The Theology of Conflict

This is a recording of the presentation I did in a church in West Virginia.  It’s a good introduction to the theory of conflict that I describe in my book The End of Conflict: Resisting False Utopia in Hope of True Restoration.  Grab a cup of coffee.  It’s about two hours long.


How Our Hypocrisy Affects God

Many of us have rightly been taught that God is transcendent, that He is apart from and over His creation.  The discussion about God’s transcendence has often been connected to the idea that God is without emotion or unaffected by His creatures.  I have a hard time seeing that when I look at the repeated refrain on the lips of the Old Testament prophets.  God, speaking by way of them, tells His people in no uncertain terms that He is deeply affected by their hypocrisy.  The height of hypocrisy is pretending to offer worship to the living God, before Whom all things are naked and exposed, and thinking that somehow He doesn’t connect the dots.  Israel and Judah were, nonetheless, famous for doing just that.  They conducted themselves in their daily lives in a manner that was far from righteous and yet they had the gall to show up for church and pretend to be someone else.  God, through the prophets, calls them on it.  A great example of this is Amos 5.  Here are verses 21-24 but the whole chapter is revealing:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The obvious point seems to be that our sacred gatherings are offensive to the Almighty when we have glaring issues of social injustice among us.  Our worship is in vain.  God is not hearing us.  He cannot support our conspiracy.  He is bound to the truth regarding our real situation.  What kinds of things were getting in the way of a real relationship with YHWH?  Isaiah gives us a clue in chapter one of his prophecy:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”

Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.

Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores
and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.

Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presenceforeigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.

If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah.

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

. . .

How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice!

Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

This is the context of the famous passage where God holds out the promise of restoration.  If only the people would stop playing the game and come clean with Him, they could be cleansed [Isa. 1:18].

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

When are we going to wake up and realize that God is wholly unimpressed with our religious displays.  He is not only not delighted by them, He says that He can’t stand them.  They frustrate Him in a way that is required of One who watches over the body of Christ, sees the way we actually treat one another, and then observes our juvenile attempts to pretend that we have done nothing wrong.  We are like children, hiding behind our own hands, bloodied as they are, thinking that He can’t see us.  When will we learn how deeply our hypocrisy affects the living God?


God save us from self-justification

Recently finished a great book by two social psychologists looking at the prevalence and power of self-justification.  Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me outlines this destructive aspect of humanity.  It is amazing that any of us is able to overcome this aspect of our fallenness.  I recently spoke to a group of pastors and told them that I thought the biggest impediment to conflict resolution is the refusal on the part of so many professing believers to own their stuff.  Our refusal to “walk in the light” (be honest about who we are and what we have done) remains the biggest barrier to resolving relational breeches between us.  This tendency toward self-justification means that without the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us to a place of honesty, of confession, of agreeing with God concerning the true nature of our state, we are without hope.  Not only will be unable to experience the blessing of reconciliation with those we have offended, but we, like David in the year after the Bathsheba incident, will miss out on a real relationship with God that is not clouded by the barrier of unowned sin.  God help us to be honest, to admit our faults to one another and to experience the healing that only comes from walking in the light.

God and the Victim: Theological Reflections on Evil, Victimization, Justice, and Forgiveness

Lisa Barnes Lampman and Michelle Shattuck have done a masterful job in compiling great articles from experts in the field of justice and forgiveness in painful situaitons involving deep victimization.  This is not a shallow approach.  The book contains contributions from Dan Allender, Carl Henry, L. Gregory Jones, Nicholas Wolsterstorff and Miroslav Volf with a foreward by Charles Colson.  Highly recommend.

Hope in the Face of Conflict: Making Peace with Others the Way God Makes Peace with Us

Kenneth C. Newberger has written a great book based on the premise that we ought to forgive others and be reconciled with them in the same way that we are forgiven and reconciled with God.  This is a very refreshing approach that is quite different from the average evangelical approach today.  Highly recommend.

An Evaluation of the Judeo-Christian Model

What is the Judeo-Christian Model of Peacemaking?

