Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Hedonism and the need for conflict

Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the primary or most important intrinsic good. Given this premises the avoidance of any conflict, certainly of open conflict is a natural outcome of that school of thought. 
The message of the Church, the "word of the Cross," as Paul calls it , has always been an offense. The call for repentance, for change brought already John the Baptist into conflict. The Gospel has never been a palatable message, and so we pick and chose what to emphasize and what to understate. I recently heard about an Easter advertisement in a shopping mall; "We make Easter easy." Perhaps they were offering one stop shopping for all that the world associates with Easter. Easter eggs, cake, chocolate bunnies and greeting cards. However, it struck me as an absolute classical example of the human tendency to flee as far away from some of the implication of the Cross of Jesus as possible. The churches and its leadership are not necessarily exceptions, we too want any easy Easter. And so we tend to stress the need to live in peace with everyone, and as far as we are concerned, if at all possible we are not causing conflict. Perhaps we see us as one of the few virtuous, somewhat above the common people of the world. We mean well, but did we actually understand that Jesus did not come for the righteous but to save sinners. In other words, he came to save those who are in conflict with His Father and subsequently with the whole of creation. He came to reconcile, to make peace.    

But what is conflict? Conflict is natural normal and neutral. Conflict is a part of life. Conflict was a part of the New Testament Church and by extension is part of us today. But what is conflict, the absence of peace, tranquility and or of comfort? Is conflict the presence of any effect of negativity in being, thinking or action, ranging from mild discomfort to violent reactions? 
I would suggest that the definition of conflict will vary considerably not only from dictionary to dictionary, but also from person to person, and possibly even between one situation and another. What creates mild discomfort in one person is stimulating in another . . . one feels in conflict whereas the other person simply feels free to express his thoughts. 

As pastor or church leader or member, "what am I to do when I witness conflict?" 

Like it or not, the Bible is all about conflict and God in Christ the great peacemaker. And since God reconciled all things in heaven and on earth through the death of His son on the cross (Col 1:19-20), then we who are children of God are redeemed to be reconcilers. 
But peace making is not simply corrective but constructive. One of the main roles of the leadership is to build Christ's people to be peacemakers and His Church to be a culture of peace. 

I think we all know, we all are called to be peacemakers, but I must confess that I hate conflicts. Particular witnessing conflict makes me cringe. The one thing I must confess, I do not naturally move to make peace, to be part of the process of peacemaking.  It is one thing to preach about the cross, the cost of making peace between God and man. It is quite different thing to put oneself between two fractions.
But faintheartedness is just a symptom of a subtle but much larger problem; disobedience. That should not come as a shock to us. Disobedience is not something out there, but is “in here.” Disobedience is not simply a matter of the head, we all tend to avoid difficulties and justify it to ourselves; disobedience is a matter of the heart. Our disobedience needs to be closely linked with our fear. Fear keeps us from trusting, believing, hearing, seeing, and consequently from obeying and imitating the peacemaking Jesus. The problem with fear is that it is more covert and subtle than other forms of heresies and it has slithered its way into our lives and ministries.   
Maybe fear, and here fear of men, is perhaps the result of unbelief. A rather practical unbelief that Jesus was truly and fully human. Of course we confess with our mouth that Jesus really fully humanly moved among us and yet we live and minister as if Jesus could not relate to our uneasiness and fear for conflict. But Jesus for perhaps most of his life experienced the pang of threats and gossip. He witnessed and addressed the petty bickering among his closest disciples jockeying for power, privilege, and recognition. And when conflict occurs, we act as if Jesus cannot relate, perhaps teach us not to fear conflict, not to fear man, and not to fear peacemaking.
Consequently many leaders, pastors included, take light, hiding behind job description and primary duties. Less be honest, we all gravitate to what we like best, we are good at, we are being recognized for, what is easiest for us.
And here is the rub, peacemaking is never easy, conflict is not something we like. So we avoid being pulled into other people’s conflict. Instead of facing the grimy reality of covert or open conflict between children of God, we leave it to time or others, self-preservation.
The ministry of reconciliation
Conflict can occur between two or more people who disagree on an issue that threatens their respective goals, values or needs in pleasure for life.
Unfortunately in addition to our personal motivation to avoid conflict, we in the church have come to believe that conflict in and by itself is sinful, and therefor has to be avoided. We have reversed out calling, from peace makers something which acknowledges the presents of conflict to peace keepers something which denies reality. We have learned to view conflicts as intrusions into ministry, and obstacles to the gospel. Conflict avoidance, the absence of conflict is even seen as a virtue because it is the result of dying to oneself, viewing the other more important.  But I suggest that disengaging from the discussion, the avoidance of differences of opinions and thoughts, values and goals is a form of covert conflict itself and in fact avoids peacemaking.
Conflicts, seen in light of the sovereignty of God ought to shape our responses to see them as learning opportunities in which we see our poverty and the riches of His wisdom, power, justice, and mercy (James 1:2-5).    
We need to face the grimy residue of painful and unresolved conflict in the hearts and minds of us, the body. As pastors, we need to come alongside and bear each other’s burdens while holding out healing by repentance and forgiveness in Christ, we need to be Christ to each other. Looking at the life of Jesus we do not see an eloquent orator in a lecture hall but a friend sharing a meal, intimately part of the life of his people.
We too cannot flee from reality; we too cannot fear involvement. We too cannot avoid conflict, we may even be at times the very centre of it. As pastors and church leaders, then, we too need to be intimately a part of the lives of our people. For we cannot preach and counsel in eloquent words; we need to preach and counsel the living Word.  
When our words and lives are disconnected from reality, from the hardships of life, from the conflicts of heart, mind and soul affecting all of life we have become mere listeners to the word but not doers, sellers of knowledge, not pastors. We take part in teaching, preaching and mission without the mission of reconciliation.
When conflict occurs and it will, we need to remember that Christ lived among us some thirty years not only to suffer death for a pain-stricken, conflict-ridden, and violent-prone world but also to share in its suffering.   
God’s sovereignty and Christ example
Conflict will happen, inter-personal tension will come up, after all we are not different to the disciples. After all, with so many personalities, different up-bringing’s and histories, it's not uncommon for conflicts to arise.  For that reason alone, the church needs to adopt a clearly defined and clearly stated common vision, mission, goal, and values and how these are being addressed. The clearer these statements reflect scriptural revelation and local relevance in the understanding of the participants the easier it is in the future to overcome personal preferences and values. How individuals in a disagreement perceive this issue determines to a great extent how personal the conflict will become.
On the contrary, when handled correctly conflict can lead to personal growth and create the change needed to improve interpersonal relations overall and by that the witness to the world by the congregation (cf. John 17).

