Monday, August 29, 2011


a sermon given at the UU Church of Lexington

{Part 2 in a 3 Part series on conflict}

Hall of Philosophy at Chautauqua Institution

“We have not yet learned how to be together. I believe we have been kept apart by three primary Western cultural beliefs: individualism, competition, and mechanistic world view.” (Margaret Wheatley, 164)

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend several days at Chautauqua Institution, in western NY state, a place that was begun in the 1800s as a religious summer camp, but has evolved into an American Utopia where, for ten weeks every summer, a peaceful community flourishes replete with a vast menu of well-known speakers, musicians, resident theatre and visual artists, all sharing their extraordinary gifts with an ever-more religiously and culturally diverse assemblage. There, listening, absorbing some of the best of America’s minds and gifts, I contemplated power, authority, and why conflict persists in human life.

We stayed in one of the classic rooming houses, a rather mildew-y but affordable warren of rooms, porches, and lots of stairs that offered a dank “community kitchen” where you could fix a simple meal. My niece asked me on the first day, Why are there so many rules?  Almost every open space on the walls, counters and appliances was plastered with masking tape on which was scrawled the many expectations of community life, from don’t leave scraps in the sink, to please recycle everything to wipe the counters after you finish… The mostly behind-the scenes owner did not welcome us except through notes, and somehow 40-50 guests coexisted for a week very nicely.
“Because people are basically (sinful, her tradition would say) self-centered, and need rules so that they can live in peace.” She shrugged and wandered off.

But I might have said this: A basic principle of responsive leadership is that power and responsibility work together. … That principle guides us in deciding who makes which decisions. If everyone has to make every decision, participation becomes tyranny. Autonomy requires trust, which can only develop over time.

 Statues at Chautauqua

There were no smoking signs, but one gentleman sat outside smoking a fragrant cigar each evening until, evidently, a neighbor complained. A new sign appeared. DO NOT smoke anywhere near the house. Please go down by the lake. I thought about the owner. I am sure some guests thought of her as a tyrant, but I did not. We were essentially free there all week, and if we followed the rules of human decency and respect, barely had to read the signs. I saw her as a benevolent leader who chose to clarify the expectations before conflicts arose. Because there were boundaries we were free to do as we pleased. Had we all stayed there all summer, the signs could have come down. But the guest list changed every week.

Autonomy requires trust, which can only develop over time.

Last week, I spoke of thirteen ways of looking at conflict. You may recall that I said I agree with the maxim: You are never upset for the reason you think.
This applies to conflict in families, communities, organizations, and in the world. I see most conflict not as a struggle over things: land, oil, turf, borders, cigar smoke, recyclables…. But over issues of power and authority. Having no shared understanding of the true nature of power, we humans resort to the one we are most familiar with, which I am going to call the old world Newtonian view of power.

This view  would tell us that power is control and that it is a limited quantity; if someone has more, others must have less. In a quantum view of power, we accept that not only is chaos a necessary step to order, but that power can be shared, and (like love) can grow as human learn new and exciting ways to interact. In quantum (also known and process or systems thinking) leadership, a better word for power-with, which is very different than power-over, is a dynamic, shifting force that responds to needs at the time. Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science,  that we have created trouble for ourselves by confusing control with order. If people are machines, seeking to control us makes sense. I see this everywhere, from child-rearing to educational systems to federal agencies. But if we live with the same forces intrinsic to all other life, then seeking to control through rigid structures is suicide.

