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. 

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