Friday, September 10, 2010

Coming to Unity through Harmony: Dealing with Conflict in the Interfaith Movement and One's Personal Life

Eid mubarak! Yom Tov! Have a blessed Muslim holiday and a happy Jewish New Year!

In honor of this special day, I am including a preview of a talk I am scheduled to give at the Unity Church of Pomona on Sunday, Sept 12. This talk explores the challenges of interfaith work: how we can deal with conflict and make decisions in a way that brings us closer to each other and to the Spirit.

I am also taking part in an Interfaith Walk for Peace and Friendship this Sunday at 5:00 PM, starting at a synagogue and ending up at a mosque. See

I hope each of you find a way to celebrate this holy weekend, the end of holy month of Ramadan and the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. In honoring the sacred in faiths other than our faith, we honor those who died during the 9/11 attack, and those who have dedicated their lives to making sure that no one ever dies, or kills, again because of a religious rationale.

It is an honor and a joy to be invited to speak here today, and I want to thank my friend and colleague Jan Chase for inviting me. Before coming here, I went to your website and read the principles of the Unity Church, and what you all are doing to further unity and harmony in your community, and I am in awe. You people are doing incredible work, and you have an incredible leader in Jan. Let’s take a moment of silence to reflect in gratitude for Jan, for this wonderful spiritual community, and for this opportunity to learn more about how we can come to unity with Spirit.

I was asked to speak today about the interfaith movement and the role that Quakers are playing in this effort. As you probably know, Quakers are a peace church, and have been involved in peace work for nearly 350 years. In keeping with our Quaker commitment to peace, I want to speak about the role of conflict in our lives, and how we can deal with conflict in ways that promote unity and harmony.

When I became a Quaker twenty five years ago, I had a deep yearning for peace--inner peace and peace in the world. And I became involved in various peace ventures, including a book project that was jointly edited and published in the Soviet Union and the United States. The purpose of this book was to dispel stereotypes through stories and poems about the peoples of both countries. This book along with countless other efforts at citizen diplomacy laid a foundation of trust and understanding between Americans and Russians which enabled our political leaders to end the Cold War.

While I yearned for and worked for peace, I wasn’t a particularly peaceful person. I had strong opinions, very thin skin, and a rather large ego. I had good intentions of course, but you all know where good intentions can lead. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I also had an aversion to conflict. Let me put it more bluntly. I hated conflict. How many of you hate conflict? Let me see some hands. How many of you dislike conflict? How many of you enjoy conflict? Wow! I like your honesty.

I think many of us enjoy conflict more than we care to admit. If not, why would Hollywood movies about conflict be so popular? Why would books and newspapers and news casts about conflict attract us?

I would go so far as to say that we Americans, like many other peoples in the world, are addicted to conflict, and to war.

We need to recognize this unpleasant fact, and admit it, if we are going to change. As long as we claim to be peace-loving people, and yet spend more than all the rest of the world combined on military weapons, we aren’t going to change.

Furthermore, unless each of us recognizes and takes ownership of the conflict in our own lives, we aren’t going to change and we aren’t going to make a difference as peace makers.

Over the years, I have practiced techniques that have helped me to deal with conflict in productive ways, and I invite you to try these techniques.

· A daily practice of prayer and meditation.
· Fasting during the month of Ramadan—fasting slows us down and helps us to feel more empathy for the poor and needy.
· Giving up meat and alcohol. This is good for one’s health, good for the environment and good for one’s soul.
· Practice Compassionate Listening and Nonviolent Communication. I’ve studied these techniques and I can testify they help enormously.

The best practice I know for peace making is to not cling to one’s personal opinions, to listen non-judgmentally to others, and to center down as much as possible in deep stillness where there is true peace.

All these techniques have helped to free me from my addiction to conflict, but I still have much to learn. Becoming a peace maker is a life-long task, like learning to play a musical instrument.

George Lakey, a Quaker who has traveled all over the world teaching conflict resolution skills, recently came to our Quaker gathering to talk about facing up to conflict. Thanks to wise Quaker teachers like George, I have also come to see conflict not as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

When conflict arises, I think: what practical steps can I take to help resolve this conflict? What can I learn from this conflict? How can I be an instrument of Divine peace?

You may be wondering: How does all this relate to Quakers and the interfaith movement?

I believe that 9/11 was a wake-up call from the Divine to religious people throughout the world: what are we going to do to make religion the solution, not the problem, in the 21st century?