The Judeo-Christian model of peacemaking is the model advanced by Dr. Ken Newberger.  Dr. Newberger earned his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from Nova Southeastern University.  He has formerly served as a pastor and now serves the broader church as a conflict resolution practitioner, trainer, coach, and speaker.  Notably, Dr. Newberger grew up in a Jewish home and lived in Israel on two occasions before coming to faith in Jesus ha messiach.  His Jewish background and grasp of the Old Testament as connected to the New are evident and extremely valuable to the formation of a whole-biblical model.

The Process of Peacemaking

The Judeo-Christian model of peacemaking is a third-party Christian conciliation process based on a “mediatorial model to make peace.”[1]  Dr. Newberger organizes his model in twelve stages (not steps).  Stages, as opposed to steps, may overlap within the overall process of mediation.  The twelve stages, in his own summary, are as follow:[2]

Initiating the Process

In the same way, God, the aggrieved party, initiated the process to make peace with mankind by sending his Son as mediator, so the aggrieved party initiates the process by contacting a qualified peacemaker.

Mediator Immersion

In the same way Jesus was fully immersed in the identity, perspective, and experiences of both God and man as mediator between the two, so the peacemaking mediator immerses himself or herself in the perspective of each side of the conflict.

Envisioning Justice

In the same way God set forth a vision of ultimate justice for the sins we commit against him, so the peacemaker learns from the aggrieved party what they would consider a just outcome for the wrong they suffered.

Envisioning Shalomic Peace

In the same way God set forth an image of shalomic peace that includes sinful mankind, so the peacemaker helps disputing parties paint a picture of shalomic peace that is inclusive of the other side.

Humanizing One Side to the Other

In the same way God created humanity with no essential differences, so the peacemaker helps parties in conflict understand that there are no inherent differences between them.

Seeing the Error of One’s Ways

In the same way sinners are urged to change the erroneous thinking that has brought them into conflict with God, so the peacemaker helps offending parties see the error of their ways.

Making a Genuine Apology

In the same way a person’s confession of sin to God is expected after repentance, so the peacemaker encourages the offending party to follow up the recognition of wrongdoing with a verbal apology to the injured party.

Making Reparations (Restitution)

In the same way God expects those who sinned against him and hurt others to make reparations to those harmed, so the peacemaker encourages the offending party to make the aggrieved party materially whole again.

Exercising Faith

In the same way people place their trust in Jesus as the mediator to make peace between them and God, so the parties in dispute place their trust in their mediator to make peace between them.

Granting Forgiveness

In the same way God forgives repentant sinners, so the peacemaker encourages aggrieved parties to forgive those who express genuine sorrow for the wrong they committed against them.

Building of the Spirit of Reconciliation

In the same way God reconciles with those he has forgiven, so the peacemaker encourages the parties to build upon their spirit of reconciliation and work toward a future characterized by shalomic peace.

Problem Solving Follow-up

In the same way Jesus continues to serve as mediator for believers even after they have made peace with God, so the parties rely upon the ongoing work of their peacemaker to help them resolve all remaining issues in order for reconciliation to be complete.

Areas of Strength

This model has very much to commend and recommend it.  Among models currently used for Christian conciliation among the Evangelical community, this is perhaps the one that most exemplifies the spirit of the Scripture.  Several areas of strength in this model stand out from other extant models of peacemaking that are worthy of note:

Biblicity of the Model

God has given us the holy and inspired canon consisting of sixty-six books, thirty-nine of which we share with the Jewish people.  Dr. Newberger has wisely articulated a model that reflects the entire sweep of biblical revelation.  The model reflects an understanding of both continuity and discontinuinty between the testaments in keeping with the God-given progressive nature of revelation.  This model avoids any remnant of Marcion-like division between the testaments.

Reflecting the Character of God

God is a God of love and a God of justice.  Shalom, as we have seen is a concept large enough to hold both of these divine attributes together.  Dr. Newberger wisely connects the victims need for justice with the goal of shalomic peace.  God, throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, is portrayed as sympathetic and compassionate toward the plight of those on the receiving end of maltreatment by others.  God is not a neutral onlooker to the oppression of people in His image.  By placing stage three, envisioning justice, near the beginning of the process of peacemaking, he reflects an understanding of the largest obstacle in the way of the aggrieved party’s potential for regaining a measure of shalom.

