We are called by Jesus to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), resolving conflicts as we go forth to spread the Gospel about his love. Peace is always dependent on at least two parties, which is why we might experience conflict even when our intention is peace.
This is why Paul writes “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18). We try our best on our part, and pray that the other respond constructively.
What does this look like in practice? God seems to be very concerned with us asking that question, since the Bible provides us with several practical tools for conflict resolution and peacemaking.
1. Breaking the cycle of hostility
The first tool is given to us by Paul right after he says that we should seek to live at peace with everyone. He continues:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:19-21)
We recognize this from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where our Savior famously states that we should turn the other cheek and love our enemies (Mt 5:40-48). The idea is that conflict is a feedback loop driven by revenge and retaliation, which we are called to break by doing the exact opposite of what is being done to us: love instead of hate, help instead of fight, doing good instead of doing evil. The Bible rejects the idea of fighting fire with fire; water is way more effective.
This is easy to say and hard to live by. Our instincts and passions often push us towards “getting back”, exclaiming “they started!” as a justification for our injustice. The Bible points us in another, nonviolent, direction.
2. Identifying and resolving incompatible goals
Paul also provides us with another tool to resolve conflict where we rely on our words:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:3-5)
All physical conflicts have an intellectual or ideological root, the incompatibilities of goals that are perceived (even though they sometimes aren’t real). This is why every single war is resolved with peace talks. When politicians claim “You can’t talk X” as a justification for killing them instead, they aren’t aware of history. Unless you’re planning an attempted genocide, talking is the only way to end a conflict.
As the church abandoned the pacifism that had been dominant during the first few centuries of her history, it also abandoned evangelism. Church father Augustine argued that it is good to use torture and persecution to turn Gentiles into Christians. Freedom of religion and expression are nonviolent ideas. Charismatic groups like the Anabaptists argued in the 16th century that the church needs to go back to these values. Ironically, they were persecuted because of this. But a few hundred years later, we see democracies spring forth that rely heavily on resolving differences of opinion with debate and discussion instead of punishment and violence.
Paul points out that God gives us power to demolish strongholds of the mind more efficiently than if we didn’t know Christ. And because he’s convinced that this is so effective, he argues that we don’t need the weapons of this world – swords, guns and the like. We go to the root of the problem directly. This involves identifying the perceived incompatibilities, discussing what can be done about them, and arguing against ungodly ideas with wisdom and love.
3. Inviting the Holy Spirit
I love how Luke desrcibes one of Jesus’ first public exorcisms:
In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” – “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. (Luke 4:33-35)
Did you see that? Without injuring him. Jesus deals with this hostile situation in a nonviolent way. We often get discouraged by conflicts because we only think about how to resolve them using human abilities and other natural means. What about the supernatural? How can the Holy Spirit help us in promoting peace?
This is something I call charismactivism, and there is a multitude of ways in which it is expressed both in the Scriptures and in church history. Paul was converted from a violent persecutor to a nonviolent missionary by the supernatural intervention of God. Missionary Helene Roseveare was miraculously protected from a rebel attack during the Congolese civil war in the 1960’s.
In less extreme situations, we should still invite the Holy Spirit to help us when there’s a conflict around us. Pray that the Spirit reveals truth and understanding, speaking truth and wisdom (1 Cor 12:8).
These three methods are not the only ones the Bible talks about, but it’s a good start! Go now and be a Jesus-following peacemaker in your relationships, your community, and the world.