A Consideration of Creative Conflict Resolution and Nonviolence

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In January of 2008 I taught a class on conflict in faith communities at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. The Class included the principles of Creative Conflict Resolution and also introduced Marshall Rosenberg's Non-violent Communication. We were privileged to have Jeff Brown, a certified trainer in NVC conduct a portion of the class.

Following the training in NVC and the introduction of the notion of growth through development and especially the growth of our own identity through the Orders of Self, a conflict arose between one of the students and me about the efficacy of nonviolence as a tool for transformation in systems that are dominated by a powerful evil. The consideration centered around the question:

"Whether an organized nonviolent resistance to the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 30's would have shortened the war and reduced the carnage, particularly to Jews, gypsies, and gays."

Of course, we cannot actually know the answer to this question. Time only moves in one direction. But a careful consideration of such circumstances does allow us to clarify our cognitive maps such that we can act more effectively in the future.

There are several aspects of our map that we can refine with this exploration. The ones that rise to the surface for me include:

  • What is evil?
  • What does it mean for a strategy to work? What are we using to gauge effectiveness? and
  • What characterizes nonviolence generally and nonviolent resistance particularly?

What is Evil?

This is the central question and as such seems to me to be the place to start. As I have already suggested, it seems to me that evil appears differently to us depending on the perspective from which we approach it. It is not that one perspective is better or more correct than another, but that anything can be appropriately viewed from multiple perspectives and, the more perspectives we bring, the more fully we can appreciate what we are considering (as with the blind men and the elephant).

Let me just also add here that I see evil as the extreme end of a continuum of good and bad. There is no such thing as pure evil. There is no such thing a pure good. All events have consequences and even our best intentions have unintended consequences. We can for the purposes of faith posit that Christ embodies pure good and Satan is the embodiment of pure evil, but in the activities of our lives we experience good and evil in shades of gray.

A framework for describing multiple perspectives that I find to be especially useful for this sort of thing is the Orders of Self. Remember that all orders exist all the time for all people, even though we are not all able to observe from those perspectives at any given moment.

First Order

At First Order we are constructed by our experience. Our challenge is to be both fully aware of our physical existence and to not be overwhelmed by the realities of it. When the current reality is painful for us --that is when we experience hurt from not getting what we think is best for us--we see the source of that pain as bad or evil. When Joe doesn't let Jack and Jesse play their video games, they see him as mean.  Perhaps "evil" is too strong a word for this context, but he is appearing to them as a bad guy because they are not getting what they want.

Second Order

At Second Order we are the ones who are constructing our own experience. It is our own choices that make us good or bad. If I act in ways that are immediately satisfying to me, it was a good choice. If I act in ways that harm me or cost me what I need, it was a bad choice. If I made a bad choice, then I am bad. We rarely define ourselves as so bad that we would use the term evil, but I have heard my clients from time to time say about themselves, "I am just evil." At Second Order someone who makes bad choices is bad. Someone who makes good choices is good.

Third Order

Usually, however, we reserve the use of the term evil to refer to those whose acts cause harm to others. At Third Order we begin to move from an ego-centric to an ethno-centric framework. We are able to appreciate the relationships we build with others and to feel an obligation to the security and satisfaction those relationships create for them as well as ourselves. We learn to respond to the requirements of the community and to act with "honor." When we are able to do so, we are good. When we fail to do so, we are bad. The same is true for others. When someone fails to meet the clear and universal standards for "how we behave," they are bad or evil.

Fourth Order

Fourth Order is the source for the standards that we meet (or fail to meet) at Third Order. At Fourth Order, there are principles that define the good. Truth, Justice, and the American Way are Fourth Order ideals. When the ideals are consistent with the culture with which we identify, then they are good. When they appear to be at odds with "our" values, they are bad. We believe in Democracy. Those who don't aspire to democratic ideals are making a bad choice. If the stress of the current situation causes us to regress to Second Order we may label them as "the evildoers," but Fourth Order is more about good or bad values and ideals than about good and bad people.