 Amphitheater from "loft"

During this week, I also attended the Symphony. I chose to sit in the huge 5,000 seat amphitheater, an open air space that has hosted Bill Clinton and Franklin Roosevelt and hundreds more renowned speakers and “leaders” in the “choir” or "loft" area behind the orchestra.  Not only could I see each musician’s hands and movements, I could see the face, body, and expressions of the conductor(s). I was fascinated by how they used every iota of their energy to urge, compel, bring up, tone down, pace, energize… you name it. This is leadership! I thought. It may look like absolute control during the time of the presentation, but what is happening is that those who have freely chosen to be involved are delegating power for the time being to one has earned it by her study, experience and performance. Even still, there are many other leaders within the group: first violin, bassoon, etc. What is shared is a common vision. But the maestro does not tell the people what to eat for breakfast or how to train their dogs. She is granted authority. She must always re-earn it through her dedication, reliability, and faithfulness to the mission.

Starhawk calls this “responsive leadership” ( Truth or Dare, 270) and Margaret Wheatley calls it “roving leadership.” (24)

That is how it ought to work in voluntary organizations. Churches, to be specific. Authority is never the same as authoritarianism. The first is given; the second is taken. Clergy are granted some authority because of their extensive study, the covenantal bond they have made, and their individual performances over time. This authority is tenuous at best, especially in what we call congregational polity.. but it is essential to the healthy functioning of the church. This delicate dance is poisoned when individuals, who do not understand the nature of power, project their own histories into the relationship, and bring others along. Until that changes, the masking tape will not come down and the grumbling in the basement will not cease.

This lack of trust born of misunderstanding is a cancer on our free tradition.  Part of it comes from wounded individuals, those whom Starhawk calls “King Victim.” To these people, “every disagreement becomes  battle, and every battle seems crucial, a life-or-death situation.” (160) 

There will always be such people in open organizations. But the group, she says, “has a choice. It can collude or challenge us. It can try to be sympathetic to our unhappy childhood, etc.. or it can be honest. If the group accepts our attacks, it is really confirming our powerlessness. As in other relationships, when we let ourselves be battered, we are doing no true kindness to the batterer; we are saying, “You are too damaged, to powerless, to act like an ordinary, decent human being.” (160)

Now, to sex. Sex and religion are inextricable. Why else is Jesus’ death called the “Passion” and why do people cry out “Oh God!” in moments of ecstasy? Mystery permeates sexuality and this mystery is part of a delicate dance in which trust is easily destroyed and power readily abused. Too often the “power” of a religious leader, self-proclaimed or duly ordained, has been abused to the detriment of the fabric of the community. This can damage trust and authority for decades. But just as people who are wounded by sexual abuse as children learn that their current lover is not the perpetrator, organizations can learn that what happened 35 years ago is in no way connected to their current leader. Silence about this must cease if we are to become whole.

“No one wants to die in an unimportant battle for a minor cause.” (Starhawk)

Our vision is a lofty one that requires a sense of purpose and strong, healthy communities if we are to come within a distant chance of meeting it.

The battles are many and time is short. 

These are real battles, not petty squabbles. It is the closest thing to a sin to allow the vision we share and the purpose we proclaim to be undermined by destructive behavior.

MW: If power is the capacity generated by our relationships, then we need to be attending to the quality of those relationships. We would do well to ponder the realization that love is the most potent source of power.

But “love” is a complex term.  Paul Tillich wrote more than 50 years ago: Love is the moving power of life. Love is the drive toward the unity of the separated. Love must destroy that which is against love but cannot destroy him who acts against love.   Hence, for Tillich, we have Divine intervention, forgiveness, Grace, and Justice. I am convinced that our purpose is to increase the amount of this all-uniting, all-encompassing love on the planet, but that to do so will take great courage, wisdom, and leadership.

 Part 3 will be posted later this week.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Conflict


Let’s face it. People do not visit the Coliseum in Rome just because of the architecture, the antiquity, or the echoes of an ancient empire. Most, if not all people who walk through the ruins want to know, “What about the gladiators?” Did they really fight to the death? Is it true that 10,000 animals were killed on one day?

