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Toward a Spirituality of Conflict Transformation (Part I)

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Over the years, I have sensed a profound need for the development of a spirituality of conflict transformation within the peacebuilding community generally and within the Mennonite peacebuilding community specifically. Spiritual foundations at turns challenge and support our underlying philosophical frames. Together, philosophical and spiritual frames have a significant impact on our personal lives and on the nature of third party engagement with conflict. Without a clear sense of and engagement with our underlying philosophical and spiritual frames we encounter the following significant risks: (1) We become vulnerable to being trapped by our own blind spots causing us to entrench rather than transform conflict; (2) we risk burn out; (3) we miss opportunities for deep transformation (including within ourselves) and (4) we lose out on moments of wonder and joy. These implications speak to the urgency of this exercise.

By way of beginnings and a definition, let me offer the following: Spirituality, as I am defining it here, is the lived experience of God’s presence. A spiritual foundation for our work proposes that the transformation of conflict depends on listening for, engaging and aligning with the already present energy of God (the lived experience of God’s presence) in every context we encounter, including within ourselves. To be sure, this energy can be blocked, ignored and missed, both by those directly involved in conflict and by us as intervenors. On the other hand, when we listen for, engage and align ourselves with this energy, we allow ourselves to hold our third party place with humility (the ultimate success of any intervention really does not depend on us), we observe blind spot traps into which we might be falling, we live into our roles with a lightness of spirit that remembers to look for joy, we see that which is of God in the other and we open ourselves to the awareness that whenever we engage the tender spaces of other people’s lives, we are standing on holy ground.

As a way of grounding our conversation, I would like to propose a common blind spot that not only blocks our ability to observe God’s presence, it limits our capacities as peacebuilders to nurture the peace we are pursuing. The blind spot I am proposing is sometimes regarded as an underlying philosophical frame that drives the manner with which people engage in conflict. This frame is so all pervasive it affects everything from global politics, to dinner table conversations, to theological discourse, to the way in which we live our lives. It creates conflicts, limits the capacity to resolve conflict and confounds the efforts of those who would act as third parties to transform conflict. The blind spot to which I am referring goes by several different names and while these names nuance this blind spot in various ways, all iterations of this blind spot draw from the same source. This source, this foundational blind spot, can be known as the either/or frame. Alternately, it is sometimes known by frames such as self/other, us/them, good/bad, right/wrong, victim/villain, my idea/your idea… It is the tendency to divide the world into categories and to preference the category associated with self above the category associated with other. As conflict escalates, the chasm between self and other grows, giving permission to disregard the other at best and at worst, to dehumanize the other.

By way of simple example, let me offer one iteration of this blind spot for consideration. Described here as the self/other or us/them dynamic, actions taken by the self are regarded as reflective of the positive character of the self even as actions taken by the other are regarded as reflective of the negative character of the other. Should the self act in a manner that could be seen negatively, the self justifies this action (“I was forced into it”). Should the other act in a manner that could be seen positively, the self explains away this action (“They were forced into it”). According to this dynamic, the other is effectively “othered”, that is to say, the other is excluded from the possibility of the good.

It is exceedingly difficult to break out of the self/other trap. Anything the self says or does is seen positively or is explained away; everything the other says or does is seen negatively or is explained away. This model is clearly beneficial to the self. The tendency to see self as good and other as bad allows one to become increasingly removed from one’s own culpability in the problems that have occurred, decreasing one’s desire to take responsibility for one’s portion of the situation. Buried within this dynamic, of course, is the problem that many people carry unresolved and sometimes hidden personal and social histories into their ongoing interactions with one another. As a result, many of the most enduring conflicts exist on a landscape already preconditioned to “othering” the other. In everyday parlance this is known as prejudice.

Positive Action or Belief Negative Action or Belief
Self/Us

 

Any self-perceived positive action or belief is seen to reflect the character of the self or the group (us) to which the self belongs. Any negative action or beliefs (harm to the other, disregard of the other, even something that could be seen as benign by the self but as negative to the other) is seen to be non-reflective of the character of the self or the group to which the self belongs.  Instead, if an action was taken that could be seen as negative to the other, it is because the other has misunderstood the action or that the self or the self’s group was forced to take this action in response to the actions of the other.
Other/Them Any action or belief that could be seen positively by the self is seen to be non-reflective of the character of the other or the group to which the other belongs.  Instead, if an action was taken or belief was held that could be seen as positive to the self, it is because the other was somehow forced by the self or by the larger context to take this action. Any action or belief perceived negatively by the self is seen to reflect the character of the other or the group (them) to which the other belongs.

In the diagram above, the foundational either/or blind spot defines the relationship between self and other. Either the self is right and the other is wrong or the other is right and the self is wrong. Since, according to the self, the self can’t be wrong (or at least not by much), it is the first iteration of the either/or that trumps the second. For our purposes here, it is worth noting the lack of humility and grace associated with this frame. There is no capacity to hold one’s own truth with humility, just as there is no capacity to hold the views and character of the other with grace. Unfortunately, our peacebuilding community is not immune to this blind spot. We are regularly tempted to align with one side against another, to see the world through the lenses of either/or and right/wrong, to see one side as victim and the other as villain. And here we observe an alarming reality: The more we fall into this trap, the more we lead from this space (even unknowingly) and as a result, the more our engagement with the people we serve keeps them in this same trap, limiting the possibility of transformation.

This post is the first post of a three part series on the Spirituality of Conflict Transformation.  Be sure to sign up to our email list below to get the rest of the series! 

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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