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.