Saturday, July 25, 2009

Talking Over a Beer :-D

I am floored -- and thrilled -- by this morning's news concerning a topic I wrote about in my last blog entry. Yesterday, I used the Gates / Crowley encounter as a case study to illustrate how voices of negative "ghosts" can poison present opportunities.

This morning it is reported that none other than President Obama himself has invited Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer and to discuss what happened between them, to provide a "teachable moment" to our nation. Obama is quoted as saying:

My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment, where all of us -- instead of pumping up the volume -- spend a little more time listening to each other and trying to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities. That instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective about what we can do to contribute to more unity. Lord knows, we need it right now.

What a great guy! President Obama surely does bring a fresh perspective.

Judge Sonya Sotomayor has been criticised for her remarks that a "wise Latina woman" might make a better decision than a White man. I understand (and agree with) the sympathy she was trying to express. It's not that one perspective alone is "better". Rather, there is tremendous value in the diversity of viewpoints that different perspectives bring to bear on a challenge.

Obama's perspective on race exemplifies the value that diversity of perspective brings to the table. It takes courage to forge those differing perspectives into a coherent and unified view of reality. But this is where true peace begins.

The racial division in our country has festered for too long. Unfortunately, Race and Racisim has become a taboo subject to discuss in polite company: deeming Race too sensitive as a topic, people have been too frightened to talk about it. Last year when I wrote candidly in my blog about searching for a school district where there was diversity but where my own child would not be targeted for discrimination, for example, some readers of my China blog wrote me to urge caution about even discussing such subjects. I disagree with this notion of being ruled by caution, if caution prevents us from addressing an ailment that could be healed if it were addressed honestly.

The problem is, that although the walls have been cleaned up and whitewashed, the residue of the soot remains. Until all the soot has been thoroughly addressed and removed, the house will still have an odor. When we only gloss over unpleasant realities, ignoring them and pretending that they don't exist, we are not peacemakers but rather we are peace fakers. I truly admire President Obama's courage, and his confidence, to wade into the waters of race relations and to facilitate communication that leads to authentic racial peace.

In the case of healing the wounds from racism, talking is a really good step! But for candid discussions with my friends from all kinds of racial backgrounds, I might not even have been aware of the challenges. I'm sure I continue to have my own blind spots, but I can't ever fix them unless I first become aware of them.

So, how refreshing it is that we have a President who is not afraid to venture into the area of talking about, addressing, and healing race relations in our nation. I'm so glad we have a leader who is not afraid to talk.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Exorcising Ghosts

24 July 2009

When it comes to Peacemaking, it's much easier to "talk the talk" than to "walk the walk".  Sure, every one of us committed to Peacemaking knows intellectually that, when faced with conflict, the way to negotiating peace with an "other" is to be a little more forgiving, a bit more flexible. 

We know we ought to try and see things from the other's view, even when our own viewpoint seems so much more compelling.  We know, intellectually, that we ought not to take personal offense so easily, even when the position of the other may feel offensive to us.  We know we shouldn't be so defensive and obdurate, but we get caught up in the heat of the moment.  We understand, on one level, that we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor, but our memory keeps reminding us of the last time he took advantage of us.  These are natural tendencies. 

Unless we check the forces which oppose peace, we may find ourselves angry, refusing to compromise or bend, and ascribing the worst motives to our opponent.

Indeed, making peace is not always even what we want to do.  The process that results in peace requires us to give up things we hold dear.  In some circumstances, it could even be said that to give so much to an "Other", as can be required in a Peacemaking process, is counterintuitive to self preservation.  Imagine the scenario of a lamb who chooses to approach a lion, even if the lion offers peace.  What lamb would take the gamble of approaching the top predator in the ecosystem? 

In more practical, human terms, how many of us would actually decide to stand there and take a pounding from a bully, without fleeing or fighting back, as Jesus instructs in Matthew 5:39?  How many of us really desire to give more than our opponent demands when he sues us in court, as Jesus demands in Matthew 5:40?  What mental and spiritual discipline does it take to make such a commitment? 

This task becomes even harder when inner voices egg us on in our natural tendency to assume the worst about our opponent and his motives.  These inner voices are ghosts whispering negative messages in our ears. 

