliant idea. Leadership is about convincing enough people to agree and getting them to make it happen. Or is it?

The more leadership articles and resources I read, the more I’m convinced that leadership (especially in volunteer organisations like churches) is about listening. It’s not about getting people to do what I want them to do. Even if I have a good idea. Rather, it’s about finding out what they want to do and harnessing that in a way that serves the vision. I think there’s servanthood here: it means being humble enough to let go of my good ideas, it means giving people the space and permission to grow in their own gifts, it means helping them realise their own ideas. 

I still think a key part of leadership is communicating a vision. But it’s also about giving up some of the control and empowering people to find their own way to support that vision.

the charitable supposition

I’m more and more convinced that pastoral ministry should operate on a charitable supposition.

What I mean is that we ought to try put the best construction on the things people say — whether they’re saying that they understand and agree to what they’re promising when they bring their kid to be baptised or expressing the aspiration of their heart as they sing words like ‘Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’.

In Knots Untied (Chapter 7), J. C. Ryle helpfully applies this principle to the case of the strong declaration in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Infant Baptism service, ‘Seeing now that this child is regenerate…’

At heart this is about leaving judgement to God. And it feels right on! My only hesitation — which I’m still not quite sure what to do with — arises with the application Paul seems to make of this principle. In 1 Cor 4, Paul warns against pronouncing judgement ‘before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’ (v 5).

So far so Anglican… But within a chapter Paul is laying down some pretty severe church discipline, insisting (in no uncertain terms) that Christians must not remain in fellowship ‘with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber’ because ‘Is it not those inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you‘ (1 Cor 5.11-12).

Whoa! How does that square with Ryle’s charitable supposition?

I assume you have a reason for that

I’ve been pondering how to give feedback, especially when I disagree with the point or approach.

This has cropped up because I’m involved in a preaching group — workshopping a different person’s sermon each week — as well our fourth year Issues in Theology class — which consists almost entirely in listening and responding to presentations by class members often dealing with topics of particular pastoral interest (e.g., sin in the life of a believer, the problem of evil, the environment).

My tendency when confronted with disagreement is to say nothing for as long as I can. With the result that minor annoyances quickly become major frustrations — even more so because no-one else picks them up! Needless to say, this Dam It Up Until I Can’t Hold It Back approach is hardly constructive. Nor has it won the love and admiration of my peers.

I really want to improve at this. So I plan to follow the advice of a very wise colleague: assume the person I’m giving feedback to has a reason for what they said.

This puts flesh on the bones of the principle, ‘Don’t get frustrated, get fascinated’. Better, it allows for a thoroughly Christian approach to giving feedback. It lets you explicitly and directly challenge the point you disagree with — and be completely honest about disagreeing. Yet it keeps you humble enough to be taught. Rather than initiating a cycle of attack and counter-attack, it functions as an invitation to enter a conversation.

Can you imagine how differently things might unfold if I gave feedback like this?

I was interested to see that you said this/took this approach, where others may have made another point or approached it a different way; I’d love to hear about why you headed down the path you took…

Fremantle, WA (April 2009)

Fremantle, WA (April 2009)