Conflict Sensitivity & Faith

People of faith value peace and justice, but we are not immune to conflict. Tensions can arise in the most unexpected situations. Our efforts to build up our own congregation, or to serve others, are marred when those tensions grow to become harm-producing conflicts. Even when our motivation is right, and we meet our intended goals, human relationships sometimes suffer in the process. When these tensions involve identifiable groups of people – such as denominations within the Church, or ethnic groups in the broader society – this becomes a dilemma that we cannot ignore.

Conflict Sensitivity Workshop, Davao City, Philippines

Since 2007, I’ve been leading action research to explore how ‘conflict sensitivity’ can help religious workers begin to address conflict. We use social context analysis to better understand the relationships between people groups, and then consider how our own actions affect those relationships. In what ways do my words, deeds and use of resources contribute to harmony within the community that I serve? In what ways do my decisions and actions unintentionally stir up tension? Field-testing in Southeast Asia has demonstrated how one particular conflict sensitivity tool (called ‘Do No Harm’ or ‘Local Capacities for Peace’) helps religious workers to re-shape their own influence on community and inter-group relationships, and also experience transformation within themselves.

For example, a Protestant pastor in the Philippines launched a weekend children’s class in her neighborhood. The early gatherings felt tense, and many families did not want their children to attend. The pastor used conflict sensitivity to deepen her understanding of a local land conflict, which had pitted the occupants’ association against the land claimants. She realized that because the children’s class was conducted on the disputed land, the venue was upsetting to the land claimants and their allies. To avoid worsening this conflict, and to make the children’s class more accessible to everyone, the pastor decided to move the activity to a different, neutral location. This required some personal growth on her part, because she herself was one of the land occupants!

Conflict sensitivity comes from the field of humanitarian aid, and is also used in international business. Religious organizations are of course different, so I am now customizing conflict sensitivity tools and workshops for use by congregations and faith-based service agencies. If you’d like an example of how conflict sensitivity has been applied to religious differences in multi-faith societies, check out ‘A Unique Kind of Inter-Faith.’

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