Seeing red

Debates over masks, vaccines and critical race theory have escalated. Brawls are breaking out on airplanes. In my small town’s rural district, police were called to monitor school board meetings. My own blood boiled at my daughter’s theater performance where masks were mandatory, but the women seated behind me refused to comply. What is happening to us? Why all this conflict? Why is everyone seeing red?

For this issue of the Outlook, I eagerly recruited a variety of contributors – a Hebrew Bible scholar, a psychiatrist, a political scientist, a poet, two pastors from Appalachia – to write about anger. Anger is a real, raw emotion worth exploring and understanding. Our “fight” response is built in for survival, and some anger is justified — even righteous. Plenty of biblical passages include God’s people crying out in anger. But what is happening now feels unique; a pandemic-fueled conflict we can’t seem to escape.

Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley studies and reports on conflict. Her new book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, tracks rival gangs, warring governments and small-town council meetings. As we find ourselves trapped in what she describes as the “tar pits” of high conflict, Ripley’s book is timely and helpful. Healthy conflict is necessary and formative because it pushes us to grow and become better people. Healthy conflict might be stressful and even heated, but it doesn’t become an obsession, doesn’t collapse into caricatures and sweeping assumptions. Perhaps most importantly, each party’s dignity remains intact when engaged in healthy conflict.

High conflict, on the other hand, operates like a tar pit. Ripley describes how high conflict draws us in, appealing to our fight instinct, a rush of adrenaline and cortisol that makes us feel powerful. When outraged, we lose access to the part of our brain that leads us to wonder, making it impossible to nurture curiosity and seek understanding. We cry for help and suck others into the muck of conflict; We entrench ourselves into “us” vs. “them,” limiting our thinking to binary right and wrong; We flail about, our own actions making the tar pit more and more impossible to escape.

We can detach and disengage from high conflict, ignoring our anger and those who have lit its flames. This approach is understandable given the energy conflict requires, energy we currently have in short supply. But, Ripley warns, this leaves the high conflict untreated and susceptible to being taken over and weaponized by people of extreme, irrational views. People who eagerly jump in to exacerbate the conflict, raise the heat to dangerous levels, and make everyone’s life worse.

Ripley’s book offers helpful suggestions to both tame high conflict and escape it altogether: Reduce the binary and complicate the narrative; Be suspicious of simple answers and the people who tout them; Marginalize the fire starters – you know who they are – who delight in conflict and the leaders who use inflammatory rhetoric and language of war to incite their followers; Buy time and make space to acknowledge and manage your emotions; Ask questions with genuine curiosity to learn more and avoid snap judgments.

I’ve been reading a lot of books like High Conflict to understand our current cultural context. But Jesus is always my model of faithfulness and appropriate anger. Jesus got angry. Greedy money changers left him flipping tables in the Temple. But he never disengaged. He answered questions with new questions, complicated old narratives of sin and sinners, called us to love our enemies, and retreated for needed rest and prayer. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” Jesus declares. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus gives us peace so we can make peace. Even in a situation of high conflict, we are not without resources or hope.