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Home » Theology & Philosophy » The Creative Thrust of Conflict

The Creative Thrust of Conflict

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 7: The Creative Thrust of Conflict

There is a famous aphorism that comes from Lord Acton, the British historian: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This dictum has been widely accepted as an axiom of social philosophy. We have seen it vindicated all too often in the twentieth century. Indeed, the corrupting power of this absolutism has cost millions of lives during the past generation alone.

The first half of the dictum, however, has often been misquoted to read, Power corrupts. Lord Acton’s formulation is that power tends to corrupt. To say that power as such corrupts would be a great error. It would be tantamount to saying that the ideal condition of human nature is powerlessness, impotence.

In speaking of the creative use of controversy, why do I speak of power? Controversy involves the use of power. Obviously, controversy occurs in all spheres of human existence, directly between persons and collectively within and between groups of all sorts and sizes, including churches, communities, and nations. That is a large spectrum to ponder. I shall here be concerned with only a portion of the spectrum, that is, with certain of the larger collectivities within the nation, and with the use of power in these collectivities.

What has power to do with controversy? To answer this question we need a definition of power, but as a preparation for this definition I should like to indicate what power is not, by pointing to its opposite. For this purpose, let me offer a variation on the Lord Acton dictum. Let me put it in reverse. Impotence tends to corrupt. Absolute impotence corrupts absolutely. An illustration of the truth of this dictum will serve better than a catalog of abstractions.

I have had the opportunity at Harvard to participate in an interdisciplinary seminar on population problems. In this faculty seminar, we have been considering various types and problems of population control. For example, we have been studying conditions in Appalachia, conditions that are appalling. They are exhibited more or less typically in an all white community, Granny’s Hollow, in eastern Kentucky. Here fifty families are now living on a one mile creek where two families lived four years ago. These people are castoffs of technological unemployment. Lacking competence for work in our urban, industrial society, and lacking also the land that is requisite for a rural economy, they live in isolation and penury. Some of the families live in chicken coops.

These families bathe in, defecate in, and drink from the scrawny creek which at certain seasons is a rushing torrent. The creek is the road, and there is no path. The children always get wet when they go to school. One-third of the people, on the average, have the common cold. The whole community exhibits a high incidence of other diseases. Hypochronic anemia, hepatitis, tuberculosis, eye, ear and tooth diseases are common. One of every three adults in the region has a goiter. The most efficient means of dealing with tooth decay is to get rid of all the teeth at an early age. As a consequence of malnutrition, the children commonly bear large scabs on the torso and the limbs. Worms are a common carriage. The dogs are infested also. Surprisingly, infant mortality is only three times the national average. Many of the people are illiterate. They have practiced inbreeding for over a generation. The consequence is that many of the progeny are of retarded mentality; others are deaf and dumb. A principal escape from the consciousness of squalor they find in moonshine liquor and the snake cult.

Although these people reject the ways of the town and city, they are dominated by a political clique from the outside with either buys their votes or refuses to count them. Medical workers immediately lose the possibility of effective communication if they ignore these political structures. The same restrictions will obtain for the anti-poverty workers. The few people who have successfully escaped from Granny’s Hollow will have little to do with their relatives who have remained behind. The residents of the nearby towns also will have nothing to do with them, except to sell them food and tobacco, broken down radios and discarded jalopies. They generally call them “bums, hopeless bums.” Do they not trade the cheese from surplus food supplies for cigarettes and liquor?

In their acceptance of their enforced ostracism, the people of Granny’s Hollow want to be left alone. They are Americans, and they cherish their own style of life. They want no controversy with outside people who possess power. Their freedom is strictly limited by internal as well as by external forces. They are Americans, but they are slaves to their impotence, to the impotence that corrupts. The system of which we are a part has helped to make them what they are. They belong to our own “underdeveloped country.” Our power has been the power that corrupts. To change their condition will require a special kind of persuasion and philanthropy not yet clear to anyone.

The positive power that engenders high temperature conflict is the power that challenges expansive or dominant social power. This is the power that in our time has overturned most of the colonialisms of the world, the power that has brought forth sixty-three new nations in a single generation. This is nothing new, for it is the power that initially gave rise to the Reformation, especially to the Left Wing of the Reformation. It is the power that brought the middle classes into existence in the face of feudalism. It is the power that has extended the suffrage. To come to our own day, it is the power that has given rise to the civil rights movement. It is the strength that has dispersed power and responsibility.

The civil rights movement is a fine test case for discerning the character of creative controversy. We need to consider salient features of the conflict in relation to the creative use of controversy. The dramatic change that is taking place among us is very much like the previous revolutions just mentioned. It has been initiated by outsiders. The Left Wing of the Reformation, from which we of the congregational polity and of the rational thrust have descended, was instigated by people who were outside and in opposition to the Establishment. They were the deprived, and they rebelled. They were viewed by the Establishment (Protestant and Catholic) as heretics who were threatening and subverting the traditional order of church and state.

