Human relationships are complicated. Each of us is uniquely endowed with particular strengths, weaknesses, desires – and peculiarities.
The very nature of being human is that we are created to live not only in relationship with God, but with all those other “peculiar” human beings. That’s where things get messy.
One negative factor is our tendency toward “scarcity” thinking (your gain is my loss) rather than “abundance” thinking (plenty for everyone).
We come by this naturally, entering this world as egocentric infants, assuming that everything revolves around our needs and wants.
Scarcity thinking is hierarchical thinking. It’s “who’s on top,” rooted in lack of trust in oneself, others and God. It’s:
â— “If you win, I’ll look or feel like a loser.”
â— “If you get lots of praise and recognition, I’ll look or feel stupid and insignificant.”
â— “If I don’t dominate or intimidate you, you will take advantage of me.”
Adult relationships tend to fall within one of four categories, each with predictable results:
1. Dominant party + submissive party, both parties comfortable with their roles = generally peaceful relationship.
2. Dominant party + submissive party, one party (usually the submissive one) uncomfortable with role = generally conflictual relationship.
3. Belief in equal parties, but difficulty working out roles in cultural context, one or both parties uncomfortable with role = generally conflictual relationship.
4. Equal parties, successfully working out details of roles, both parties comfortable with their roles = generally peaceful relationship.
Human relationships in Category 1 rarely stay there very long. There is something innately human that resists being dominated by others, whether it’s slaves seeking freedom, women seeking equality, or the poor seeking economic parity.
At best, Category 1 relationships only maintain the status quo – a very tenuous “peace” – because what appears to be willing submission is often only passivity.
In Category 1, relationships may outwardly appear to be peaceful because the submissive party has low self-esteem or is too weak or intimidated by the dominant party to protest the inequity.
The submissive party may have been indoctrinated, with not enough education or life experiences to discern unhealthy relationships.
Or the submissive party in Category 1 may be unwilling to shake up the only way of life she or he has ever known.
Some females, especially those who marry young, transfer directly from supervision by their fathers to supervision by their husbands.
They don’t comprehend that only God – not any other human being – is automatically qualified to be anyone’s “boss.”
Dominance, usually characterized as being brutal or overbearing toward others, can also be subtle – perhaps just an underlying attitude or assumption of entitlement due to being wealthy, male, Caucasian or American.
Conservative groups such as Promise Keepers teach that male domination is inherently God-ordained in church and home.
Their premise is that men are to be “in charge” of women (whom God expects to submit graciously), but must treat them “lovingly.”
Besides this misapplication of Scripture, the problem is that within human relationships, power and authentic love cannot co-exist.
“Goodness” is not the issue; domination is about lack of freedom, equality and opportunity. Even a “loving” ruler still retains power to control the direction of others’ lives.
Some may ask, “How can the conflictual relationships of Categories 2 and 3 be preferable to the peaceful relationships of Category 1? Isn’t peace, even a tenuous “peace,” always better than conflict?”
There is a difference between the peace found in Category 4 and the “peace” found in Category 1.
Category 4 relationships are justice-based; Category 1 relationships are not. In Category 4 both parties – not just the dominant party of Category 1 – have God-given freedom and opportunity to thrive as individuals.
Sustained conflict is always difficult, and conflict for its own sake is never justifiable. But conflict can sometimes be valuable. Just ask any civil rights advocate if progress made in race relations has been worth decades of struggle.
When the goal is justice and equality for everyone, rather than dominance by some, then nonviolent conflict is good.
For those who are willing to struggle through Categories 2 and 3 in order to achieve Category 4, their reward is a lasting, satisfying, “just” peace.
However, scarcity thinking (“who’s on top”) can thwart progress toward lasting peace. Conflict is not good if the result is replacement of one dominant party by another dominant party.
The goal of “just” conflict is to establish equality and freedom, not further domination.
No matter with whom we have relationship, we must avoid scarcity thinking, which only feeds our human tendency to dominate others, and prevents us – and them – from experiencing the “abundant life” that Jesus offers (John 10:10).
Jesus deliberately shook up the status quo, but Jesus never tried to dominate others.
The more we embrace Jesus’ way of thinking and treating others, the better our chances of achieving peaceful, satisfying, “Category 4” relationships as we help bring about God’s peaceable kingdom on this earth.
Naomi K. Walker is an ordained Baptist minister. Now retired, she served as music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, from 1995 to 2017.