by Bassem Melki
Following the October blog by Sherri Ellington (“Layers of Peace”) about MEC 2023, I want to shed light on the issue of confrontation (which was raised during MEC 2023 and will be tackled again during MEC 2024) as an important step of peacemaking that we cannot neglect anymore by avoiding conflicts. The MEC participants expressed how our churches are ravaged by conflicts that were left unresolved and swept under the rug.
In his book The Peacemaking Pastor, Alfred Poirier makes a powerful statement:
The Christian church lacks credibility in its witness to Christ when it displays to the world its impotence in resolving conflicts. How can we claim that the gospel is God’s power for the salvation of everyone when we so often fail to live by its saving power, proving ourselves incapable of getting along? (Poirier 2006, 15)
In most Arab cultures, or “shame and honor cultures,” confrontation is not encouraged, and individuals are more likely to possess a nonconfrontational and indirect attitude. Perhaps the reason is a fear of losing face and honor that could result in shaming the other, or oneself. We’d rather try to protect the relationship by not directly confronting, hoping not to make things worse. Inevitably relationships do get worse when there is no communication about the issue, the hurt, or the injustice caused, resulting in escalated conflict. Ellen Feghali (1997) describes courtesy and face-saving as more important than what is considered by other cultures as truthfulness.
Another possible reason for avoiding confrontation is the large power differential in a community: the fear and respect of leaders, elders, teachers, bosses, and so on, that can leave others afraid to speak up.
Additionally, a reason for not confronting is fear of rejection (by the person, or more importantly, by the group that the person represents, being a collectivist community). Some shared that they are afraid of their own strong emotions that might make issues or relationships more complicated. They’d rather be silent and gain the other’s favor, than confront and lose the other’s respect for them. Once a person is angered and their pride or sense of honor (karameh) is threatened, they may become stubborn and can detach from the conversation. Furthermore, since emotions are always significant in conflict situations, when we do confront, we often come with frustration, preconceived conclusions, and accusations. How the confrontation takes shape is usually left to the moment.
However, confrontation does not need to be the cause of blame and accusations, or a sign of weakness. Some MEC participants made the point that confrontation can gain favor with the other as in Matt 18:15, “you have gained your brother.” It is out of love for the other that we are compelled to confront. Staying silent, then, might hurt the other more, leaving them blinded and living in their wrongdoing, rather than speaking for their edification.
Questions during the MEC were raised such as: In what situations is confrontation a must, and when is it not needed? How do we address the issues, and in what attitude? What criteria is included in a confrontation? Is confrontation the best word to represent this step of conflict resolution?
Biblically we are told to “GO” and reconcile. Jesus says this in two places in Matthew. First, when we are the offender, in Matt 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” Second, when we are the offended, in Matt 18:15, “Now if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” In both instances Jesus tells us to go and take initiative with the other to resolve the conflict. Scripture here also allows us to understand that confrontation is to shed light on the fault (whether attitude, word, or deed) so that the other may realize their blind spots that could be damaging others without the offender knowing, or that they might be rebuked for their intentional wrongdoing.
As we do so we need to be mindful that this is done through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and not through our own personal discernment (2 Tim 2:24-26; Gal 6:1-2). We are also asked in Scripture to examine ourselves, our motives, our attitudes, and our own contribution to the conflict by doing what Jesus asks us to do, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye!” (Matt 7:3-5).
Now as mature Christians, we need to be the kind of people who invite others who can speak into our lives and allow the Holy Spirit to shape us through the community of Christ’s followers. For every Christian who musters up the courage to go and sensitively confront, there needs to be a mature enough Christian on the other side ready to receive that person.
Many predicaments and concerns that MEC participants expressed came from within church culture: How can we face our church leaders when they are wrong, or when there is oppression within the church or mismanagement of authority? How do we deal with schisms in the church? If we confront, the leaders can easily excommunicate us. We might be put to shame!
Jesus knew when to confront and how to confront. MEC participants suggested that we need to learn Jesus’s style and wisdom in that. Jesus did not compromise the truth, even with oppressors (whether religious or political). Jesus also confronted His disciples several times to bring awareness to the consequences of their thinking and decisions (e.g., Mark 10:35-45).
The church sometimes can become so absorbed in its own suffering that it can lose its prophetic voice to the world. This voice is meant to declare the gospel of peace and to helpfully highlight sinful actions and decisions taking place, all in an effort to bring redemption to our current events.
The situation today in Gaza/Israel, including Lebanon, is all the more reason to be immersed in peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping on all levels: from inner peace, to interpersonal, to intergroup, and national peace. I might even add global peace.
As I came across the writings of Walter Brueggemann and Nicholas Wolterstorff, I was encouraged to read about the prophetic vision of shalom – salaam is the Arabic equivalent – as a radical alternative to the dominant narratives of power, oppression, and exploitation. Both highlight the importance of the prophetic call to challenge those systems and envision a society marked by salaam, which is much needed in our Middle Eastern communities. Brueggemann’s contention is that the biblical prophets, in their advocacy for social justice, embody the heart of the Hebrew and Christian faith. Today, this advocacy lies in the hands of the Church.
Who will raise a voice against injustice, violence, and suffering? As followers of Christ, we will not stand by the sidelines watching in silence the torment of our fellow humans. I am not suggesting we take sides in any conflict, but that we speak truth in love, persistently confront injustice, prayerfully break the walls of enmity, and work towards peace and reconciliation. This requires ongoing commitment, dialogue, and collective action, all carried out in a spirit of prayer and submission to the Holy Spirit. For we should respond to conflict in God’s timing, with God’s attitude and God’s purpose. We need to seek His heavenly wisdom that brings righteousness and peace (James 3:17).
I believe in the words of Paul, “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). Although some theologians suggest that this verse is an eschatological concept and not a social-political one, I do believe that Satan is daily being crushed under the saints’ feet, since in the verse just before it Paul suggests that our obedience to Christ – and being wise in what is good and innocent to evil – deserves to be rejoiced over.
Jesus has not come to bring a false or fake peace in which outer quietness rules while storms rage within, but rather the opposite: Jesus comes to help us rock the boat and expose falsehood and idolatry from a stronghold of peace. Peace and reconciliation according to Jesus are a weapon, a weapon that destroys Satan’s kingdom of slander, enmity, separation, sin, violence, and lies that destroy humanity.
When Jesus says, “peace I leave you …” (John 14:27), the difference between the world’s peace and that of Jesus is not explained, but Jesus follows up with the words, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The theme of confrontation will be addressed in the next MEC, September 23-25, 2024. In the months leading up to it, ABTS will be implementing biblical-contextual initiatives with different partners across the Arab world to experience and learn from our failures and successes a more redemptive way to confront in the MENA context, so we can reflect God’s attributes and glorify His name.
Bassem Melki is the director of the Non-Formal Training and Peacemaking Department at ABTS.
Feghali, Ellen. 1997. “Arab Cultural Communication Patterns.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 21 (3): 345–378.
Poirier, Alfred J. 2006. The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.