Nine years ago, religious fanatics tried to launch a holy war by attacking the centers of economic and military power in the world’s largest superpower. They wanted to make Americans so fearful we would be drawn us into an endless conflict that would drain our resources and cause our empire to crumble. And our government responded in just the way the terrorists wanted: it launched a perpetual war to achieve perpetual peace

This ill-conceived war has gone on for 9 years, and it is scheduled to go on another 40-50 years, if military strategists have their way. Our military leaders are calling this the “Long War” and its goal is to subdue and pacify the entire Middle East, from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of India.

This war will cost trillions of dollars and countless lives. And it will undoubtedly bankrupt our nation, and probably the world, both financially and morally.

But there is an alternative.

The alternative for Quakers has been to recognize “that of God,” the Divine Spark, in everyone. Three hundred and fifty years ago William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. wrote: "The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the liveries they wear here make them strangers."-

He put these words into practice. The colony of Pennsylvania was called “the Holy Experiment” and was one of the most tolerant places in the Western world. Everyone could practice their religion freely there, even witches. Even Voltaire, no friend of religion, praised Pennsylvania.

William Penn advocated establishing a league of nations for Europe by which kings could settle their differences without war. This was the precursor to the United Nations.

Quakers also became a peace church, along with the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren. In 1660, when England and the rest of Europe were still reeling from nearly a hundred years of religious wars, one of the longest wars in European history, the Quakers issued a statement renouncing war:

“We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world."

For the last 350 years, Quakers have stood by these words. We have resisted all calls to war. And we have worked for peace—both inward and outward. We have formed organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Quaker UN office to promote peace and justice.

I don't want to leave the impression that Quakers are perfect or always live up to their ideals. In 1893, when the first Parliament of the World's Religions took place in Chicago, two Quaker delegations took part because the Quakers had split into two competing groups--the Orthodox and Hicksites. These two groups were not on speaking terms! In fact, these groups did not reconcile until 70 years later, in 1953!

Becoming a part of the interfaith movement or any religious community doesn’t mean our conflicts end. It doesn’t mean that every meeting we hold ends with us singing kumbaya. What it means is that we are committed to dealing with conflict in a way that leads to harmony.

Harmony doesn’t mean unity. When an orchestra plays together, everyone doesn’t play the same notes or the same instrument. Members of our orchestra play different instruments and different notes, but they play in harmony. Or at least they try. Harmony is the goal. To achieve this goal, we should keep in mind the old joke about a man who asked a New Yorker. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The New Yorker responded: “Practice, practice, practice.”

Conflicts are an opportunity to put into practice our religious teachings and convictions. Look at how the interfaith community has rallied together to respond to the conflict over opposition to the mosque in lower Manhattan. Or plans to build a mosque in Temecula. Or the threat to burn the Quran. Each of these challenges has brought us closer together and strengthened our bonds of friendship and trust.

Even more challenging are conflicts within our organizations. Every peace group I know that does serious work faces internal conflicts and challenges. And if we can deal with conflicts in an honest and compassionate way, we become stronger, not weaker.

One of the most difficult challenges we face in life are so-called difficult people. How many people here have had to deal with a difficult person? Please raise your hand. How many of you here has been a difficult person at some time in your life? Please raise your hand.

In dealing with difficult people, let me quote the wise words of a Buddhist teacher named Pema Chodron.

“When we generate compassion for difficult people..., we get to see our prejudices & aversions even more clearly. It can feel completely unreasonable to make compassion a wish for these irritating, belligerent people. To wish that those we dislike & fear would not suffer can feel like too big a leap. This is a good time to remember that when we harden our hearts against anyone, we hurt our selves.”

Can we generate compassion for people we find difficult? Can we feel compassion for bigots? For self-serving politicians? For people we strongly disagree with, whether in the news or in our families?

Let’s pause and think of one difficult person in our lives. Let’s take a moment to wish that person happiness and peace. Let’s surround that person with thoughts of love.

How do we stay grounded in love while dealing with conflict? George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, was a strong, charismatic leader and he was jailed many times for his religious beliefs. At one point, he was approached by some military officers and asked if he’d like to join Cromwell’s army—which would have been a ticket out of jail. Fox turned them down with this memorable phrase: “I live in that power and life which takes away the occasion of war.”Note that Fox didn’t say, “I’m a pacifist.” Pacifism is an idea, a belief system, a mental construct. George Fox was talking about a way of life, and an inward power that comes from experiencing the Presence of the Spirit.