Conflict, whether open or covert, inevitably begs change.  Whether the change is positive or negative depends on how the situation is handled on the personal emotional level. The ultimate root of conflict happens when we perceive something or someone as a threat to some area of our well-being. Given that hedonism as a school of thought is prevalent among us, change of any kind is being avoided. Something which feeds into our fear for conflict, because conflict begs change. Also, although to various degrees, any question, thread, change confronts us in our emotional stage of contentment, pleasure or simply ignorance all will trigger some form of emotional responses to the negative. When this happens your ability to view and approach the situation in an objective manner is hampered. This, in turn, makes it seem like there's a limited number of responses possible and once perspective is hampered by emotion, communication becomes even more difficult.  As with all things emotional, the necessary ingredients or absence of one for conflict can present itself long before a conflict turns open. The ability to identify the reason for the conflict and address conflict at an early stage is important as it reduces the likelihood of escalation. To do this, it helps to understand how people are apt to communicate or not communicate their thoughts, feeling and perhaps concerns.
Jacquelyn Jeanty states; “One theory holds that individuals typically fall into one of the four basic personality temperaments:
Choleric--these are bold, direct communicators who can be intimidating, but are open to change; phlegmatic--these are fact-driven types who dislike conflict, and change;  sanguine--these types welcome conflict for the expression and exchange of ideas. They see change as an adventure and melancholic--these types are all about the status quo. They don't like to rock the boat. They don't like change.”
Knowing yourself and having input through friends will help any situation and relationships we find ourselves in. I for one fall into the category of phlegmatic also I have come to embrace over time and through hard work the scriptural truth that change and conflict are necessary for transformation and act more like a sanguine.
Unless we come to understand that we as people first and foremost are in some conflict with God and His love for us, we will not change. Another helpful step is to depersonalize the conflict; “We are not fighting against flesh and blood but . . .” Too often we make our natural emotional response personal, we act from our nature rather than from God’s truth.
Five broad types of conflict are common, each having its own dynamics.
Structural: these are caused by external forces such as occur within an organization—workloads, availability of resources such as time, money or volunteers. Structural conflicts require structural solutions.
Data: these have to do with the information and its processes in place within the organization. 
Values: these are based on individual belief systems and are the hardest to resolve.
Relationship: these typically center on conflicting personality issues which lead to negative behaviors toward each other. 
Interests: these happen as result of perceived threats to one's goals, or needs and so emotions are being affected on both sides.
As stressful as conflict can become at times, the occurrence of open conflict in contrast to covert conflict opens up areas that would otherwise find little, to no motivation for growth and change, hence for peacemaking. But we need intentionally engage in the process of learning from the past and the resulting discomfort of conflict in light of the reality of the Cross and the engaged in the mission of reconciliation.
Whether expressed or not, we are constantly in some minute level of conflict, unless we live a perfect life. But we are so use to the presence of that minute level that we are no longer bothered. Because if we would be bothered we would feel discomfort, which would have the positive power to invoke changes. Conflict in the open is therefore not the result of a lack of love but the very presence of love, an awareness of how far we have come in our transformation into the image of Christ while at the same time acknowledging that we are all still in process. Again, acknowledging the fact that we all are in the process also calls for change and challenges our self-image, and underlining values. That also means that the absence of any conflict actually means the absence of genuine love. The concept of love in my understanding therefore is opposed to the school of thought of hedonism.

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