My husband and I process conflict from opposite ends of the spectrum. When I’m angry, I become a hedgehog who curls up in a ball and tries to become invisible. He morphs into a loud, intense rhino with defensive tendencies.
Without really being aware of it, we were following the same broken patterns that our family of origin modeled. My northern European clan silently withdrew from one another and stoically pretended nothing was wrong. His Italian American household vocalized anger in operatic fashion. Tempers flared, voices cracked — and then someone made a joke and served dessert. That dynamic worked for them but when my husband applied it to our marriage, I was unable to match his emotional output and I often conceded. Albeit resentfully.
About a decade into our marriage, these deeply embedded cultural patterns no longer worked.
In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than responded defensively? Based on his expression, this was a new concept. As soon as he stopped matching my anger, the tenor, severity, and duration of our conflicts changed for the better.
When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk, which de-escalated my anger and validated my concerns. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable—which was certainly not all the time—and offered me an apology, it calmed the raging sea and allowed us to address the actual issue rather than endlessly reacting to one another.
This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Twenty-nine years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.
I’m not a trained sociologist but I wonder: Is this the same dynamic that foments racial tension in our country?
If that’s a possibility, I have a question for white readers: When we see People of Color protesting, or when we read articles that express their anger or frustration, what’s our first response? For some, there is deep empathy and sorrow. For others, there is a shared anger over the injustice and inequality. But some of us feel angry—not on their behalf—but because their words come across as a personal indictment, which then triggers our defense mechanisms.
Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel threatened. It protects us from unpleasant feelings such as shame, the pain of being misunderstood, or, the vulnerability of powerlessness. In and of itself, defensiveness is not necessarily the problem. What we do with it can become problematic.
If we immediately overpower the other or catalogue all of the potential reasons why our brothers and sisters should get over it, what we’ve effectively done is invalidate their experience and their reality. For example, if a Person of Color posts an article about how asylum seekers are being treated at the U.S. Mexico border and we respond by bringing up drug cartels and gang violence, we’ve completely missed the point and missed the opportunity to listen and learn.
Furthermore, we’re also disguising our defensiveness as reason and attempting to control the conversation. As Austin Brown wrote, “Resist the desire to control. A conversation is going to be the easiest form of releasing power; if you can’t do that, you will have little success doing so in systems, structures, and interpersonal relationships.”
The parallel here between my husband’s response and the exposed nerve of systemic racism/racial inequality is that our defensiveness does not help People of Color work through their anger. Defensiveness shuts down dialogue and precludes anything helpful or healing. It also prevents us from exploring whether or not we actually might have any bias or resistance to sharing our power or privilege.
In order to push past his default response, my husband had to ask himself, What kind of marriage do I want? Do I want to defend myself or offer empathy to my wife? Similarly, as members of the Body of Christ, we must ask ourselves, What kind of nation, neighborhood, and church do we want? Is it more important to defend our opinions and our views or to become mature men and women who love like Christ loved?
Though many Christians, particularly those under the age of 35, might want the latter in theory, Sunday mornings reveal a different story. Based on numerous current studies, it would seem that most of us want to live, work, and worship with others who are like us. Only 12 to 27 percent of American churches can boast a diversity rate of at least 20 percent. This is unfortunate but understandable because being with those who are the same requires less effort and fewer sacrifices.
And since day-to-day life often presents us with more challenges than we can keep up with, why press in when fighting for racial reconciliation or social justice will inevitably lead to more conflict? As anyone who has engaged in this kind of work will tell you, it’s costly and difficult. Author and professor Christena Cleveland writes in Disunity in Christ, “If reconciliation work isn’t painful, I’d venture to say that it isn’t really reconciliation work.”
Attempting to bring social justice or reconciliation demands a willingness to let go of our power and be transformed by the power of the Cross—something that cannot happen without pain and sacrifice. According to Sheila Wise Rowe, an African-American counselor, author, and participant in Boston’s forced busing of the 1970s, “Reconciliation is not only about systemic change. It’s actually about relational transformation.”
In other words, real reconciliation—and the equality that should come with it—will not happen simply by changing legislation or equipping police officers with body cameras. Something much more profound is needed and that something is our willingness to be transformed into the image of Christ.
We will become transformed people if we allow the Lord to reveal and convict us of any biases, power hoarding, or pride. If it becomes obvious that we are indeed guilty of any of these sins, we then need to confess, ask for forgiveness, and engage in the long-term fight for equality and justice. For some, that might simply mean intentionally developing cross-cultural friendships. For others, it might mean helping to overhaul the broken criminal justice system.
Whether it happens in a conversation between a husband and wife or two diverse people groups, defensiveness fails to further the conversation. When we allow ourselves to feel the discomfort of being confronted and then choose to lay down our rhetorical swords, God can begin the process of transformation. As he empowers us to listen well, love those who are different, and willingly share both power and privilege, perhaps we will finally become a nation where there truly is justice for all.