Fighting Like Christians - by Joyce Ann Mercer

Joyce Ann Mercer ’84 M.Div.

In my extended family, we have a lot of experience with political differences. Across the years we’ve sat together at post-election holiday tables, offering analyses of the political landscape from decidedly opposing viewpoints.

A few of us make impassioned speeches about the theologies behind our views. Our conversations ordinarily are punctuated by good-natured teasing about each other’s messed up political proclivities, and lots of tongue-in-cheek musings about how we siblings could possibly be children of the same mother.

In the past two years, however, something changed. We stopped joking about our divided politics or sharing divergent biblical interpretations that support those differences. There was no explicit rule disallowing all mention of immigration, gun control, the disposition of Confederate monuments, election campaign discourse, police shootings, or assessments of the current White House occupant. But an atypical silence on these and other contested topics has come over us, signaling a shift in how we are together.

Enriching the Repertoire

Perhaps such dynamics are best understood as part of an overall diminishment of social bonds described by Robert Putnam.1 Americans may no longer trust that the ties that bind us are strong enough to withstand partisan conflict. Perhaps, however, some of the disinclination to risk conflict is a tacit awareness that we lack a repertoire of practices for conflict engagement that can avoid wounding others (or ourselves) if we surface our differences. Could it be that in these times we lack the practical knowledge to navigate the “culture of conflict” in which we find ourselves?

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts forward his concept of habitus as the place from which practices arise in various societies. Habitus refers to durable dispositions toward certain ways of going about everyday life that come to seem natural and normal. Within the habitus of a given culture, practices take shape, acquired by long-term exposure to a set of social conditions leading to an internalization of these norms. Participating in a habitus, people develop a shared sense of “just knowing what to do” in a given situation. Bourdieu repudiated the notion that cultural “rules” direct human action in a mechanistic way. He contended that beginning in childhood, through a long-term apprenticeship within a habitus, persons develop and internalize practical knowledge allowing them to construct appropriate strategies of action in varying circumstances.

It seems to me that in many parts of contemporary US society, we suffer from “habitus failure” when it comes to conflict- and peace-related practices. The cultural habitus through which many of us would acquire practical knowledge fails to apprentice us to work through conflicts and deal with tensions over differences. This lack is particularly true in Christian contexts that treat conflict as evidence of sin.

Conflicted about Conflict

Hugh Halverstadt, writing about conflict in congregations, contends that a dominant church narrative paints conflict as unfaithful, which sets up dissonance between one’s identity as a person of faith and as a participant in a conflict.2 Halverstadt asserts that the question is not whether Christian people and churches will fight, but whether they are capable of a “fair fight,” an ethical engagement around ideological differences amid differences in power. Instead of seeing the absence of conflict as a marker of faithful practice, this alternative story regards inevitable conflict as an opportunity to deepen theological reflection, skillful action, and faithful practice.

The present national condition of pervasive conflict, while difficult, could be a chance for people of faith to shine. After all, Christian faith communities are no strangers to contention. The FACT2015 research survey on trends in congregational life says 62 percent of churches report they have experienced conflict over the last five years.3 Given this frequent acquaintance with discord, Christians ought to be experts at dealing well with conflict.

Except that we’re not. Simply being in a conflict situation does not automatically equip a person to engage it well. We need early and long apprenticeships in doing so – a habitus rich in constructive experience with conflict from which to draw.

Biblical DNA

Part of the “DNA” of practical theological knowledge is a scripture-rich trove of stories in which disciples are those who love even their enemies (Matt. 5:43- 48); actively work out their differences with one another (Matt. 5: 21-26); are called as peacemakers (Matt. 5: 9); and who act to forgive as they have been forgiven (Matt. 6:12). We need to free these stories to interrogate our conflict-saturated lives and call us to re-form our practices of dealing with conflict in constructive, perhaps even peaceable, ways as Christian people. This does not mean covering over differences or harms in the false idea that if we just embrace and accept each other we are reconciled. Instead, these scriptures point to seeking new ways of going about addressing our differences by refusing to give in to the desire for retribution, or to fight in ways that harm others or ourselves.4

Being Strategic

There is no single “right” way to deal with conflict, and much depends upon one’s historical and present social location in relation to the focus of the struggle. Strategic conflict engagement is a faith practice, not because conflict is inherently “bad” such that we must get rid of it to be faithful, but because working through it can issue in transformations of injustice and the creation of more loving people and communities. Conflict can help to bring about important, necessary social change (e.g., the civil rights movement) and does not always “feel” peaceful – but we can learn ways to struggle that are not so destructive.

