If so, why are you silent?
It’s true, that silence sometimes is a good thing. At the knee of my father, the epitome of a Southern gentleman, I learned to live by the rule that “discretion is the better part of valor.” The origin of this English language idiom is the character Falstaff in Shakespeare's play Henry IV. In Part I, Act 5, Scene 4 of that play, Falstaff pretends to be dead, in order to avoid being killed by a hostile enemy. When nothing could possibly be gained from conflict, it may be best to avoid it. A wise person knows when to speak up, and when to remain silent. However, faking peace is not always the best way to meet our challenges or resolve our problems.
Sometimes the urge to stifle conflict is a response driven purely by fear. People who are deeply afraid of conflict may attempt to mute its expression without addressing any of the causes. Merely muzzling the expression of conflict doesn’t make it go away. Instead of doing anything to address the cause of the problem, pretending that nothing is wrong can just make matters worse. The cause of the conflict remains unchecked, leading to escalation of and worsening of division. This is especially true in families, whether between spouses or siblings or parents and children. Stifling the expression without addressing the cause leaves the splinter to fester deep within the wound, causing further irritation and even infection.
A strong willed parent or a spouse in denial can pretend that nothing is wrong and by force of character maintain that facade. The problem is that it’s a faked peace and not an authentic peace. Putting a lid on a pressure cooker to keep the steam inside will enable one to maintain the appearance that there is no steam. But eventually, the pressure inside the container may cause an explosion. When that explosion comes in a relationship, there is often already deep damage, and then even more harm from the consequences of letting things go too far. How much better it would be, to enable a healthy process for dealing with those troubling issues, for venting the steam before it reaches the tipping point that causes an explosion.
The tipping point in a relationship may take the form of a divorce, a failed business partnership, or a family that ends up filing court papers. Other times, the pain is less visible. The tipping point may not be so obvious, but it shows up in families where one wounded member fails to attend family holidays together, quits returning phone calls, or simply is never heard from again. To ignore the problem doesn’t make it go away, it delays and even worsens the inevitable day of reckoning, a reckoning which always manifests as a loss of authentic relationship.
The next time you are tempted to declare yourself to be “neutral” or you don’t want to take a stand, ask yourself “why”. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Other times, it’s just a knee jerk reaction of fear and an excuse to avoid the inevitable. Make sure you are not responding just because of fear, because of a knee jerk reaction that wants to put a lid on the pressure cooker, quickly.
How can one discern when conflict should be confronted rather than avoided? Well, is there a deep conflict of values? Are you having to stifle things that are very important to you just to “get along”? Are you ignoring or having to overlook signs of deep sin or something that will cause great damage to you or a loved one, such as physical or emotional abuse, financial misdeeds, alcohol or drug dependence, or failure to nurture intimate relationships? If so, being noncommittal now is not going to make it easier to confront that problem later. Be wary of another enabler of evil, which is denial. Are you making excuses, overlooking the obvious, having to hide things or explain away things that don’t make sense objectively?
If so, a response is needed.
I apologize that I am now going to take a scripture out of context. But somehow this analogy of being “lukewarm” intrigues me. We are taught that “moderation” is a good thing. Not too much of this, not too much of that. “Moderation” also implies that we don’t let things get out of control in our lives: no drunkenness, no speeding, no sky diving, no screaming matches with our partner, right? Those are all far too close to the edge, far too risky, nice people don’t do things like that. Paul even says, “Be not drunk with wine.” But there’s another view of moderation, expressed in Revelation Chapter 3. Hear this:
"To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:14 – 22)
Perhaps the lesson is this: Discernment. Should our response to conflict be hot, cold, or lukewarm? Perhaps the answer is “it depends” and comes back to the reminder that, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Sometimes, in the interest of saving a relationship, we exercise discretion not to say hurtful things. Sometimes, in caring for ourselves or others, we choose moderation in our thoughts, words, and deeds. But “lukewarm” is not necessarily always a good or healthy response. Sometimes, moderation is exactly opposite of the path we need to choose. Sometimes in life, we must walk into the fire and let the challenges of life refine us, to burn away the impurities and damaging things in our relationships with others. When we do successfully overcome the issues that caused conflict, to achieve authentic reconciliation, then how much sweeter is the true peace!
This is where it is appropriate to speak of a concept called “conflict transformation”. Some view peacemaking, or peace building, as a wimpy, cowardly response to conflict. That’s because they equate peacemaking with a lukewarm response, the response of conflict avoidance or of walking away. But this is not actually the way of peacemaking.
The way of peacemaking is to walk through conflict, to confront it head on. The difference between peace making and adversarial responses to conflict is that while peace making speaks truthfully to the conflict and its root causes (and thus confronts the causes head on), peace making also speaks and in a way that strengthens relationships and creates opportunities for positive response. Peace making actually offers the hope of rebuilding and strengthening relationships. It eschews violence because the peace making response seeks to address the conflict in a way that doesn’t harm the one confronted. (A significant aim of peace-making activism is actually to convert the heart of one’s adversary, something Abraham Lincoln implicitly affirmed when he stated, “Am I not destroying my enemies, when I make friends of them?”)
On the other hand, harm and discomfort are two different things. Sometimes conflict transformation can be a challenging process. It also requires bravery to trust the process as well as to make one’s self vulnerable.
Indeed, peacemaking is also not intuitive. People are not born as peacemakers. Our intuitive response is to engage in the screaming match, to pick up a stick and throw it, and then to throw up our own arms as a shield when a stick is thrown back in our own direction. The opposite of this, peacemaking, is a skill that must be taught, nurtured, mentored and consciously developed. If you would like to learn more about peacemaking and conflict transformation, if you would like to bring peacemaking to your family, to your church, to your workplace, please feel free to contact me for more and deeper information. My web site for my professional practice of peacemaking and conflict transformation, is at http://www.xanskinner.com