Reconciliation Without Surrender

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Chalice Lighting

We first arrived here at first as strangers
Most of us knowing no one
Finding unfamiliarity all around
Later, we came to know the faces
We even began to learn the stories
The journey we are on leads to understanding
To awareness of one another’s strengths and goodness
To recognition of their needs and dreams
To compassion for their wounds and terrors
Community is a shared journey toward understanding
By the light of this flame, let us travel on in love

Reading: Buddhist Prayer for forgiveness

If I have harmed anyone in any way
either knowingly or unknowingly
through my own confusions
I ask their forgiveness.
If anyone has harmed me in any way
either knowingly or unknowingly
through their own confusions
I forgive them.
And if there is a situation
I am not yet ready to forgive
I forgive myself for that.
For all the ways that I harm myself,
negate, doubt, belittle myself,
judge or be unkind to myself
through my own confusions
I forgive myself.

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

I have this neighbour…  I should stop there because you likely know what’s coming. You probably realise that this start to a story is inevitably going to be about conflict. Well, you may have noticed the title and you probably also remember that the quarterly theme is reconciliation. But you also know that everyone seems to have at least one neighbour they find difficult or maybe even impossible or unbearable. I imagine there is a list of neighbour trouble categories. 1 - loud music. 2 - stomping feet. 3 - dog waste not picked up. 4 - screaming children. 5 - unkempt front garden. And so on…

This was 'neighbour conflict type 17' - a rubbish bin aesthetics conflict. Back story: for as long as anyone can remember, our Upper Street building put its rubbish in a set of household bins on Florence Street. I don’t know if they’ve done that since they moved there in the 1850s, but it’s been a long time. I suspect that they didn’t generate much rubbish when there was just one European person living there and when the events were limited to a children’s dance class and one gathering a month. The gatherings usually had no more than 12 people from what I’ve heard. Even when a Scottish dance class and AA group started meeting there, the numbers were low.

But then, Americans moved in with our high-consumption ways. Worse, we started hosting parties and other events that generated rubbish. One day, my neighbour - whose home has a view of our bins - mentioned that the bins were messy. And they were - rubbish had been dumped on top of them. I apologised and cleaned it up. I asked all the staff to keep it tidy and to make sure the renters were good about it. I couldn’t control what happened with the bins though and one day, I was copied in on an email the neighbour wrote to one of the local councillors. It was an angry email full of harsh complaints. Pretty soon, the council was on us demanding that we do something different.

So, now I had a nearby neighbour who had gone to the Council instead of talking to me first. I was not happy. I sort of sneered at him when I saw him. Now, we all know how this is supposed to go in the ideal world if we were perfect people. We should have a heart-to-heart talk. I would apologise for having our bins there and he would apologise for going to the Council. We would stop using those bins so he wouldn’t have to see any mess.

That didn’t happen. I didn’t feel like I owed him a further apology for trying to manage our rubbish as we had done for decades. I also knew there was no way to address his concern completely without it costing New Unity lots of money. I don’t know if he regretted going to the Council. So, no. There was no reconciliation in the recommended, ideal way.

I’ll spare you the details of how the rubbish situation evolved. Suffice it to say that it lingered and other officials got involved. It became a major time-sink and concern for me and the staff. We tried a lot of different things and then - much later we put some giant bins in the front courtyard and that was that.

But the sneering continued for a while - on my part at least. And then, after time passed, we did the British male equivalent of a friendly gesture - we nodded to each other. And then, he and his partner accepted parcels that arrived for us when no one was in and they were friendly when they gave them to us. Eventually, I complimented him on some DIY work he had done. We had a very brief but friendly exchange and he touched my arm in a warm way. It was over. We both smiled warmly. We were reconciled.

Reading: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

I don’t mean to suggest that my neighbour and I set an ideal example of conflict reconciliation.  It took a long time and we never really addressed what was going on. In some ways, it seems like it might have been the classic British method: ‘let’s not talk about it.’ What it did have going for it though is that no one had to admit they were wrong - and really - we probably both still feel we were more or less right. Nonetheless, I have the strong sense that we each now understand where the other was coming from on the bin crisis. And ultimately, we both felt it was better to have a positive relationship than not. The fact that we were both sure we were right and weren’t going to apologise didn’t mean reconciliation was impossible.

We all get into disagreements. Sometimes we can recognise that we were wrong and we can find a way to apologise sincerely. This is ideal, but only sometimes. It is good when the power is equal, when forgiveness is forthcoming, when the apology is sincere, when both parties to the conflict acknowledge their roles in the conflict, and when apology does not lead to long-term resentment.

But this is not always the right way. A sincere apology may not be possible. Power may be very skewed. Resentment may result. Forgiveness may not be forthcoming. The other party may not acknowledge their role in the conflict. And then, in contrast to the message of the Buddhist prayer for forgiveness that we heard earlier, apology and forgiveness may not be the right approach to dealing with conflict.

Apologies can damage rather than strengthen relationships. They can prolong an abusive relationship. They can be coerced and lead to simmering resentment when there is an imbalance of power. They can be insincere and harmful when the person who apologises is sure they are not wrong. Should you apologise to your racist uncle for gently sharing your views that conflict with the ones he offers much less gently? I certainly wouldn’t. But if I valued our relationship enough to want to maintain it despite our differences, I wouldn’t aim for apology and forgiveness, I’d strive for understanding. I would want to reach a point where each of us could recognise the depths of the other’s views. I would want us each to listen and hear wherein our beliefs and values are grounded. I would expect that this journey would elicit compassion in each of us for the real pains, fears, and dreams of the other.

This is different from changing minds or apologising for where our histories and our search for the good has led us. It is not surrendering just for the sake of peace. This is the search for understanding and the search for compassion. The path of understanding and compassion is the path toward peace. More than that, it is the path toward love.

Closing Words

Conflict is part of a deeply-lived life
None of us welcome it
We are happy to cut it short
But conflict is inevitable when we are truly ourselves
It arises when we stop hiding who we are for the sake of calm
Conflict is uncomfortable
Approach it with an openness to understanding
A potential for growth
A chance to practice compassion
An opportunity to love