Too Much War Talk
By JIM NICHOLS
Conflict is a regular part of our lives. This is no different than in Jesus’ time. His teaching about loving our enemies presumes we have at least one. His teaching on turning the other cheek presumes we have already been struck on one side. And yet, one of the centerpieces of his beatitude list in Matthew chapter 5 says “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus seems to be admitting the presence of conflict but urging us to deal with it in important and positive ways.
Being a peacemaker in international or national politics may be too large a chunk for us to bite off. Perhaps of more immediate concern is how we are getting along with one another individually, especially with those in our spiritual communities. As Dr. Phil says, “How’s that going for you?” Or me.
Author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that since we cannot eliminate conflict, we should try to “normalize” it. The challenge for living in community is to do so in the presence of conflict. She continues by saying that perhaps we are spending too much church energy trying to resolve conflict rather than accepting it (to a measure) as a difficult gift of community. Can we accept that conflict is simply the result of serious God-followers each trying to do his or her best?
One of our problems with conflict and argument is our language. An argument is not a war. Listen to the metaphors we use. “My points were right on target. My opponent’s ideas are indefensible. I will demolish his argument. We need another strategy and then we can wipe him out.” This language is so embedded in our society that we do not even sense what we are saying. If we point it out to someone, the person becomes defensive and immediately tries to draw us back into verbal combat. It is a hard temptation to avoid because it is so much a part of us.
In a secondary way, this war language has been adopted by the sports world, and we all do like sports, do we not? Again, listen to the language of the commentators. “The runner is trapped off second base.” “He really took him out with that slide.” A new pitcher is coming in and here is a description of his “pitch arsenal.” Pitch arsenal?! How about “pitch options” or “pitch choices”?
Perhaps we need some alternatives to considering an argument a war. People smarter than I am have suggested some different paths. Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III in Charitable Writing have identified some options. For example, if the individuals in conflict envisioned themselves as involved in a dance, they might see one another as “circling and separating, but always keeping time together.” There is no winner or loser.
Arguments tend to be narrow. What if we considered them as a stew and for each different ingredient added, the taste of the argument was altered? The new ingredients added to or subtracted from the contributions of the former ingredients. Staying with the food metaphor, another writer has identified an argument as the making of bread dough; initial ingredients are added, human energy mixes and pounds them and then adds some more functional ingredients.
An old-fashioned barn raising has some attractive argument concepts. One would think that each of the helper-builders had his own vision of how the barn should be constructed, but each submitted to the plan of the barn owner because they were part of a community.
Would it be possible to convert an argument into a conversation or even an exploration? We do not need to have a winner or loser. We are stuck too much with this war metaphor.
Fundamentally, the law of love must prevail whatever is the metaphor. If the contenders can each remind themselves of the foundational connections they have with each other, matters will go much more smoothly. Spouses arguing can remember why they cherish one another. Children and parents can remember their history of growth as a family. Members of a local church can recall their fundamental commitment to God; if we have opponents, we can remember that they, too, are made in the image of God.
This is not necessarily easy. Even scripture says in Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Barbara Brown Taylor’s version of this is, “Reconciliation has more to do with staying in the same room than winning.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain
I very much admire Barbara Brown Taylor’s ideas about life. I also appreciate your point that we should be more intentional in our use of metaphors. So much of our language comprises ingrained expressions that we don’t even think about. If nothing else, the last four years have taught us the importance of language and its nuances.