The path of peace is often closed to us unless we decide, deliberately and consciously, to ignore the negative voices and the voices that would insist we act in our own self interest. 

What are these inner voices, and what do they say?  That is unique, personal, and completely up to each of us to discover.  Perhaps a ghost whispers that we’re entitled to special privilege because of a past obligation or a past wrong. Perhaps a voice injects that we ought to take a particular stance because of a prior wrong that hasn’t been forgiven.  Perhaps some ghost takes offense at something someone says or does to a friend, when we aren't even involved. 

And often, these negative messages are legitimate.  The lamb's fear of the lion is not unfounded. 

Yet, the decision to banish negative ghosts -- whether those ghosts are real or imagined -- is essential to Peacemaking. 

A good example of ghosts driving conflict is a recent encounter between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sergeant James Crowley.  I believe this encounter provides an interesting, practical case study in how we allow ghosts of past grievances to whisper negative thoughts that escalate conflict in our lives. 

The undisputed facts are that when Gates returned from an extended vacation to his vacant house, his door was jammed.  He used his shoulder to force it open. A witness saw him breaking into the home and telephoned the police, who then responded. Crowley was the police officer who responded to the call.

When Crowley arrived, Gates did not respond politely. He became irate, hurling insults and epitaphs at Crowley, including some aimed at Crowley’s mother.  Even though the cause for the original call had been completely resolved, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct. 

The story is reported at

I admit, a quotation from this Washington Post article is what inspired the reference in this blog post to “ghosts.”  Specifically, the article states that "racism 'still haunts us' ...."   

Yes, the ghost of racism -- regardless whether it was real or imagined -- definitely haunted this encounter as if it were a ghost in a haunted house.  Long after the fire of overt racism has been quenched, the remaining odor of its soot permeates the dwelling.  Everything inside the house may appear to have been cleaned up, but vestiges remain.  That smell, and that ghost, just won't go away. 

Instead of being grateful that a neighbor was concerned about his house, Gates listened instead to the ghost telling him he was a victim of racial profiling.  Gates's assumption that he was the victim of racial profiling is not just forgivable, but natural and understandable. He lives with racial profiling every day. 

One of my African American friends wrote to me about this issue.  She believes that racism and racial profiling is particularly bad in the cities of the North. “[I]n the South,” she says, “they dislike Blacks individually and in the North they dislike Blacks as a whole.” Further, she says, she can "understand this mans belligerence, because the first time I was racially profiled in NYC, I was fit to be tied." 

We each bring our own perspective to an issue.  Most Whites in America must admit that they have no personal experience of what it's like to be racially profiled.  Rather than classify Gates as an "Other", what if we put ourselves in his shoes and assume the truth of his belief?  I’m sure that if I felt I were the victim of racial profiling, I would be "fit to be tied," too.  When we see things from his viewpoint, we must acknowledge that there is a history of racism in Boston and that he has a reason for distrust. 

But Gates has a responsibility, as well.  He must also see another side -- that the intent to thwart a burglary is a legitimate aim of law enforcement.  Gates, in this case, made a decision to listen to the ghosts whispering to him that he was the victim of discrimination.  He chose to ignore other voices who might have whispered, "be happy that your neighbors were concerned about your house."  In other words, he, too, chose to believe the worst rather than to give the benefit of the doubt. 

Gates's decision to listen to the ghosts of racism, while understandable, was a position that deliberately chose escalation rather than peace. 

Crowley, on the other hand, was equally responsible for escalation of the conflict. Crowley was never in physical danger.  He had it within his power to walk away from the situation.  Crowley puts great store by the fact that Gates insulted his mother, but the decision to take offense on behalf of another was also a choice that Crowley made to escalate rather than to make peace.  Instead of heeding a voice which said, “the resident of this house is very upset, it's best to walk away,” Crowley chose to heed the voice which said, “this man is assaulting you verbally, you should do something to stop him.” Crowley also chose to escalate rather than to walk away.

In summary, it's apparent that neither Crowley nor Gates was willing to make peace.  The ridiculous nature of the way this conflict escalated caricatures the untenable position we get into when we allow posturing and positions to govern our actions rather than reasoning and reconciling.

