Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. These words of Jesus from the sermon on the Mount, as represented in Matthew 5:9, seem to suggest that Christians should try to keep peace and avoid conflict by any means possible. And yet, as Ellen Ott Marshall points in her Introduction to Christian Ethics: Conflict, Faith, and Human Life (2018), we should not discard conflict so quickly.
Conflict in the center of Christian ethics
“To be is to be in conflict” is the opening motto of her book. As she points out, conflict comes out of the Latin com fligere, meaning “to strike together.”Conflict therefore is a natural result of difference – when there is difference, there might arise tension and opposition, resulting in the striking of two opposing views.
Ott Marshall argues that some conflicts may bring destructive consequences, but one should always distinguish between conflicts and violence. By itself, conflict may not only be natural, but be a positive force for change. In situations of injustice, conflict which opposes that injustice, may not only be a good thing, but an imperative. That is why Marshall puts conflict in the center of Christian ethics. As she argues, conflicts are not a result of sin, but being changeable. Thus, she advocates neither for conflict avoidance, nor conflict management, nor even conflict resolution, but for conflict transformation, an approach where we do not view conflict as inherently wrong, but as a potential means of changing the structural causes at the bottom of that conflict.
Conflict, not violence
Ott Marshall wants to underline the dynamic, contextual, and relational character of conflict – as she points out, conflict should not be judged based on abstract principles, goals, or narratives, but always in the concrete particularity of the situation. The whole book then starts from the assumption that conflict is a natural part of being changeable, and, thus, if that is the case, how should we live a good live in the midst of it.
To answer this question, Ott Marshall engages with numerous styles of ethical thinking. For example, she approaches it deontologically, by engaging with the principle of imago Dei. Ott Marshall underlines the blasphemous character of the violation of human bodies as shaped in the image of God. As she argues, this raises a call for action for the persecuted and those on the margins. However, she argues, this truth is as revealing as it is challenging, as not only the victims share in the image of God, but perpetrators as well. Thus, imago Dei should not only shape our engagement with people on the margins, but also the form of the resistance. Ott Marshall points out that the shared character of imago Dei underlines the relational character of the engagement, something that shifts it from the impersonal objectivity of deontological principles towards an ongoing, personal formation.
Ott Marshall also advocates, among others, responsibilist ethics. In this approach, one should begin from establishing what is the situation, “what is going on” and then carefully consider potential chains of responses that could follow from that situation. This reflective moment may allow us to go beyond our gut reaction, which often involves fear. Instead, we might notice another person in their fullness, as a human being just like us, deserving of care, rather than fearful rejection. We may approach that person full of love.
Thus, Ott Marshall sees conflicts as sites of constructive potential, in which we can both change the world and ourselves. Thus, answering the titular question of this post, the task of Christians should be to reject violence, but not conflict. Instead, it should be to engage in conflicts reflecting the image of God in the world. As Ott Marshall points out in the conclusion to the book, we cannot do much about the fact that we live with conflict, but we can choose our response, loving one another in the midst of it.