An episode of my podcast must have hit a chord with many of you, because countless people have brought up one section of my conversation with Amanda Ripley—the part in which she talks about “conflict entrepreneurs.”
Whether in business, families, or the church, scores of people have identified this exact phenomenon in their own lives. For many, the question is: “So how do we confront conflict entrepreneurialism without becoming conflict entrepreneurs ourselves?”
First, a reminder of the definition. In her book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Ripley notes, “One way to prevent high conflict is to learn to recognize the conflict entrepreneurs in your orbit.” These are people for whom keeping those around them in a state of high conflict is the goal itself.
Ripley offers some advice for finding who, if any, are the conflict entrepreneurs around you. “Notice who delights in each new plot twist of a feud. Who is quick to validate every lament and to articulate wrongs no one else has ever thought of? We all know people like this, and it’s important to keep them at a safe distance.”
In an article on foreign policy obstacles of the moment (which I first saw referenced on Jonathan V. Last’s excellent Substack), Peter Singer and Josh Baughman report on the way that the Chinese government is counting on “cognitive warfare” against the West. The primary arena for this sort of battle for the minds is, of course, social media.
One of the ways the Chinese Communist Party seeks to do this—like Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russian regime—is through a “trolling strategy,” in which the goal is to “‘fuel the flames’ of existing biases and manipulate emotional psychology to influence and deepen a desired narrative.” Social media works perfectly for such a strategy, because once emotions are roiled a few times, the algorithms will take care of the rest—giving a person more and more of that.
Do Chinese autocrats really care what sort of body image the teenage girl in your church youth group has? Not on its own terms, of course. What they care about, though, is a demoralized and psychically crippled American population—and that’s one way to get there. The point is not usually the end-result policies (though sometimes it clearly is; both Russia and China have an interest in seeing NATO fall apart or Ukraine surrender). Usually the point is the conflict itself.
The conflict entrepreneurs in your church foyer or at your family reunion don’t have sophisticated tactics or strategies like this, of course. Often, they don’t even consciously reflect on the fact that they are fueling conflict. They just know that they are bored or lifeless without it.
Often, the motives for such conflict-marketing include envy. Think of the lyrics of the Lee Ann Womack song “I’ll Think of a Reason Later”:
Inside her head may lay all the answers
For curin’ diseases from baldness to cancer
Salt of the earth and a real good dancer
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later.
The Gospels give us multiple examples of the conflict entrepreneur dynamic. The Herodians and the Pharisees, for example, asked Jesus about whether paying taxes to Caesar was lawful or not. This was not a debate over tax policy. They wished “to trap him in his talk” (Mark 12:13, ESV).
If Jesus had said to pay taxes, he would have been charged with heresy—with saying that the throne of David should remain vacant and be filled not with, as God commands, an offspring of the line of Judah but with the puppet of a foreign empire. If he had said to not pay taxes, he would have been accused of seeking to overthrow the Roman government. The point was not the issue. The issue was a means to the conflict itself.
Jesus, of course, recognized all this. That’s why he handed them back their coin, noting Caesar’s face on it, in a way that dismissed the imperial pretentions to godhood. In the same way, Jesus recognized that the same people were attacking John the Baptist for fasting and abstinence from alcohol while blasting Jesus for feasting and drinking wine. He compared it to children taunting one another with a kindergarten song: “We played the pipe for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry” (Luke 7:32).
The uproar that greeted the apostle Paul in Ephesus was, from the crowd, about a synthesis of Ephesian nationalism and Artemis religion. But behind all of that goddess-and-country talk was a much more concrete motive—keeping the silversmiths and the tourism board in business (Acts 17:21–41).
Discerning things like this requires the wisdom to be able to tell the difference between genuine healthy conflict and conflict entrepreneurship. That’s a wisdom we often lack. Sometimes we assume that appeasing those with a list of complaints will make them less unhappy. That’s true—unless the unhappiness is the goal, and the complaints are just how to get there.
That means that, in order to take on the conflict entrepreneurs, we need to know when there should be conflict. Jesus sometimes walks away from a conflict. Sometimes he reframes it. Sometimes he hits it head-on. Conflict entrepreneurs, though—like a few actual entrepreneurs—want a monopoly. They want to engineer conflict while counting on the “normal people” feeling “divisive” or “ununified” if they don’t get absorbed into the cycle.
Every golden calf in the Bible is an exercise in unity. Everyone’s dancing in concert. Everyone’s singing in unison. The Israelites don’t have to leave to go to Jerusalem—they can stay put and not go on with the difficult journey. That’s a kind of unity. It’s the kind of unity, though, that disintegrates. Sometimes unity means asking who’s being hurt and whose voices aren’t loud enough to be heard.
That requires the people who don’t like conflict being the ones who lead it when it’s necessary. General Dwight Eisenhower defeated Hitler not in spite of the fact that he hated war but because of it. An allied commander who was just enlivened by carnage for the sake of carnage could never have planned D-Day.
In a religious context I was once in, I heard myself complaining to a friend, “I feel like we have a two-party system here—Dumb as Hell, and Hell.” I was exaggerating, of course, but the point was that, in every system, evil succeeds because good people assume the conflict entrepreneurs will become embarrassed by their actions, and so we just politely pretend the situation isn’t there until then.
That’s not how shamelessness works. Sometimes people—not the pugilists or the warhorses—get to unity and to peace by standing up and saying, “What you’re doing is not in step with the gospel, and it ends now.”
If that prospect is thrilling to you, step back. If you dread it, step forward. Conflict entrepreneurs can only succeed where there are conflict customers. We will always, this side of the eschaton, have conflict entrepreneurs. We can resolve, however, to invest elsewhere.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.