As we think about how best to address our deep divisions in the U.S., I hope to make the case for adopting more conflict resolution terminology and incorporating key findings from the considerable body of peace and conflict research. In this essay and its sequel, I will draw from personal experiences while living abroad as well as some studies on conflict resolution in other countries, all with an eye to what lessons we can learn here in the United States and what role the Church might play in all of this. Obviously, international armed conflicts — like most conflicts large and small — are complex. And so, my personal experiences in these countries should be taken as one informed person’s opinion, not the definitive take on what should be done in all situations. But it will hopefully offer an introduction to a slightly different approach to how we think of our current state of affairs in the U.S. and where we might look to find inspiration as we search for solutions.
At the outset, let me also note that I will be providing several links to diverse news sources and commentary, not all of which I endorse. I include them because they are popular, and therefore play a role in the way in which we, in the U.S., understand ourselves or misunderstand those we may view as an opposing side.
I went to Israel in July 2006 to assist with the Hippos-Sussita archeological dig on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. By chance, the time largely coincided with the 2006 Lebanon War, one of the many armed conflicts that constitute the ongoing protracted conflict between Israel and Lebanon. How this came about completely depends on one’s information source. While I was there, Israelis showed me newspapers: “Look at what they are doing to us.” Though I couldn’t read the Hebrew, the gruesome pictures told a very particular story. Separately, several Arabs (a complicated identity in Israel) would show me their own newspapers. I couldn’t read the Arabic, but their gruesome pictures told what looked like the same story but with different characters. “Look at what they’re doing to us” — I heard this near identical phrase over and over. There was a collective pain that manifested itself so similarly and yet was so far from feeling shared.
The fissure only deepened as the war continued. On the dig, many of the participants were Israelis who one-by-one were called back into the army and deployed to their borders. Every day, we felt the ground of this ancient Roman site shake from rocket attacks launched against Tiberius, about 10 miles away. The talk was a deeply rooted “us vs. them.” When it feels survival is on the line, there is no room — and, from my experience, I mean no room — for moral ambiguity or deviation from the narrative of one’s own side; the stakes are too high.
In 2011 and 2013, I went to Lebanon to do research in the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut. Shatila is a camp originally built 70 years ago to house 3,000 and which currently has more than 22,000 residents, according to some counts. It was clear that the battle lines were sharply drawn. I was forbidden to say the word “Israel” because it did not exist. The narrative — that Palestine, the rightful homeland of the Palestinian people, was stolen — was reinforced daily through ubiquitous symbols of the Palestinian right to return. I interviewed a lot of people in the camp.
In Israel, there had been pressure to pick the right side in the conflict; so too in Shatila. One instance in particular stands out: “What do you think of what’s going on in Gaza?” the head of Shatila’s Islamic Jihad asked me. (Here is one version of what was going on in Gaza at the time.) I remember thinking very quickly as I eyed all the men around me holding guns. I wasn’t being threatened, but I appreciated that not picking the “right” side would be threatening to the cause. In a conflict when all parties see winning as the only option, no deviation is possible and, as it happens, no resolution is possible either. There is no middle ground. The Green Line in downtown Beirut is a good illustrator of this fact. During the Lebanese Civil War (during which a massacre took place in Shatila), Beirut physically divided into sides. The Christians all moved to the East, the Muslims to the West, and the center between them — the infamous “Green Line” — was destroyed.
where the conflicting parties enter into an agreement that solves their central incompatibilities, accept each other’s continued existence as parties and cease all violent action against each other.
There are stages in a conflict when, historically, resolution is simply not worth pursuing. When actors are deep in the armed conflict stage, the division between “us vs. them,” in-group and out-group, oppressor and victim, good and evil, becomes deeply pronounced. When there is a so-called “window of opportunity,” a time typically defined by a substantial cessation in violence to break through the survival-mode mentality, the time may become “ripe” to approach peacebuilding measures leading to reconciliation. There can be many measures of ripeness, but a key one is when the conflict actors are in a mutually destructive stalemate where neither side believes it can win the conflict outright. This means letting go of the victory mindset in which, if Side A wins, Side B will cease to exist. This does not mean that Side A will be killed instead, but that the parts of their identity that were tied to their cause would be renounced and something new would be put in their place.
How can this help us understand the deep division we now experience in the U.S.? True, we do not have violent armed conflict on the level of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I would propose, however, that we do have conflict, and that many of our fellow citizens experience violence that is directly related to the outcomes of those conflicts.
The UCDP definition of an ongoing armed conflict is 25 battle-related deaths a year. Think of our political battles. There is the debate over climate change, with one side advocating that the effects of extreme weather events, changing air and water quality, and fires are killing well over 25 people a year. On the other side, political measures designed to counter climate change are argued to shut down livelihoods, further devastating depressed U.S. towns, potentially leading to greater drug use and more than 25 deaths of despair a year. Both sides believe they are correct and that lives are at stake, leaving little room for middle ground between them. I would argue this is similarly true for other debates (the language here based on how each side might frame its core argument): on abortion (deaths of vulnerable women who cannot receive healthcare vs. deaths of unborn children); policing (deaths of Black Americans shot by police vs. full-throated support for the police who protect communities and save lives that might otherwise have been lost); transgender issues (lack of recognition, protection and healthcare for transgendered people leading to death, suicide, or murder vs. transitioning genders as a fallacy that raises the risk of suicide amongst those experiencing gender dysphoria). In conflicts where each side is “dug-in,” what matters is what each side believes to be true of themselves and of the opposing side, whether it is verifiable or not. The central idea is this: lives are at stake, and Side One jeopardizes those lives, because their worldviews are fundamentally destructive to Side Twos. The only option for maintaining survival seems to be the complete surrender and dissolution of the other side. In other words, total victory.
This is not to put our struggles in the U.S. on equal footing with armed conflicts in the world. But there are lessons we can take from them. At a time when we are rigidly separating and putting up verbal barricades to maintain in-groups vs. out-groups, when we have drastically different information sources, from our history (see, for instance, the debate over including The 1619 Project in school curricula) to our news (Pew research shows information bubbles based on party affiliation). When the middle ground is being firebombed with words, and when moderates — though a diverse group — are treated with disdain for not picking a side and aiding the “opposing” side in securing victory, we need people who will both quietly cross the divides and provide neutral space for dialogue, to reframe the argument where both earthly parties can safely come to the table and accept solutions based on mutual existence, rather than all-out victory for one side, dissolution for the other.
Unfortunately, many of our battles are no-win scenarios. In Matthew 22, the Saduccees gave Jesus a scenario which seemed to only have no-win solutions (I have written previously on this here). Jesus refused to be trapped into choosing a side; instead, he reframed the argument. Our battles need to be similarly reframed.
In my follow-up post, I will address how the Church may be particularly helpful in creating windows of opportunities in our own conflicts and in planting seeds which will produce ripe circumstances for negotiating resolution.