Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Book review - Reconciling One and All by Brian Castle

Reconciling One and All is a worthy contribution to the library of Conflict and Mediation books which might pass under many readers' radars given its Christian bearing. That would be unfortunate as it has much to offer.

The book is a slim tome, at about 110 pages, but is packed with ideas and provocations, many of which, in a style similar to De Bono, are not fully explored but left for the reader to develop further.

The book breaks down this thing called reconciliation into 5 provocations or parts, namely;

Reaching out to the other; and
God's gift to the world

Memory explores, not hanging onto past grievances, but remembering "rightly" in such a fashion as will enable reconciliation to take place. It goes on to explore the need to let go or lay aside grievances.

"This laying aside does not underestimate the wrong, it is not a repression and it is not an escape. Rather it takes seriously what has happened in the past and shows a willingness, when the time is ripe, to move into the future towards reconciliation. This can only happen when we have an active control of the memory and decide the shape of remembering which, in itself, is a sign that we control the memory rather than the memory controlling us"

Chapter 2, called "Victimhood... or not" starts with a fascinating argument and one that was new to me, namely the idea that Jesus Christ is frequently portrayed as victim within art and other representations. That is a nonesense when considered against the Gospel but is remarkably prevalent. Cue long faces and sombre gatherings all round!

Brian Castle goes on to explore how the psalm writers when faced with challenges and grievances, did not retreat internally to wallow and lick their wounds. Instead they stretched "Out beyond themselves, to God, to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed by what opposes them" - a fascinating view on the need for the individual to go beyond themselves and the natural, tempting sense of victimhood, to reach out and endeavour to create a resolution.
The very act of resolution is seen as combatting the overbearing deluge of the trials that the participants may be facing. I can see this within the Collaborative Law work which I do. The client and their spouse are emboldened in facing up to the end of a marriage by participating within its resolution, instead of absolving that role entirely to the Judges and Lawyers. When it works, it is a remarkable thing to see.

Chapter 3 deals with forgiveness and joins the mediator and individual with the challenges that forgiveness presents. Who's forgiveness is it? What is the difference between forgiveness and mercy? We touch upon the challenge that we are often presented with when trying to broach forgiveness with clients or other people around us:

"In many ways it is disresectful for those who have not had to undergo such horrors even to raise the question of forgiveness..." How often are we presented with the retort "What would you know, you weren't there!" or "You have no idea how I am feeling..."

Brian Castle in turn looks to "Exclusion and Embrace" by Miroslav Volf and how Volf deals with the parable of the all-loving father - incorrectly referred to, Castle says, as the parable of the prodigal son.

The father embraces his son upon his return even before there has been any remorse or confession. "For the father the fact that he was his son was more significant in his relationship with him than what he had done. Of course the moral activity of the younger son is not irrelevant, but it is not as important as the father's relationship with his son."

"Reaching out to the other" is the theme of the fourth paragraph and this, for me, is the most potent section. The idea is that we should acknowledge and embrace the differences between us.
The challenge is that if we do so, we risk transformation, change, maybe even, but whisper it, Growth. The very title of this blog, Embracing Conflict, belies where I feel on this issue. I do believe that we need to be able to step into those differences, competently and respectfully, and be curious as to how those differences between us map out. We need a dialogue that engages, not dehumanizes or pushes away.

The final chapter, God's gift to the world, draws upon the Gospel and demonstrates how this thing called Reconciliation is perhaps the central theme of the Bible, from the tumultuous opening book of Genesis which it is revealed is packed with separation, suffering and subsequent reconciliation, through to Paul's letters including those to the Corinthians.

I would expect the last chapter to provide the greatest challenge for non-Christian readers, but I sincerely hope that his book will be read and debated more widely. There is a great deal of sense contained within its few pages which I hope will stimulate the reader as much as it has me.
The Christian perspective helps to make sense and contextualise this work for Christians. For non-Christians I would hope that Brian Castle's tone is sensitive enough to ensure that it is not over-bearing but that it can serve as a framing for the discussions that follow.

For now, I'm off to find a copy of Miroslav Volf!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Happy Workplace

Many marriages break down not because of an excess of conflict, but because of an absence of explicit conflict.

Arguments are banished or avoided. If we allow ourselves to argue, then we are admitting, we believe, that our relationship is breaking down. We are no longer “In love.” Arguing is seen as a loss of intimacy.

The result is that grievances and irritations are not discussed. Resentment grows.

Organisations are the same.

They become afraid of raising contentious issues because we confuse having an argument, or a debate, with falling out. We like to believe that our relationships with our colleagues, staff, volunteers, trustees, are harmonious, and that if we argue then we are jeopardising that harmony.

Or we fear for ourselves. What will happen if put my head above the parapet? Will I be seen as being awkward, or a trouble-maker, or obstructive?

What reaction will I provoke amongst other members of the relevant group?

What if I’m wrong? Will I be humiliated?

The result is that difficult issues are not addressed. Instead, initiatives are not pushed forward, or are allowed to proceed even though one or more members may have identified inherent problems or flaws.

All organisations have a rich mine of opinions, viewpoints and ideas. We need to make it safe for individuals to speak out. We need to encourage dissent so that ideas can be tested or aired in the first place.

Arguments and debate should not be seen as the end of a working or social relationship. Instead, competent, responsible debate can be seen as an indication that the relationship is adequately strong and mature so as to be able to take the strain of a debate and survive intact.