Not that we don't understand.  Not that we're not sympathetic to either man.  The vision of the lion in peace with the lamb is a nice ideal, but the fact is that it takes great courage on the part of the lamb to put aside very legitimate fears and forgive generations of lions, to pave the way for a new kind of peace.  Indeed, for the lamb to take that risk requires the lamb to place his faith in the miraculous.

To make our choice for peace, we too must sometimes choose to take risks.  We must take the risk of doing things differently.  We must exorcise ghosts that urge us to take offense.  We must refuse to listen to the voices telling us we ought to be offended.  We must banish voices telling us we ought to get more, or telling us we ought not to let someone get by with something.  We must let the waves of insult to our mothers wash over us. 

To some degree, whenever we experience conflict over real issues, making peace will require us to ignore the voices of self preservation, fear, old paradigms and old ways of doing things. It may require us to act with courage, to give up self interest, or to approach something we hate and fear.  Sometimes we must also reexamine and exorcise cherished, sincere views about our own righteousness. 

It helps if we can see the other person not as an Other, but as a person:  a Black man who has legitimate fears of being profiled, a White cop who has a legitimate interest in making sure my house is not being burglarized.  Jesus put it this way:  he said, "love your enemies".  Not a bad idea! 

Love is incompatible with ghosts and negative voices.  When the light of love is shone on them, the negative ghosts may simply disappear. Imagine what might have happened if either Crowley or Gates had looked at the other and seen a person to be loved instead of a person to be feared or reviled or controlled.  When we see others as Jesus urges us to see them, the ghosts often disappear. 

My admonishment is this:  when ghosts say negative things in a transaction, banish them!  Listen instead to affirming, positive voices.  Allow for the possibility that the miracle of peace could happen. 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nonviolent Resistance in Islamic Law

23 July 2009

I'm familiar with the teachings of nonviolence in Christianity and Buddhism, but until now the teachings of the Q'uran have been unknown to me. Of course we are all aware of the Islamic fundamentalists who believe in using violence to destroy a free society; but I've suspected those views are as extreme and heretical to mainstream Islamic teaching as the extreme right wing fundamentalists are to Christian doctrine.

Well, I may be correct. Here is an enlightening debate published by the (British) Law Society Gazette on the topic. Click to read: "Challenging Debates Remain on Islam and English Law" (July 23, 2009)

The article is more broadly about the challenges of whether English law ought to enforce or incorporate Islamic law in areas where without it the parties might not receive the protection to which they would otherwise be entitled, for instance when a husband in a Muslim polygamist marriage divorces his wife and she is left with no protection under English law. But a portion of the article includes discussion of nonviolence under Islamic law, and I will copy that here (in italics):

[The question was raised] "whether ‘moral or religious obligation’ could ever justify ‘the use of force inadmissible under secular law’.

Abdullahi An-Na’im, professor of law at Emory University, answered immediately with a resounding and unqualified ‘no’.

He acknowledged that his opposition to an unjust law might require ‘peaceful, non-violent dissent’ – for which he would accept the consequences. ‘But absolutely “no” to violence, regardless of whether the state
permits it.’"

So, my hunch is correct. Now for more study. Do you have comments to add or resources to recommend for further study? If so, please leave a note!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

About Me

I didn't really believe it would take me two years to readjust to being back in the USA after being abroad, but it looks like that will be about what it takes. I'm one year into the process of getting my feet back on the ground in my home culture, after living in China for four years from 2004 - 2008.

I began blogging while I was in China, uploading photos of my travels, keeping a journal of my daily life, and journaling about various topics such as law and ethics. (Click here for a link to my blog about my life in China and my thoughts on cross-cultural issues.)

Now that I'm back firmly rooted in the soil of my home culture, I have much more to write about that is related to my life in the USA rather than to my life in China. Hence, it is time to start a new blog.

In the USA, I am a lawyer, mediator, ethicist, and a citizen devoted to the cause of peace. I view peace as more than absence of conflict. I inherit the concept of peace as enunciated by Gandhi and King, by Mandela and Suu Kyi. Peace is an assertive response to oppression, to aggression, to evil, to hatred, and to violence. The goal of this blog will be to journal about peace and all thoughts surrounding and stemming from that concept.