Holy Trinity, Lakefield
September 10th, 2017
SERMON; Conflict Resolution

Lord, consider my thoughts, guide my words and make them acceptable to you and accessible to those who would hear them.  Amen

What is the purpose of conflict resolution?

I suggest that its purpose is for the two people in conflict to be able to settle their differences, for the entourages of the two in conflict to be able to live with the settlement and for the society around those in conflict to be able to live with the outcome. Such conflicts may be relatively anodyne arguments between two people or they may be a serious crime by one person against another or against a group.

In a small argument, affecting only two people, this conflict resolution is simple enough but it is rare that only two people know about a conflict. Most of the time, conflict between two people is known by others and enduring conflict poisons the atmosphere, whether is in the family, at work, or in an organisation like a church or a tennis club. Unsettled conflicts cause significant disruption, so there is a value in resolving them.

I remember one time disagreeing with a manager much higher than me about what kind of company care should have. My favourite method of conflict resolution was avoidance instead of solving the problem. The end result wasn’t pretty.

The Reading which I have just finished is about conflict resolution and about justice in society. It lays out four steps for dealing with conflict, which are intended to act as guidelines, not to be interpreted too literally.

In the first step, the victim approaches his adversary quietly, on the side, without a fuss. The two discuss their issue and if possible resolve it between themselves.

Notice that it is the people themselves who are trying to resolve the dispute, not the justice system, nor their representatives. And notice also that it is the victim who starts the process, the person who believes they have been wronged.

You may say “Well, that’s obvious, because it is the person who has been wronged, who has everything to be gained, who has the to raise the subject. The other person may not even know that he or she has caused someone to be aggrieved.” True, some of the time.

But my guess is that most of the time I know when I have annoyed someone, and so I am just as capable of starting a dispute resolution process as the victim. And as the aggressor, the first move is often as simple as saying “I’m sorry.”

In individual disputes, that first step usually works; when it doesn’t, there is a second step.

For crimes, we have other ways of dealing with this first step, because the state (through the police) intervenes except when the crime is not public.

It is easy for a victim to report a break-in to their house, but not so in the case of sexual or psychological abuse or rape. In these cases, this first step is a major obstacle to justice. It may be an insurmountable barrier and prevent resolution.

In the second stage, the victim brings in another person or persons to witness the conversation. It is harder to deny guilt when in front of others.

I used to work in labour relations, as did Phil, and when you could settle a contract or a grievance with the union, we would bring in a mediator or an arbitrator to help settle the issue. Being beaten up verbally by an arbitrator who could see all the faults in your arguments wasn’t pleasant but it was healthy.

This second stage therefore introduces reconciliation between the parties because recognizing guilt allows forgiveness and forgiveness allows resolution.

Victim-led conflict resolution processes are similar to the restorative justice processes which our First Nations typically use. Justice circles are intended to have the aggressor accept guilt and punishment.

This is significantly different from the adversarial approach taken in our courts, where it is normal for the aggressor to deny guilt. The defence is focussed on preventing proof of guilt rather than proving innocence and the presumption of innocence is a vital foundation of our justice system.

Our system is much more vulnerable than we thought to judicial errors like convicting the innocent. Freeing the guilty is a risk we accept; convicting the innocent is not.

Out justice system is being influenced by aboriginal methods when it uses such methods as Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, whether they are in South Africa to overcome apartheid or in Canada to overcome the legacy of the Residential Schools, are examples of using this second step. They also are a mix of aboriginal and western methods and  they bring much deeper resolution to an issue affecting a whole society not just a few people.

In the third step, the victim brings the dispute before the whole congregation or society, which tries to have the aggressor recognise the unacceptability of his or her behaviour. The reading uses the church as its setting for this step. It is not unlike our justice system, which brings crimes before a judge or jury, accused not by the victim but by the state. The judge or jury are selected representatives of the society as a whole.

Civil cases are when we use the courts to resolve conflicts between two individuals or organisations, because they cannot do it themselves. Criminal cases are when we ace people of offending the rules of our society. Many of the rules that we use show up throughout the Bible, but particularly in the Ten Commandments.

In criminal cases, it is a third party, the state which tries to resolve a conflict because most criminal cases have victims. Part of justice system are victim statements, in which the convicted person must listen to the victims and others describing the consequences of his or her actions.  
A crime doesn’t only affect the victim, it also affects the entourage of both the victim and the criminal. The judge also listens and victim impact statements can heavily influence the sentence which an aggressor will receive.

In the last step in the Reading, only used if the aggressor will not accept his or her guilt, the person is treated like a pagan or a tax collector. What does this mean? A pagan was someone who believed in more than one God, so not a Christian and treating someone like pagan would mean treating him like an outsider. This has lead in some religious sects to the practice of shunning, essentially ostracizing someone living inside your own society. You see this amongst the Amish, some orthodox Jewish sects and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I presume that most shunned people either cave in or leave the sect.

Treating like tax collector is a bit different because a tax collector is more like a criminal. Tax collectors in Jewish society in the first century collected more tax than was due to the state and kept the difference for themselves. They were therefore seen as cheats and extortionists, like white collar criminals in our time. The punishment for a tax collector in our society would therefore be prison, which is another way of putting people outside our society.

The purpose of prison is to both punish and rehabilitate, but western society doesn’t seem to be very good at or put much emphasis on the latter. Prison is more about punishment than rehabilitation. First Nations restorative justice circles are more successful than we are at rehabilitation because the end result is reconciliation.

But there is a twist in the tale of this reading because Jesus clearly consorted with pagans - think of the Good Samaritan. Jesus also befriended tax collectors and made a habit of hanging around with people who had done wrong, with the purpose of having them understand and accept their wrong doing and be rehabilitated. Treating someone like a pagan or a tax collector was focussed on rehabilitation, not punishment.

So where is all this headed?

I said at the beginning that the purpose of conflict resolution is for those in conflict to settle their differences, for their entourages to be able to live with the settlement and for the society as a whole to be able to live with the outcome.

For some, rehabilitation is not possible, and removing them from society is the only solution.

For the rest, the purpose of punishment is resolution and successful resolution means rehabilitation. Resolution and rehabilitation do not have to pass through emprisonment. They can just as well pass through acceptance of guilt, the development of contrition and the acceptance of alternative methods of punishment. This is much less destructive of the person and much less costly to the society. That’s what the steps described in the reading are aimed at.