Faith practices involve theological ideas and skills for action that can be taught and learned. If reconciliation and peace are important for Christians, then congregations, through their religious education/formation, preaching, and pastoral care, must make these practices central theological tenets – and deal with conflict in productive, hope-filled ways. Churches teach people ways of interpreting scripture, of practicing compassion, and of worship and prayer. We imagine that these practices matter not only inside the church but also for people’s lives in the world. Today, honing capacities for addressing stress-filled conflict and supporting people through it becomes a necessity.5

The Rush to Reconcile

One task here involves re-working the way narratives of conflict and reconciliation fit in the discourse of faith communities. The idea that reconciliation is the necessary goal to all conflict situations, should happen as quickly as possible, and is best measured by the absence of overt conflict, tends to structure the goal as a rush to resolve discordance. The meaning of reconciliation gets reduced to our being in a state of zero-tension. Deeper notions of the restoration of right relations and the repair of wounds then take a back seat to the more simplistic idea that reconciliation exists when conflict is not present.

Jennifer Harvey’s challenge to this “reconciliation paradigm” in relation to racial conflict fueled by white privilege and racism is apropos here: The rush to racial reconciliation ahead of repentance and repair keeps present racist practices and structures in place. Harvey writes, “ … at the end of the day reconciliation does more to cloak and make difficult attention to particularities and the deep, specific, and sustained work required of whites before we can have any business talking about reconciled relationships in a collective manner.”6 Harvey is not opposed to reconciliation as a vision of the desired goal; she simply recognizes that its use actually can inhibit its accomplishment when the term covers over histories and experiences of suffering that white people do nothing to address. Though Harvey deals specifically with the situation of racism, her refusal to cover hard conflict work with kumbaya togetherness speaks to the difficulty in engaging all kinds of conflict well.

In certain difficult circumstances, there is another option: strategic conflict avoidance. Avoiding conflict gets a bad rap these days, and I cannot recommend it as a good solution. But as a short-term option, strategic conflict avoidance – the decision to step back temporarily from a particular conflict whether as an individual or a church – may position a group to preserve bonds, like holiday dinners in my extended family right now where we tacitly agree to disagree. We do not discuss certain subjects, I believe, because we value the connections and history we share over any relative “good” achieved through the unlikely event of political agreement.

I’ve seen this in my ethnographic research on congregations in conflict. In one divided church that was part of a study on conflict over sexuality issues, many members spoke of making the strategic choice not to continue fighting. They opted not to exit from their beleaguered church community, in spite of their closer agreement with the views of departing members than with those who stayed.

Choices and Consequences

They made this choice because they deemed other elements (e.g., relational, theological, and historical ties) more important than the single issue of agreement over changing ordination rules in their denomination. As one long-time member put it, “I basically agree with the people who left us – I don’t particularly like the changes the denomination is making, but I wouldn’t leave my parish over that.”

This is, in the long run, a living out of the tragic dimension of human life and finitude, in which we must constantly choose between competing goods and figure out how to live with the consequences of those choices. Simply agreeing to disagree, though it has its limits, can be an appropriate, short-term way to deal with conflicts in some circumstances.

Elsewhere I have written in more detail about the “how to’s” of congregations engaging conflict constructively.7 Here are several bullet points named there. Many of these congregation-minded strategies could be adapted for individuals trying to navigate the intense ideological disagreements of our era. Congregations keep conflict constructive when they:

  • Teach practices of open communication around differences, and around dispute resolution, as practices of faith.
  • Pay attention to the practices that help maintain connections apart from the controversy.
  • Take on controversial issues in conversational spaces like religious education and pastoral care, instead of always in sermons or congregational meetings.
  • Be prepared to work with others to put boundaries around behavior that cannot and should not be tolerated in a fight, such as personal attacks or name calling.
  • When possible, anticipate conflicts, not for the purpose of avoiding or shutting them down, but in order to plan ways of creating a framework so that people can face their differences in a healthy manner.
  • Hold listening sessions in smaller groups that allow people in a controversy to experience themselves as being heard and acknowledged.

Joyce Ann Mercer ’84 M.Div. is Horace Bushnell Professor of Christian Nurture at YDS. Her research interests include post-conflict areas of southeast Asia, children in US consumer culture, addictions in family systems, and the religious lives of adolescent girls. She is co-editor of Conundrums in Practical Theology (Brill, 2016) and the author of Girl Talk, God Talk: Why Faith Matters to Teenage Girls – and Their Parents ( Jossey-Bass, 2008) and Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood (Chalice, 2005).


  1. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
  2. Hugh S. Halverstadt, Managing Church Conflict (Westminster John Knox Press, 1991).
  3. See Carl S. Dudley, Theresa Zingery, and David Breedon, Insights into Congregational Conflict, David Roozen, series editor (Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2015). Accessed online https:// InsightsIntoCongregationalConflict.pdf.
  4. See Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Volume II: Diverse Christian Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Orbis, 2009).
  5. Katie Day’s Difficult Conversations: Taking Risks, Acting with Integrity (Alban Institute, 2001) remains a useful guide for a group considering how to talk about contentious topics together.
  6. Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 2014), p. 98.
  7. See Joyce Ann Mercer, “6 Ways to Keep Congregational Conflict Constructive,” August 2014, available online at blog/ask-an-expert-6-ways-to-keep-congregationalconflicts- constructive-by-joyce-mercer.