Biblical View of Forgiveness & Repentance

There is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding among the Christian community in regard to the biblical nature of forgiveness.  The Judeo-Christian model has clarity in this area.  It rightly connects vertical and horizontal forgiveness, as they are connected in Scripture.  It avoids the common pitfalls of cheap grace (antinomianism) and therapeutic forgiveness.

Recommended Model for Third-Party Conciliation

The model, as we have seen, is designed for use in third-party conciliation processes that are mediator-led.  Though there are helpful insights to the process of conflict resolution in general, the model specifically proposed does not directly address non-assisted processes.  That being said, this model is highly consistent with the truth and process commanded in Scripture.  As such, this is the model of conciliation recommended for third-party mediation or arbitration.

Areas of Weakness

The Judeo-Christian has much to recommend it.  There are, however, a few areas that should be used with appropriate caution.  There is no perfect model.  So, while this may be the preferred model, it must still be exercised with appropriate wisdom and humility.  Though this model is highly consistent with the truth of Scripture, the following areas are potential concerns:

Mediator Role & Responsibility

Perhaps the greatest strength in this model is potentially its greatest weakness.  The model, patterned after no less than the mediatorial work of Jesus, creates big sandals for the peacemaker to fill.  Succinctly put, the model is as effective as the individual in the role of peacemaker.  If that individual is Christ-like and led by the Spirit, the model can be highly effective.  If less than those traits are present, the process will likely fall short of optimal outcomes.  Trust in the person of the mediator is indispensable to positive results.  Trust is directly connected to several factors, including trustworthiness.  The personal character and wisdom of the singular mediator will make or break the process.

For this reason, many other conciliation processes recommend a plurality of mediators.  With a peacemaking team approach, multiple perspectives are often helpful to the overall process of conflict resolution.  Differences exist between parties.  These differences include race, ethnicity and cultural differences, gender, age, etc.  In plural mediation teams, some of these differences can be better accommodated.  It is also true that “in the multitude of counselors, there is wisdom” (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6).  Therefore, though it is likely true that one highly skilled and experienced mediator may be a better answer than a lesser skilled team.  The entirety of the process itself rests, perhaps too much, on one individual.  We can remember the plight of the singular mediator, Moses (Ex. 18).

Humanizing Foolishness

The opposite of humanizing is dehumanizing.  This is a common tendency among aggrieved parties as they consider the wrongs done to them and the nature of their oppressor.   Dehumanizing is failing to see that each of us, even the worst offender, remains the image bearer of God and has certain inherent rights and dignity.  Further, we are not simply what we do.  Dr. Newberger’s caution is wise:

As hurt individuals, we often shrink a person down to the size of the act that was committed against us. The worse the offense, the more reductionistic and simplistic the description. . . Every such description only serves to diminish one’s ability to relate to that person.  The person becomes known, totally and completely, by what he or she did wrong. . . Each one of us is more than a given instant or period in our lives.[3]

While it is true that a person is more than any one act, it is also true that people are what they do, in terms of overall life trajectory and character.  We become, through patterns of behavior, foolish or wise over time.  This is the thrust of the wisdom literature.

So, while we need to always remember the humanity of the other, the image of God in them, we can slightly disagree with the idea that all people can or should be humanized.  Humanizing Adolf Hitler or Usama Bin Laden, while at some level possible, may not reflect the Bible’s connection of what we do and who we are.  Those who continue in their sinful and foolish ways will ultimately be judged, as we have seen, on the basis of their works which bely their true character or lack thereof.  In some segments of the Christian community, humanizing others is needed.  In the greater part, however, we’ve humanized ourselves to death.

Summary Evaluation

The Judeo-Christian Model of Peacemaking is one of the most thoroughly biblical models available today.  Dr. Newberger has done a masterful job of organizing the material in a way that reflects the overall thrust of the inspired content of Scripture.  The model wisely balances love and justice.  The sections on repentance, apology and forgiveness are excellent and stand out in the literature on these subjects.  In short, this model, with minor situational modifications as wisdom requires, is a highly recommended model for use in third-party attempts at resolving conflicts among Christians.

[1] Newberger, 23.

[2] The descriptions of the stages are presented verbatim as summarized in the overview of the process in Newberger, 48-49.

[3] Newberger, 135-136.