Ritual and Conflict
I just returned home from a JustPeace gathering in Nashville (www.justpeaceumc.org). I am so grateful for this group of persons who help facilitate processes of restorative justice within and outside of the church. I was honored to share and reflect with this group on the role of ritual in engaging conflict. (Download presentation notes and worship at the end of this blog) We experienced and talked about the power of symbol to help facilitate difficult conversations and the ways in which ritual can help us experience bonds even when we do not share common convictions and find ourselves in the midst of conflict. Ritual is not magic – outcomes are not predictable in the sense that what we hope for is accomplished. But it can provide a safe space to name pain and commend our journey to the Holy One. This is indeed what I pray for as I begin to plan worship for the United Methodist General Conference in 2008.
My friend Tom Porter, a hot-shot lawyer turned minister (as I like to call him), was transformed by his experiences and witness of restorative justice practices in South Africa and now helps the church train facilitators of circle processes that embody a very different way of dealing with conflict and restoring right relationship in “right” ways…
… A Native American saying describes this well: “You can’t get to a good place in a bad way.” Sometimes processes of retributive justice (the court system and even the judicial workings of Christian denominations) do not always offer a place for all voices to be heard, for all those who have been affected to be part of the solution, and for true mutuality and accountability to undergird the process of healing and moving forward.
While my good friends at JustPeace often deal with clergy misconduct, sexual abuse and other very serious issues, I have also seen the circle process help churches who are experiencing conflict over worship. When people come to a circle, everyone is invited to tell their stories and engage in deep and respectful listening guided by a “steward.”. Amazing things can happen in this form of dialogue. For instance, a tearful account of worship that changed a life and meant so much to one person is really heard by someone for whom that particular worship seemed “irreverent” or “boring.” People come to realize through experiencing the stories of others that God indeed works in and through all kinds of expressions. Time spent in the circle process can help us get to “what lies beneath” our conflicts. Struggles over candlesticks and preachers who come out of the pulpit sometimes reveal deeper issues if we take the time to unpack them. Resistance to change simply “because we’ve always done it this way” can be eased when the roots and origins of our practices come out in communal memory. This kind of dialogue can move a community forward, rather than the paralysis that comes with anonymous complaints or backroom grumbling.
Watch for more on how to facilitate this kind of circle process around worship issues in my next book on worship leadership. In the meantime, check out and support my friends at JustPeace (www.justpeaceumc.org).