I listened to a fascinating podcast this week—an interview of author David Fitch, who recently wrote a book called “The Church of Us vs. Them.” In the interview, Fitch discusses the difference between antagonism and conflict. Both are ways of thinking about and interacting with others, but only one is a healthy form of engagement.
Antagonism gathers like-minded people around a banner of commonality and promotes anger against the other side. Antagonism digs in, makes an enemy, and embraces fighting, bullying, and ridiculing. Antagonism leaves us feeling good when the other side loses or something bad happens to them. Antagonism picks sides and then asks us to distance ourselves from the opponent, only coming together for battle.
I think we all understand antagonism well…considering the polarized and combative state of our country.
But then there’s conflict. And while we often think of conflict as negative, Fitch argues that conflict is a natural part of everyday life. In fact, he says “conflict is ground-zero of the Kingdom [of God].” While conflict is not normally an enjoyable practice, it a vital part of growing and expanding God’s kingdom of love, grace, and redemption. To be in conflict is to actually engage with people outside our own little club of those who agree with us. It’s a sign that we haven’t secluded ourselves within our safe, ideological bubbles, and are actually interacting with the world and are open to people not like us. Conflict is a sign that God is working in our lives, taking us to new places, and challenging us to grow and mature. As Fitch says, “Conflict opens up space for God to do God’s redeeming work.”
Now, of course, conflict may be good and helpful, but it’s still not easy or fun. As opposed to the othering, bullying, and hurtful words of antagonism, conflict requires us to actually engage with one another in full, humanizing presence. Conflict invites us to actually know, listen to, and love our enemies (as Matthew 18 instructs). Conflict involves an openness to being changed by the presence of the other. Where antagonism demands that the other ‘wrong’ person succumb to my ‘right-ness,’ conflict invites both parties to name their insufficiencies and be willing to grow and change together.
In a divided world of rampant antagonism, Christians are called to engage difference differently. We are called to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. We are invited to talk personally and privately when in conflict, not to air our dirty laundry on Twitter. There’s no speech-ripping or name-calling in the Kingdom of God. That’s antagonism, not conflict. That only perpetuates the ‘Us v. Them’ cycle. There’s no redemption in antagonism.
David Fitch reminds us that the way of Jesus invites us to be intentionally and fully present to people with whom we disagree, make space for real conversation, and allow Jesus to be Lord of all—in order to reconcile our current conflicts…and the whole stinkin’ world. Let’s not run from our conflicts, but also not resort to antagonism. Let’s see conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow, transform the world, and demonstrate the diversity of God’s Kingdom—leaning in to conflict with love, instead of fighting or fleeing in fear.