Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Embracing Conflict: Path to Justice (May-Jun 2002)

Filed under: — @ 12:18 pm and

By Larry Bridgesmith
May-June 2002

The young lawyer was making his first appearance in court on a motion that really mattered. His heart beat quickly, his palms were wet and his tongue felt thick. He could not let his client down. Too much depended on him. The new attorney had passed the bar only weeks before. The file was handed to him just the morning of the hearing. The excitement and terror of the event merged into a moment that could not be compared with anything for which law school had prepared him.

He was appearing in court on behalf of a senior partner’s client in a divorce case. The marriage had been short and unhappy. The older (and wealthy) man had married a younger woman in a May/December relationship. But the man had no idea how late in December it really was when they wed. After the husband of eight months had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the young wife discovered “irreconcilable differences” in their relationship and filed for divorce. Her attorney had filed a motion to evict the husband from the “marital home”. The same home which the husband had purchased and lived in for many years before his marriage to this “young love.”

Fighting to prevent this grave injustice, the neophyte legal advocate would not allow this heartless gold digger to prevail. She didn’t. Justice was done. Some would say it did not take much legal talent to prevail in such an inequitable dispute. They would be right.

The young attorney won his first courtroom battle . . . and never again handled a domestic relations case. But over time and after 25 years of practice he has witnessed countless similar episodes. The names of the participants may change, the laws they invoke are different, but the same destructive human emotions play out over and over again under the guise of pursuing justice. Feuding business partners waste the corporate assets as well as their personal fortunes in order to win a battle for control. Employers and employees spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees locked in litigation to the death over a workplace indignity.

The truth is that 25 years of legal practice have taught me that Americans are less interested in justice than ego gratification. We are remarkably unwilling to risk paying the price of a personal investment in the pursuit of justice.

Justice (defined as the mutually beneficial reconciliation of opposing interests) is often the least desirous goal on our agenda. Instead, our culture cries for vindication (a form of vindictiveness) over reconciliation. It is not our Southern culture, our church’s culture, our Christian culture, but our contemporary culture that resorts to such destructive definitions of justice. The shame is that Christians and churches are no more inclined to do justice in the reconciliation of personal relationships than the culture in which we live.

What are the roots of our litigious, vindictive and divisive ways? At our most fundamental level, we are conflict averse. We view conflict with fear and distrust. Conflict makes us uncomfortable. We lack tools to constructively deal with conflict in our lives, our families, our churches and communities. Instead of seeing conflict as an opportunity to forge more constructive relationships, we engage in denial, repression and avoidance. Finally, in its most destructive form we respond to conflict with warfare: sometimes economic, sometimes legal, sometimes violent and sometimes theological.

The Mennonites are noted the world over for their anti-violent pacifist response to broken relationships. The motto of their approach to dispute resolution is: “In order to have less conflict, we must have more.” We must embrace conflict in order to resolve it.

We do not understand this basic premise because we have no healthy view of conflict. Instead of viewing conflict as a threat we should view it as an open door through which we must travel. We must welcome conflict as the means of reconciliation. The latter never occurs without the former. Unless we are open to the possibilities inherent in conflict, the former often occurs without the latter.

Christ understood, taught and modeled this truth. He never sought conflict, but he never avoided it. When disciples misunderstood kingdom truths, Christ rebuked, cajoled, joked and instructed them. When the power people sought to trap him, he faced off against their attacks with courage and confidence. When the underrepresented revealed their misapprehension and fear, he gently pointed them heavenward and called them to boldly shed their discomfort with conflict.

The early church was no stranger to conflict. Every new advance was met with opposition and betrayal. Simon the Sorcerer was branded a charlatan. Ananias and Sapphira were labeled frauds. Stephen courageously looked into the eyes of his executioners and saw the face of Jesus. The Jerusalem church stared division down over the teachings of the Judaizers and openly formed a new theology of inclusiveness. Paul withstood beatings and imprisonment and returned to stand boldly before his accusers.

When did our courage to confront disappear? It departed when we lost the ability to confront with integrity, good humor and grace. It evaporated when we came to value personal comfort over constructive growth. It left us when we became more concerned with our status, image and ego than with maturing relationships in others and ourselves.

What can we do to change our inherent conflict avoidance dysfunction in ourselves and in our churches?

  • As individuals we can follow the dictates of Jesus in Matthew 5:23-26 and Matthew 18:15-20. As soon as we know of conflict between another and ourselves, run, don’t walk, to find out what can be done about it. Do not even stop to worship. Go to the offender or the offended first. God doesn’t want unresolved conflict in those who worship him. He wants justice and mercy first and foremost. Develop a personal passion for dispute resolution.
  • Neither talk about another’s defects or offenses, nor listen to someone else do so. If brothers and sisters are in conflict, the first order of business is to get them together. Don’t tolerate gossip; extinguish it by being the facilitator of reconciliation. Reconciliation is our primary ministry; it is why we have been redeemed. 2 Corinthians 5:16-20.
  • Teach our churches that there are constructive ways out of conflict. Train Christians in mediation and arbitration techniques as a natural byproduct of maturing in Christ. Develop church leadership that embraces conflict resolution rather than dispute denial. Resolution delayed results in justice denied. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.
  • Create church cultures that welcome conflict as a means of moving to greater spiritual maturity and promoting the best interests of the kingdom for those who do not know Christ. Be open in receiving and resolving conflict. The result of this counter-cultural model will be an enormous expansion of the kingdom of Christ among the unbelievers. Acts 15:1-35.

There can be no justice if we refuse to be ministers of reconciliation. The examples of injustice will continue to stun and shame us if we cannot embrace conflict as the means of moving others and ourselves out of our fallen state. Satan loves to watch us run from conflict. Conflict avoidance is the most effective way of perpetuating injustice in our age.

Where were the kingdom people when a young self-focused wife decided that the imminent death of her aging husband justified forcing him out of his home? They should have been beside her helping her face her fear of illness and death. They should have been introducing her to counselors, mediators and problem solvers rather than divorce attorneys. Perhaps they were right there. However, if they were like most of us they were turning from that unpleasant conflict and seeking out a safe place to rest free from the distress of discord.

If Christians and our culture dedicate themselves to conflict resolution rather than its avoidance, vast numbers of trial lawyers could be virtually out of business in a short period of time.

Unfortunately, neither my wife nor I are worried about my premature retirement from the practice of law. But with genuine and concerned hearts we both cry, “Maranatha, Lord come quickly.”

If the people for whom Christ has extended mercy will run to the oppressed, the underrepresented and those in conflict to bring resolution and reconciliation, there will be justice in our land. The courts can close and the litigators can beat their swords into plowshares.


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