Unwinding Tornados: Three Conflict Transformations
Conflict can feel like a tornado.
A triggering event gathers energies, building momentum as it soon starts taking over everything, pulling everything up into swirling chaos.
Conflict with tornadic force can derail trains of thought and easily uproot the best-laid plans.
Like a tornado, conflict can rip through a home, a community.
It can knock the wind out of hope and shatter shared dreams.
Conflict can be and is often destructive, provokes mean-spirited assumptions, and carves deep divisions.
A tornado can “drive straw into trees.” i
But conflict doesn’t have to be accompanied by tornado sirens and seeking shelter.
Having lived in the wind-swept plains of the mid-Western United States, I saw firsthand how destructive tornados can be.
Unlike tornadic weather events which react to intertwined natural and human patterns of life, we humans have a lot more control over the form that conflict takes in our lives.
We can affect what we will do with conflict and each other in its presence when (not if) conflict happens.
The field of conflict studies talks about living with conflict instead of pretending it is good or even possible to excise it.
Living with conflict involves building capacities for conflict transformation instead of trying to achieve conflict resolution once and for all.
Conflict transformation moves conflict from risking death to fueling life.
What has to shift to interpret and receive conflict as life-giving?
Transformation involves freeing movement from stuck places.
Influenced by interdisciplinary scholars, ii a friend who is a local weather expert, recent scholarship on church conflict, iii and my long-held scholarly work on intercultural pastoral care in the presence of conflict, I imagine conflict transformation as a kind of unwinding a tornado and restoring less destructive more life-giving wind patterns.
Three capacities support conflict transformations where conflict is more like a life-giving wind than a necessarily destructive tornado: curiosity, connectivity, creativity.
Conflict has the power to evoke wonder, connect, and create.
Or, rather we who live with conflict can learn to practice these capacities in its presence.
First, conflict can inspire more capacities for curiosity when it is transformed from a weapon to a misunderstanding story. iv
When conflict arises in a community, it often initially provokes defensiveness.
Conflicts can feel like enemy threats that command an urgent offensive response.
Communities can quickly clamp down and morph into the most exclusive versions of themselves.
Metaphorically, communities start packing sandbags before the storm, closing off all the doors and windows, going into the safest enclosed structure, preferably behind a strong barricade.
Instead, transforming the status of the conflict itself can be like turning swords into plowshares or spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).
Instead of readying for war, we can honor conflict as one more opportunity to dig deeply into peace.
The thing doesn’t go away, but it’s use in the community can shift.
Communities that welcome conflict with curiosity can temper knee-jerk defensiveness and use it as a necessary resource for building.
When this happens, conflict can come to be talked about as a “misunderstanding story.”
Instead of an event that fractured a shard communal story into shards, conflict that becomes a misunderstanding story comes to be one of many shared stories in the unfolding story of life together.
With curiosity, conflict transformation can change how we think about episodes of conflict.
Second, conflict can inspire more capacities for connection when it is transformed from a fight to be won (or lost) to narrative thread that is woven into a shared communal story.
One way to know that a conflict has been transformed into a misunderstanding story is that all parties can talk openly about the conflict.
Its threatening energies dissipate.
This takes work of open communication and trust in a context of safety.
Communities can come to see conflicts as sources of learning, revelation of yearning, and a pathway the community chose for turning toward rather than away from each other.
Communities are pretty good at coming together when actual tornados hit neighbors near and far.
Tornadic events come to have a year or a place attached to them; they take on iconic form (cue the tornado of transformation in The Wizard of Oz).
Yet, communities don’t have to wait until conflict wreaks this kind of havoc before coming together.
Approaching conflict with a commitment to connection can change how we think of the relationships most affected by an episode of conflict in a community.
Third, conflict studies theorist John Paul Kederach talks about distinguishing episodes of conflict from epicenters of conflict, or unhealthy or unjust energies just waiting to coalesce around the next conflict trigger.
Humans are pretty good at mobilizing collaborative support when visible crisis levels structures across whole towns and cities, long-term attention to systemic patterns that anyone conflict reveals is much harder work.
When it comes to tornados, Weather Wiz Kids puts it this way: “You have to consider that the tornado is part of something bigger: the supercell thunderstorm.
Unless you disrupt the supercell thunderstorm itself, you would likely have another tornado, even if you were able to destroy the first.”
In addition to transforming one episode of conflict with curiosity and transforming the relationships most immediately impacted by anyone conflict with a commitment to connectivity, it is also possible to transform the systemic patterns of conflicts with a hermeneutic of creativity.
The same wind that swirls in severe tornadic storms also blows playfulness into pinwheels, makes energy in wind turbine farms, and moves life between plants and breath through inhales and exhales.
Conflict transformation is hard work to be sure. It brings up old wounds, raises questions about identities and shared commitments, and tests practices of neighbor love.
It’s not a walk in the park.
But conflict doesn’t have to been seen as necessarily destructive. Conflict transformation is possible.
Can we welcome winds of change that conflict stirs up, welcome the winds of change that trigger conflict?
When communities take up three conflict transformations of conflict episodes, conflict relationships, and underlying systems of conflict, conflict can shift from weapon of destruction to a life-giving opportunity.v
As poet Joy Harjo puts it, “Take a breath offered by friendly winds… Give it back with gratitude.”vi (Harjo, p. 4).
Conflict doesn’t have to take on the form of a tornado.
The same wind could spin pinwheels accompanying the shared plains of our life together.
Want to think more about conflict transformations? Come and work with Dr. McGarrah Sharp in the online Conflict Transformation course on March 1-31, 2021.
Dr. Mindy McGarrah Sharp, Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA.
i Weather Wiz Kids. “Tornados.” Accessed February 17, 2021. Weatherwizkids.com
ii Medical humanities literature on the power of stories calls for loosening the knots of stories that tighten their grip on our lives that will open up new possibilities of healing. For example, see Stephania Pandolfo, “The Knot of the Soul: Postcolonial Conundrums, Madness, and the Imagination,” in Postcolonial Disorders, ed. B.J. Good, et. al. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), 329-358. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed suggests unwinding what is wound up in such a way as to make everyone stuck, walled off from each other and from work together (see Sara Ahmed. “Wound Up.” Feminist Killjoys, January 4, 2017).
iii Leanna Fuller, When Christ’s Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016).
iv See my book Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology (Eugene: Pickwick, 2013).
v John Paul Lederach. Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (NY: Good Books, 2003), p. 22.
vi Joy Harjo. Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. (NY: Norton, 2015), p. 4.