In a second case I worked on recently, the people on one side of the dispute were arguing among themselves because the dispute went against their fundamental tenets. “We should not pursue litigation in this matter since fighting in court, especially over our religious matter, can and will bring tension within our community and will defame our community,” people on this side of the case told me. “Our congregation and our faith believe in resolving all conflict amicably and keeping the brotherhood alive. Yet a few of our members claim that we are losing by not litigating.”
To me, in caucus, they essentially said. “How can this be?”
I knew that before these participants could begin to address the dispute with the other side, they would have to reach some sort of agreement among themselves. Hoping to get to the heart of such a basic disconnect, I tried to separate their religious identity from the conflict resolution process and reminded them that mediating or litigating was a choice they needed to discuss thoroughly themselves before proceeding. This kind of basic tension, I assured them, comes up in all kinds of disputes, including purely commercial cases.
In this case and others like it, I have learned that addressing the value-based, religious positions that parties adopt during their conversations is key to helping them confront the core dispute that brought them to the table. When it comes to religion, I believe that the essence of mediation practice is helping people understand and possibly shift their positions, and I find that this often involves challenging parties’ strict views from multiple standpoints. When I approach people with respect and understanding, I find that these challenges can help parties move toward resolution.
Working with the “true” facts and the use of caucus
At the core of every conflict is a story – in most cases, multiple stories. In any mediation, listening to the other person’s (or other party’s) story requires both a mental shift and a change of attitude. But at the center of any religion is a statement on truth, so a successful mediation involving religious principles or institutions requires a dramatic shift in people’s version of truth as well as a storyline that allows everyone to move toward a more amicable path. However, when the conflict itself involves religious values or religious practices, the issues may be a constant reminder of faithfulness toward the personal truth.
In one of my cases, the parties came to me with different stories about the use of wood in the main door at a church. As in the earlier case, each side had its own story – and its own reply to the other’s. In the joint session, accusations quickly became personal. I knew I needed much more information before I could be helpful, so I suggested private caucuses, which proved a wise decision because those private meetings provided a huge amount of important information. The caucuses slowed my process for several days, but the delay was worth it.
In all kinds of cases, parties may be hesitant to share private information with a mediator, but often this very kind of information allows parties to save face and provide honor. This is especially true in religious conflicts, where, as noted before, the core conflict involves both personal and group identity. With effective use of caucus, religious parties can enjoy the safe space they need to share their personal stories surrounding faith and conflict. As Professor Lela P. Love of Cardozo School of Law and I have written, “Ignoring religious precepts may involve peril: peril to our soul and, perhaps, to our pocketbook.”
Addressing emotion and generosity
In my research, I have been particularly interested in the concept of generosity – where it comes from, how it manifests itself, and what it means. While studying the concept, I learned that every major religion, in its own way, promotes spirituality-based approaches to mediation and conflict resolution. I also found deep connections across such faiths: for example, the practice of generosity. As Karen Armstrong, a former nun who has written widely about religion and society, explains, “All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality,” which then brings us all into relation with the “transcendence” we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, Dao, or another name. Each faith, she notes, has its own version of the Golden Rule: “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.”
A compassion-based mediation process provides the parties clear process wins, a kind of Golden Rule benefit, over the traditional process of litigation. One other big advantage is that the parties may enjoy being part of the mediation. Being involved with both faith-based interventions and secular interventions, Jacob Bercovitch and Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana, scholars and authors who specialize in international relations and conflict resolution, set out the following advantages of mediation for faith-based disputants:
“a) Explicit emphasis on spirituality and/or religious identity; b) use of religious texts; c) use of religious values and vocabulary; d) utilization of religious or spiritual rituals during the process and; e) involvement of faith-based actors as third parties.”
One of the key benefits to belonging to a faith-based community is being able to understand the values and religious texts of that community. Utilizing that shared text as a source of guidance and direction throughout the mediation garners legitimacy between parties and promotes buy-in from both sides.
Flexibility, respect, and presence
Religions are complex, and within each religion, people have different levels of adherence, and these individual differences make practices and beliefs even more subjective. With such wide diversity of values and belief systems, one thing is for sure – no two mediations will be identical. You are bound to find differences, and they may be large or small.
Religious mediation has taught me humility – to approach each and every mediation situation with caution and respect. It has also taught me to not judge a party’s belief system or a group’s value system.
While I hope my observations will help your practice, I know that the timeless principles of respect and presence will help you most in understanding and resolving religious conflicts.