Rattlers vs. Eagles: Conflict in the church

In my work with churches, I find that most Christians agree that we should unite across ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic lines but only if we share beliefs and practices with them. As soon as unity requires that re-consider how we think about faith or how we express faith, we stall.  Perhaps this is the case because we’re competing for the sole possession of Truth, a scarce and highly valued resource.  If this is true, then intergroup conflict theory can help us understand what’s going on. Intergroup hostility often begins when two groups compete.  According to realistic conflict theory, relationships between groups get ugly when groups find themselves in a realistic conflict – a conflict in which they are competing for valuable resources.  Initially, group members are able to maintain an objective perspective and acknowledge that the opposing group is (at least on some level) deserving of resources and respect.  However, when two groups vie for limited resources, one group is bound to fare better than the other.  As a result, the loser becomes frustrated and resentful and the winner feels threatened and protective.  In the end, legitimate group competition for resources quickly leads to strong negative emotions such as hostility and prejudice as allegiance to the ingroup overrides objectivity and fairness towards the outgroup.

The idea that group competition for valuable resources is a significant cause of intergroup hostility and prejudice is most famously displayed in Mustafer Sherif’s 1961 Robber’s Cave study.  For this study, Sherif convinced a group of unsuspecting parents to allow their 11-year old sons to attend a summer camp at Robber’s Cave State Park in Oklahoma; the parents and boys had no idea that the “camp” was actually a social psychology experiment on group hostility.  While at camp, the group of well-adjusted boys were divided into two teams, given team names – the Rattlers and the Eagles – and given ample time to form a team “culture” before they interacted with the other team. During this time, the boys in each group bonded by pleasantly participating in typical light-hearted camp activities like swimming, pitching tents and hiking. The following week, the Rattlers and Eagles were brought together to engage in a series of friendly competitions such as tug-of-war and football, vying for valuable prizes such as trophies, pocketknives and higher status.  At first, the boys simply engaged in derogatory name-calling, labeling each other “stinkers” and “sissies.” But almost overnight, the two groups morphed into hostile opponents; team flags were burned, cabins were vandalized, and a violent riot broke out in the camp mess hall. Sherif, posing as the camp handyman in order to observe the transformation, noted that a naïve observer would have thought the boys were “wicked, disturbed, and vicious.” Within a matter of days, normal, well-adjusted, pleasant boys had become unrecognizably hostile.

There are many examples of realistic conflict triggering hostility in the real world. Researchers have found that between 1880 and 1930, the lynching of African-Americans increased when cotton prices decreased in the South.[i] This is most likely due to the fact that white and black farmers were competing for the same valuable, but limited resource: cotton. When the resource became scarce (I.E. cotton prices dropped), hostility between the two groups increased.  In this case, the hostility became so great that it led to lynchings. More recently, research has demonstrated that discrimination towards immigrant groups increases when unemployment levels are high.[ii] When everyone is vying for a small number of jobs, nationals are less tolerant of immigrants.


Do you think perceptions of realistic conflict affect cross-cultural relationships in your church? If so, how?



[i] Tolnay & Beck, 1995

[ii] O’Rourke & Sinnott, 2006