To be peace makers, we need two things: First, we need to practice a way of life that leads to peace. A life of simplicity, integrity, and lovingkindness.

Second, we have to be in touch with an inward spiritual power so deep and strong we don’t let ourselves get caught up in the anger and violence of others.

The Quaker-inspired Alternative to Violence Project calls this “Transforming Power” and is helping violent offenders in prison to get in touch with that power so they can resolve conflict nonviolently.

My teacher Gene Hoffman developed a technique called Compassionate Listening which is currently being used and taught in Israel/Palestine to help Palestinians and Israelis hear each other’s stories in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way. Compassionate listening starts with the premise that there is “that of God,” a Divine Spark, in each person. Each person therefore has a piece of the Truth, something we need to hear in order to be whole.

Such compassionate listening doesn’t mean that we agree with the other person, but rather that we honor the other person’s narrative and feel empathy for what he or she has gone through.

Such deep listening is what we Quaker have contributed to interfaith understanding. The Quaker ecumenist Douglas Steere called such deep listening “mutual irradiation.” This means listening to each other beyond words, listening out of the Silence, discovering our divine unity as well as our divine uniqueness.

Along with deep listening, it is also helpful to keep a sense of humor. George Lakey, the Quaker who travels all over the world giving conflict resolution workshops, gave a talk about combating terrorism at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study center near Philadelphia. George was so funny he made us laugh almost continually for the first half hour of his talk. Then he pointed out to us how important humor was in overcoming fear and defusing conflict. Laughter is what helps us to see past our pain and fear and hurt, to see the daily trials of our life through the eyes of eternity.

I’d like to say a final word about the title of my talk. Conflict often arises because we don’t know how to make decisions in a way that honors the Divine in each other. Look at the acrimonious debates in Congress and elsewhere in the political world. Even when we come together to make decisions by voting, we often end up polarized. The majority tyrannizes the minority, or sometimes vice versa.

Friends use a decision-making process called “Coming to Unity.” This means we don’t vote; we wait until everyone is in unity with a decision. This isn’t the same as consensus, a secular term which means unanimous consent. “Coming to Unity” means “Coming to Unity with the Spirit.” It means feeling an almost mystical sense of oneness with each other and with our Transforming Power when we finally agree on a decision.

A Quaker theologian named Eden Grace beautifully describes how Quakers do business and come to unity through seeking to be in harmony with God’s will. This statement was prepared for a special session of the World Council of Churches in 2000:

Since our [Quaker] method of transacting business presumes that in a given matter there is a way that is in harmony with God’s plan, our search is for that right way, and not simply for a way which is either victory for some faction, or an expedient compromise. What we call "the Sense of the Meeting" is not the collected wisdom of those present, but the collective discernment of God’s will. There is no place for activities such as motions, seconds, amendments and votes in our process of collective discernment. Our bold affirmation is that God does indeed have a will for us, that God is actively trying to communicate that will, and that we are capable, through corporate prayer, to discover that will. A sign that we have achieved our goal of discerning God’s will is the experience of Unity which is recognized and affirmed by those gathered. (see

Coming to Unity is what brings real peace to a community. When we are in unity with each and with the Divine, we feel it in our hearts and are at peace. And this, I believe, is the real work of the interfaith movement: helping us all come to Unity through harmony. It isn’t easy. Coming to Unity is a discipline that takes years and years of practice, but I can testify that it is well worth the effort.

I am glad to be here today in a community that is seeking to live in harmony with the Divine. Thank you so much for inviting me. And I look forward to seeing you at this evening’s Interfaith Walk for Peace and Friendship. May all of you find peace in your souls and bring peace to the world!

1 comment:

  1. God is in the conflicts too; that's something to remember.

    We have this 'doctrine' of "Continuing Revelation"; it shouldn't be a 'doctrine' but rather a working hypothesis: that God has something to teach each person, and conflict is often how new lessons start.

    We don't need violence, and though we may sometimes need anger, anger isn't a 'right'-- It's an affliction. But we do evidently need disagreements.

    That psychological 'need' for conflict you mention, for activities that stir up the old testosterone and get people 'testy', well, that's way problematic! Maybe we need to shut off the news most of the time,just to avoid getting sucked into the drama of it all. One peek: compassion. Two peeks: voyeurism.