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Conflicted about conflict?

“But (Jesus) turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,’” – Matthew 16:23

A show of hands, now: who out there likes conflict? I mean, who just loves a good disagreement, an argument between friends, within your family or fellow members of a faith community? Anyone love a difference of opinion with your spouse or significant other? Anyone? I didn’t think so!

I mean, who among us enjoys being at odds with others – especially others with whom we are in close relationship? Relationships can feel like fragile structures sometimes, and conflict seems to put the stability of our various relationships in danger. And in these Covid times, we need and treasure our relationships more than ever.

Now, there are definitely some people who just live for argumentation, and we all know a few of them. If you’re among that number, this article is not for you. However, if you’re like me and you attempt to avoid conflict, paper over disagreements, or otherwise practice a “duck and cover” strategy when conflicts arise, read on.

As a pastor, I’ve dealt with my fair share of congregational conflicts, and they all had one thing in common: no one involved thought that there should be conflict — of any sort — within the church. Even the people behind the conflict would have said so. I wonder why that is. People are flawed, every last one of us, and the Church, like the rest of the world, is a broken and sinful institution, so why should we be shocked — shocked — when conflicts arise? It’s as though Christians think it’s unChristian to argue because, well, you know, “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” and all that.

But Jesus’ reputation for mildness may be undeserved. Check out the verses that opened this column: Jesus rebuked his best friend, Peter, in the strongest of language. How long has it been since you called someone “Satan?” The context for Jesus’ rebuke was that Peter questioned whether, in fact, Jesus had to go to the cross and die. One thing about Jesus; he was always clear on his mission. He had come to proclaim the good news and to encourage people to “repent” — literally, to turn their lives around. He couldn’t allow anyone — even his bestie — to stand between him and the accomplishment of that mission.

Jesus didn’t practice duck and cover — he didn’t avoid conflict when it found him, and it found him a lot. He never sacrificed his goals in order to keep the peace, and neither did he try to force others to accept his way by overpowering them. Instead, with some exceptions (see above), he asked questions and invited others into dialogue to see where they stood in relation to him and his message and mission. Is there any way we can manage honest disagreements — no avoiding, no bullying — and practice healthy conflict management, with Jesus as our model? It’s worth a try.

REV. SUSIE THOMAS is lead pastor of Farmville United Methodist Church. Her email address is sthomas@farmvilleumc.org.