The Left Wing of the Reformation wished to choose freely its own religion. Our forebears, in short, were upstarts, rebels against established authority in the name of a new conception of authority. Col. Rainsborough of the Cromwellian Army defended this rebellion by saying, “Every English he hath his own life to live.” From this movement, broadly conceived, came modern pluralist democracy. The demand for a democratic constitution, the demand for separation of church and state, the demand for respect of the minority and of a loyal opposition, the demand for the extension of suffrage, the demand for a pluralistic education—all of these innovations—were initiated or carried through by “outsiders.”

Dean William Wallace Fenn of Harvard Divinity School, speaking of how the Quakers defied the old New England theocracy, used to say that if trouble was brewing anywhere in the colonies, one could be sure that soon a boat load of Quakers or other Dissenters would be on the way to that place. Who were the Methodists and the Unitarians who initiated the social reforms of the early nineteenth century in England? Outsiders. Who were the people who initiated and carried through the labor movement of the nineteenth century in England? Protestant outsiders, challenging the traditional power of the middle classes. Many of their leaders were renegades from the bourgeois, people who chose to identify with the outsiders. Moreover, who were the people who carried the American labor movement to its high peak in America? Outsiders, in large measure Roman Catholic outsiders, the sons and daughters of recent immigrants. Still earlier, who pushed through the demand for universal suffrage in the USA in the 1890s? Women, up to then outsiders with respect to politics.

When we here praise famous women and men, we give these outsiders a special and high place on the scroll. We add to the list the real old-timers, the members of the earliest Christian churches, outsiders from the lower classes and from several races. They insisted on choosing their own religion and their own way of life, and that in the face of Jerusalem and Rome and Ephesus. The founder from a country town had nowhere to lay his head.

But for all the outsiders, where would we be today? Probably we would live in a more monolithic society where creative controversy would be severely limited. These outsiders have helped to extend the uses of human powers, especially the power to form and to transform.

We are now ready for a definition of power. Many people cringe at the word, perhaps because it suggest muscular power, or the power to dominate. Nonetheless, there is a power that contributes to creative controversy, whether it be the capacity of an individual or a group. In this sense power is the capacity to participate in the shaping of social decision. Its sphere of operation may be in the family or the small group; it may extend to the larger groups of the church or the professions or industry; it may embrace the total community, the government, and the nations. Power in this context is the capacity to participate in creative controversy; in short, to change the profile of participation. As such it is the principal freedom available to us. It is a freedom that requires organization. The history of freedom (and of unfreedom) is largely the history of effective organization. It is not that the individual is insignificant, but rather that if one’s contribution is to make an impact upon communal decision, it will require organization. Otherwise, the individual (so far as public affairs are concerned) will remain socially uncreative. Power then, as we understand it here, is the ability to make oneself heard, the capacity to cause others to take one’s concerns seriously. It is the capacity to make one’s concerns felt as an impact in the communal decision-making process. It is also the capacity to listen. It is the capacity to respond creatively to others, to the needs of others. In all of these dimensions, power engenders conflict, for in crucial matters of public policy one encounters competition for a share in power.

Our central question is, What are the creative uses of sharing in power and also of the effort to gain a share in power? The moment this question is posed we may encounter persons who ask, Why do we need to have controversy? Why not talk about harmony, and how to achieve it? They ask these questions despite the fact that they are the inheritors and beneficiaries of those previous controversies and struggles which I have mentioned.

Let me be boldly unharmonious and say that there is probably no more deceptive enemy of creative controversy than the strategy of “harmony.” I shall call it “harmonism.” The yearning for harmony forgets that freedom entails the freedom to differ. More than that, it overlooks the fact that at any given moment many people will be profoundly dissatisfied with their lot, profoundly deprived, and will not feel at all like talking about harmony. The demand for harmony all too often means, “Don’t disturb the present power structure! Sit down! You are rocking the boat!”

Something must be said, to be sure, in favor of harmony. It must be admitted, indeed we should insist, that controversy cannot be creative unless some consensus, at least in principle, antedates the conflict. If there is absolutely nothing which people in controversy agree upon, then conflict will be so savage it can lead to violent revolution.

At the same time, we must recognize that power is never “in widest commonality spread,” and that the growth of democracy depends upon the extension of power, that is, of the freedom to participate in making social decisions. It depends upon letting the “outsider” in, indeed of helping the outsider to get in (if only for the sake of the vitality and viability of the society). The authenticity of democracy rests upon its protection of differentiation and upon its allowing everyone an effective voice for the sake of justice. In face of this promise, “harmonism” is oftentimes a device to stifle discussion, and also to prevent a shift in power. Accordingly, the persons or groups demanding change will be called disturbers. They may even be called sick.

I recall an incident of this sort. To a leader in the movement for better race relations, a real estate promoter in Chicago asked the question, “Are you really happy at home? If you were happy in your home, would you be causing all this disturbance in the community? Aren’t you a little neurotic?” This sort of argument can, of course, cut two ways, eliciting the question as to whether the accuser is not becoming neurotic about a certain brand of harmony. Those who speak much about such harmony are seldom eager searchers for facts or remedies of correction.

