We live in a beautifully diverse world where differences are everywhere. We celebrate a variety of foods, music, languages, cultural practices, and ethnicities. This diversity not only enriches our lives, but is essential for our survival and flourishing. Yet when we are surrounded by people from different backgrounds, conflicts are inevitable and necessary.
My work in the realm of intercultural engagement lives in this complexity. We begin with the belief that God has created a diverse world and that God loves diversity. We acknowledge that when there is only uniformity, there is something profoundly wrong. And we also acknowledge that when there is diversity, there will be conflict.
Good conflicts are welcomed and encouraged. Even though there may be friction, and even though we may experience tense emotions, conflict can help us learn to appreciate various perspectives, know more about our own biases and limited views, and seek to do ministry in much more effective and creative ways that would benefit all.
Healthy conflicts invite us into deeper understanding of each other. They can broaden our understanding of God by exposing us to new ways to experience God and the world. After all, no one cultural group can hold the whole truth of God and the world.
Despite all the benefits that good conflict can bring to us, we tend to view conflict negatively because we have witnessed how conflicts can bring division and harm. A Protestant church in Paraguay provides an example. I witnessed two groups of members within this church debating whether lighting candles during worship services was right or wrong.
One group deeply believed that the practice was against Christian faith. They pointed to the use of candles in Roman Catholic services and expressed worries about the syncretism that can result when symbols become idols. The other group argued that the Bible does not say anything specific against lighting candles. In fact, they pointed out, there are cases in the Bible where faithful believers would light candles or lanterns. Moreover, in Paraguayan culture, lighting a candle was a common practice because electricity was not always reliable.
While the conflict began with a minor disagreement, the people from both sides began to criticize the worst sides of their opponents while highlighting the best sides of themselves. As a result, even though there was much commonality between these two groups, it quickly became an “us versus them” dynamic. In this process, both sides dehumanized the other and many people were deeply hurt.
To truly enjoy all the gifts and benefits that good conflict can bring, people involved in conflicts need to make sure that their struggles do not escalate to high conflict. This requires at least three important ingredients: cultural humility, nonviolent communication, and aiming for a magic ratio.
Cultural humility is a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique. An individual not only learns about another’s culture, but examines one’s own beliefs and cultural identities.
Nonviolent communication seeks to increase empathy and communicate our human need for connection without inducing fear, guilt, and shame.
Lastly, in any engagement, we need a magic ratio of positive interactions outweighing negative interactions so that conflict can remain healthy. According to research, in marriage the magic ratio is five to one. The ratio may be slightly different for other situations, but making sure that positive interaction outweighs the negative is key to maintaining a healthy intercultural engagement.
Whether or not one’s local congregation is culturally diverse, the Christian Reformed denomination is a richly diverse body of Christ. When we do not fully embrace people who are different from ourselves, it disrupts our church’ ecosystem. In other words, by excluding others, we harm ourselves and, ultimately, the whole body of Christ.
As a way to grow in diversity and attain the fullness of Christ, I invite all of us to work on our cultural humility, practice nonviolent communication, and aim for the magic ratio for healthy intercultural engagement.