As a species we are fascinated with conflict and we love competition. You don’t need to look farther than UK BB to observe this. But, as individuals, we understand it and deal with it in myriad ways. At least thirteen, but probably hundreds more

Have you ever tried to read – or write – a story without conflict? (1)Good writers know the conflict can be very subtle, hidden deep within the psyche, but it’s there, somewhere. Otherwise all you have is stream of consciousness or the ramblings of a bore. What is human life without story? Hence… conflict is needed.

There are those who thrive on conflict. Some of them are self-titled anarchists (2) Look at the riots in London. After a few days, people didn’t even know what sparked the initial uprisings. But they were fully engaged in the violence against person and property. When asked, some replied: we are doing it to show that we can. My guess, however, would be that conflict makes them feel alive, vital and engaged. There is all too little in their marginal existence to feed the spirit. So, like the audience for Jerry Springer and WWF, they watch or engage in meaningless conflict for its own sake. That gives them what they sadly lack: a sense of purpose, meaning, joy and engagement with the world. To that extent its not anarchy but pathology (3).

I come from the Philadelphia area. Evidently, people there have gotten in on the British trend by taking part in what are being called “violent flash mobs.” I’m not surprised this took hold in Philadelphia, that erstwhile city of brotherly love. I grew up in a culture where a certain amount of conflict was endemic. Not violence, per se, but disagreement, argument, and expressions of strong emotion. It may have cultural roots in the passionate peoples who settled there or the clashes of immigrant communities. But no one loves a good argument like a New Jersey native. Many of us had to modify our tendencies when we moved South, and discovered that conflict is to be avoided at all costs, including dishonesty and a veneer of politeness. (4)What many Southerners don’t understand is that most Yankees don’t hold grudges for long. We argue and then we go on as friends. It’s these parts where the Hatfields and McCoys kept feuds going for generations!

Some would say there is an evolutionary basis (5)to conflict. Survival of the fittest. I have demonstrated before that there is also a bias in evolution for cooperation. It is probably fair to say that both have their purpose. Some would say, however, that technologically advanced humans have little if any need for conflict; indeed pacifists (6)would counsel that it is only through cooperation and understanding, both individual and collective that we shall save the planet. More and more people are coming to see the truth of that.

But even Gandhi said that principles can sometime trump pacifism.

Rodney King said, in our own West Coast version of the British riots, Why can’t we all just get along? (7)Such a simple question. Yet, so hard to comprehend. And, regardless of whether the reasons are cultural, theological, or biological, it has another part… how can we live so that “getting along” is most likely to occur? What do we need to understand, to do, and how can we do it, before it’s too late?

Scott Peck, in his sequel to The Road Less Traveled, called The Different Drum, asserts that true community (8)is not possible without conflict. All communities evolve through what he calls pseudo-community, then a time of chaos, which is likely to include a degree of conflict, through what he calls emptiness to community. Indeed the number of times we ever experience the miraculous result of this process are precious few. In fact, I am fairly sure that no religious congregation can ever reach and sustain community by his definition. But we can use our experiences of true community to guide us safely through times of chaos and anxiety, knowing that equilibrium will return, that in fact community will be deepened unless people flee back into pseudo-community.

In genuine community there are no sides. … the members have learned to give up cliques and factions. Hey have learned how to listen to each other. Sometimes consensus in community is reached with miraculous rapidity. At other times it is arrived at after lengthy struggle. Just because it is a safe place does not mean community is a place without conflict. It is, however, a place where conflict can be resolved without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace. Community is a place where people can fight gracefully. (MSP, 71)

Starhawk would disagree with Peck in at least one particular. For the author of Truth or Dare, community (9) can not be reached in groups that are entirely open. Groups, she says, must have boundaries (not barriers) in order to be truly safe spaces. If no process exists for asking someone to leave a group, what generally happens is that the productive, amiable members all drop out, one by one, the group dissolves, and its tasks remain undone. (150)

Starhawk is an advocate for what she calls creative conflict. Needed for such, besides clear boundaries and a sense of purpose, access to information, trust, and leadership. I’ll talk more about these next week. For now, the goal of creative conflict is to emerge more united, more whole, and more balanced, not to win or destroy the “other.”