Indeed, there are, in the name of harmony, devices that lead to the suppression or the distortion of information or the attempt to control of information. In Kohler on Strike: Thirty Years of Conflict, Walter Uphoff shows vividly what happens when information is distorted: agitators are called communists, and communications are controlled or restricted. Two of the clergy who were on the national church commission (Protestant, Catholic and Jewish) to investigate this protracted strike have told us that in their judgment the principal reason for this long drawn out controversy was that the people in Sheboygan seldom, if ever, heard the two sides of the controversy, let alone becoming personally acquainted with the people on strike. Creative controversy absolutely requires personal acquaintance with the situation of others in the controversy. As Martin Luther King succinctly stated in an axiom: “ We hate each other because we fear each other. We fear each each other because we don’t know each other, and we don’t know each other because we are separated.” In Sheboygan, the people in the Protestant churches and in the synagogues knew only the management’s view of the conflict. This is an egregiously uncreative use of controversy, which obviously requires that all of the alleged facts shall have a hearing, and also that the biases of the various interested protagonists shall be scrutinized. Harmonism is an uncreative outlook insofar as it does not want to take seriously the emerging concerns that call for a shift in power, a shift in the effective capacity to participate in the shaping of public policy. Human beings have the right to enter into decisions that affect their own destiny.

There is another kind of harmonism which is of special interest to us here. This is the harmonism that, in the name of peace and reconciliation, prefers a settlement of conflict which is premature. In the present situation of Blacks in the United States, there is no likelihood that a significant shift in power can take place without relentless struggle. Many people, when confronted by heated controversy such as the civil rights movement, claim to prefer, in the name of love, a policy of sweet persuasion, sweet and slow. We have observed this sweet but ineffective persuasion both among church people who are involved as well as among those who are on the sidelines (of which the number is legion). In both the North and the South, such people deplored the appearance of Freedom Riders, sit-ins and pray-ins and the demand for upgrading in employment. They are wont to say that “agitation” only makes people hate each other, but in actuality they themselves are far from being makers of peace. They simply cry peace when there is no peace.

The lovers of “harmony” have refused to believe that the situation is grave. Church people of good will once claimed for weeks on end that no churches were being burned, that news of this sort was propaganda. Then when they became convinced that churches had been bombed or burned, they helped to raise money to rebuild them, and possibly also to assuage their sense of guilt. In this way they aimed to exhibit good will, although their own churches remained segregated. When three young men were reported missing, people favoring harmony insisted that no real harm would come to them. When the fact of the murders was confirmed, these people were shocked, and some wept; but we must remember that two of these murdered civil rights volunteers were white. In any event, the display of violence revealed the illusion of harmonism.

This kind of harmonism would not have become vividly and generally known had it not been for persistent agitation, and such persistence of agitation is required. People like to believe that new legislation will solve the problems, legislation supported, of course, by good will and the love of harmony. Actually there is mounting evidence that Black people (not to speak of Puerto Rican, Latin American and Asian-American citizens) are so far from being heartened that they are increasingly disenchanted.

When, then, do developments of this sort tell us about the ideal of so-called harmony and about the nature of creative controversy? They tell us that conflicts regarding serious conflicts of interest should not be viewed merely as a disturbance of harmony but as the occasion for growth into an authentic harmony. The growing edges of any group or of any society are to be found precisely at the point of tension. In the words of Whitehead, “The clash of doctrines is not a disaster; it is an opportunity.”

The failures of harmonism also remind us that effective change requires something more than good will and more than good legislation that is haltingly executed and politically subverted. The test of the success of creative conflict is the question whether previously neglected concerns are taken seriously. Creative controversy finds an effective place for more inclusive interests and concerns. In the public domain, it brings new decision; it brings a shift in power. In this whole situation and in the face of the spurious demands for “love and harmony,” we find insight in the folk wisdom of the adage, “The meek may inherit the earth, but hits win ball games.” Authentic love is not the outcome of weakness or indifference; it is the expression of abundance.

In any sharp controversy, to be sure, there are not only the hits that win ball games. There are also many strikes and foul balls. Here we encounter the most fundamental prerequisite for the creative use of conflict. All of us on all sides of the irrepressible conflicts of our time will be doomed to uncreative and perhaps to violent conflict unless we can, at least in crucial moments, be grasped by the spirit that was in Jesus when he said, “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” To the sinner in the dock he said, “Go and sin no more.” Forgiveness, acceptance. These are the first prerequisites of creative controversy. They are the antecedents of new beginnings, of constructive innovation, of new creation. However, they mean that we must give up something if the new is to come into being.

Thomas Wolfe, in You Can’t Go Home Again, has said the right word to enable us to assist the deprived and the dispossessed to move on to new power:

To lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have lived for greater life; to leave the friends you have loved for greater loving, to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth whereon the pillars of this earth are founded; towards which the conscience of the world is tending: a wind is rising and the rivers flow.


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