Conflict.  Just the word gives many of us a sinking feeling.  And it seems to be everywhere these days: in our homes, our churches and other ministry settings, and in our national and global interactions. Two weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a week in Israel with a delegation of U.S. Deans and Seminary presidents.  Over the course of the week, we met with over a dozen different scholars, government and religious leaders, educators, and journalists to learn about all facets of life in in this beautiful land. One of the things I learned is that if you ask three people in Israel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ll get five opinions. That sounds familiar to those of us that live stateside doesn’t it?  As we dug deeply into the conflict in Israel that folks on both sides live with every day, we were all reminded of some universal principles related to conflict.

  1. It often is complicated.  Whether at home, at church, or in the public square, there is always more than one, or two, positions on every issue (in addition to the levels of conversation detailed below). We will only make progress on resolving conflict when we take time to listen deeply and carefully to all positions and all layers of a problem, before crafting our own response or counter argument. We do well to ask questions (especially if we are new in a setting) such as:  How long has this situation been going on?  What are the presenting issues and is going on at a deeper level? Remember only ten percent of the iceberg is visible above the surface! When you think you understand it all, take a step back and look at the bigger picture once again.
  2. We can’t stay in our own silos.  I was surprised to learn that in Israel, most people are born and raised in very homogenous communities (even within different sects of Judaism).  Often a young person will not meet someone who thinks, feels and believes differently until they enter the military or the university.  By this time, generalizations and biases about those they consider “other” are deeply entrenched and hard to release. Some of the best peace work being done there is by folks who are integrating schools (for faculty and students) as early as the elementary level. What about us?  We are often as siloed in our social media, denominational, and political connections.  How might our conflict resolution processes benefit from being in intentional communities together?
  3.  Remember to  keep looking deeper.  Several of our speakers reminded us that the conflict in Israel is about much more than boundaries and real estate; it is about the core identities of all involved.  We do well to remember this too.  In Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matter most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen assert that difficult conversations have three levels or layers:
    1. The “What Happened” Conversation. Here we often want to argue about who’s right and who’s wrong.  Instead, we need to stop the blame game and truly hear each other’s stories.
    2. The “Feelings” Conversation.  If we are not aware of our feelings, the authors state, they can burst into difficult conversations in unhealthy and harmful ways.  Drawing on emotional intelligence to identify and manage our emotions can help us bring feelings into difficult conversations in productive and healing ways.
    3. The “Identity” Conversation. As noted above, identity issues are at the very heart of most conflicts.  Identifying what the identity issues are for us, and for those we are trying to resolve an issue with, will help us get beyond skirmishes over buildings, programming, and other important but often non-essential issues.  Ask, ”What is really at stake for me here?”  “What is really at stake for other partners in the conversation?”  Are there ways we can work together for a solution that will affirm the core identities of all involved?
  4. We rarely get everything we want in resolving a conflict.  Working to affirm core identities, honor feelings, and work on the deeper issues does not negate the reality that compromise and concession are two key components in conflict resolution.  Sometimes, we do need to draw a non-negotiable line in the sand, but these instances are rarer than we often care to admit. There is almost always room to move toward one another, and when all parties agree to do this, progress becomes truly possible.  However, if our rhetoric is inflammatory and unbending, we set ourselves up for failure.

Some of our teachers in Israel were more hopeful than others about a resolution to the conflict, but all agreed on the need for ongoing, respectful, and intentional work together. Most agreed that the people in their neighborhoods and houses of worship were more willing to meet in the middle than their leaders.  I’m betting that’s true in our civic and religious conversations as well.  Conflict is complicated, but those we serve might just be the ones to lead us forward.

Tracy Hartman
Tracy was a member of the first class of M. Div. students at BTSR and won the Miller Award for Academic Achievement upon her graduation in 1995. Her graduate work at Union included ground-breaking research into the relationship between parish setting and preaching style for women pastors. Dr. Hartman teaches preaching and directs the seminary’s Supervised Ministry and Doctor of Ministry programs. She is the author of Letting the Other Speak: Proclaiming the Stories of Biblical Women and co-author of New Proclamation Commentary. Dr. Hartman is active in Baptist life and has served as staff member and interim pastor to several Virginia churches. She enjoys preaching throughout the region. She is a coach for CHC.