The difference between Starhawk’s community and Peck’s is that she is talking about a sustained community where his groups are almost always time-limited.

“Conflict evokes fear,” Starhawk writes. That brings me to a resource I have returned to for at least 20 years, A Course in Miracles. (10)Let me simply read you a few of its maxims which concern conflict:

• “I am never upset for the reason I think.” (WB )

• “I am upset because I see only the past.”

• “I want to see things differently.”

• “I could see peace instead of this.”

• The secret of salvation is this: You are doing this unto yourself. Whatever seems to be the cause of any suffering you feel, this is still true.

• The world but demonstrates an ancient truth: you will believe that others do to you exactly what you think you did to them.

The Course in Miracles is a course in Inner Peace. This points to the inner conflicts that feed group and international fights. It teaches 100% personal responsibility for one’s feelings and reactions. It is a course in overcoming fear. When conflict engenders fear, one needs to see things differently. This requires, for most people, a spiritual awakening and a huge change of heart. Sadly, few humans are willing to do the work that is necessary.

The CIM asks, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?”

My guess is that a majority of us would have to answer “right.”

Too often the response to conflict of any kind is what Buddhism calls aversion. (11) What the Buddha was really talking about was, again, biology. It is the amygdyla that evokes the Freeze-Flight-Fight responses that are most common in human conflicts. .

But it need not be so.

Two relatively new schools of thought provide exciting tools and contexts for understanding and managing conflict. First is family systems. (12)Employed regularly now in congregations, Murray Bowen’s family systems work has engendered a school of organizational development that goes beyond Peck’s “fighting gracefully.”

In Family Systems we learn that tension aka anxiety arises between two or more individuals as a result of being alive and in contact. Managing, rather than resolving, conflict is key to congregational life. To the extent that members can manage their anxiety (fear), stay in place (fight gracefully), and recognize differences, conflict can be productive and need not be distressing.

One might even say that feeling anxious is not only chronic but an inevitable condition of being alive. (scale of differentiation 1-100%)

Yes, there are methods and techniques to both prevent and minimize destructive conflict. They should be tried as a matter of

course. However, to the extent they fail to address the underlying anxiety within the

relationship, no real change will occur. Effective conflict management will note that

issues are issues to people who are in relationship. Both the content of our disputes

and how we feel toward one another must be considered. Otherwise, the chairs may

move efficiently around the emotional deck while the ship continues on its unhappy

course. It’s akin to saying that the problem of children playing with matches can be

resolved by not having matches around; sooner or later, the kids will discover butane

lighters and burn the house down.

Appreciative Inquiry (13) is both like and unlike Family Systems. “AI” which was originally conceived and formulated for organizational development in the business world, does away with the Newtonian view that still dominates Family Systems. It relies upon chaos theory and quantum science to assert that order lies naturally beyond what may appear to be conflict. But, much like Family Systems and many other schools of conflict management, AI would counsel thinking, taking a larger view (cim: above the battleground), or looking beyond the “things” to the processes that created them.

This view is closest to my own, although I incorporate many facets of those I shared today and others I did touch upon: But, process theology, as well as appreciative inquiry, counsel trust, faith, joy, and patience.

(MW, )

This shift in orientation requires learning to live in a process world. Life demands that I participate with things as they unfold, expect to be surprised, to honor the mystery of it, and to see what emerges. As we learn to live in this process world, we are rewarded with changes in our behavior. I believe we become gentler people. We become more curious about differences, more respectful of one another, more open to life’s surprises. It’s not that we become more hopeful OR pessimistic, but we do become more patient and accepting. I like to believe we change in this way because we are willing to move into the dance. Although it looked frantic from the outside, …. Life is a good partner. Its demands are not unreasonable. A great capacity for change lies in every one of us.” (155)