Fifth Order

At Fifth Order we are beginning to appreciate the complexity and the paradoxical qualities of ethical considerations. We are beginning to be able to see that there are sometimes negative consequences even to choices made with the best of intentions. We recognize, first of all within ourselves, that sometimes a choice which is meant for good, does harm. We begin to recognize that all choices are made from a perspective from which the choice appears good, in so far as it was designed to meet a need of the person or party making the choice. What makes it bad is that it failed to take into account other consequences outside the sphere of its awareness and concern. This is the beginning of a world-centric perspective.

Sixth Order

The Fifth Order awareness that harm is caused by the failure to take all consequences into account, pushes for a Sixth Order capacity to hold all choices and consequences in a mutual embrace. Thus good at Sixth Order is just that capacity. Evil is the failure to take into account all of the choices and all of their consequences in a manner that maximizes the welfare of all.

Seventh Order

Even though we may personally be able to hold all people and choices in a loving embrace which values and supports the welfare of all, there are some who are not able to do that. There are some who cannot see how their best intentions are creating harm to others. At Seventh Order we move to a cosmos-centric perspective that recognizes that the harm others do is a reflection of their own suffering at not being able to create the welfare of themselves and others. Our response is thus to reach out in compassion to all, and not only to those who are seen as the victims, but especially to those who are labeled as the perpetrators. Good and Evil are labels that others use to make sense of suffering that is a consequence of the limitations of their perspective. It is not that good and evil don't exist, but that they exist as categories, not as true qualities.

Eighth Order

This cosmos-centric perspective expands from concern for others to identification with others. I am not simply like them. I am them, and they are me and we are all not many but one.

What does it mean for a strategy to work? What are we using to gauge effectiveness?

Just as the categories of good and evil appear differently from different perspectives, so does the question of effectiveness. What it means to be effective is different at different orders. In general, the odd numbered orders are ones in which we are constructed by circumstances beyond our control. Nevertheless, our choices and abilities matter.

At First Order we struggle to be aware without being overwhelmed by our awareness. A First Order strategy is effective to the degree to which it helps us both know what is going on and allows us to maintain a level of equanimity with whatever is going on.

At Third Order we struggle to know what it is that others expect of us and to be able to do whatever we are called upon to do. A Third Order strategy is effective to the degree to which it takes into account the expectations of others and supports us in meeting those expectations.

At Fifth Order we struggle to know our own complexity, and by extension, the complexity of others. A Fifth Order strategy is effective to the degree to which it helps us become aware of our own multiplicity and to take into account the polarizations between our parts and the interactions between the parts of ourselves and the parts of others.

At Seventh Order we struggle to be fully aware of the complexity of the whole creation and to be present in a way that honors that complexity. The effectiveness of a Seventh Order strategy is the degree to which it allows us to have deep compassion for all beings.

In short, the effectiveness of any strategy at an odd numbered order is its capacity to support our being both bonded and bounded: both connected to our experience, to others, and to our own multiplicity and creation; and to maintain our own integrity in the process.

In the even numbered orders we are supported to recognize our capacity to create our own experience and the experience of others.

At Second Order we create our own immediate experience. We tie our shoes, we build bridges, we fight wars. We make choices and if the choices create our vision, then the strategies were effective. In the doing cycle (what is my current experience, what do I want to have happen, how can I make it happen), effectiveness is measured by how well the what I did created the what I wanted in terms of my immediate experience. Second Order strategies tend to be immediate (I want it now) and they tend to be dependent upon changing others.

At Fourth Order we are also being creative and experiencing a level of mastery. But the arena of our effort is not simply our immediate personal experience, but the creation of relationships which are embodiments of our ideals. (Is this a relationship which as characterized by trust?) A strategy is effective to the degree to which it moves the relationship toward the desired quality or ideal.

At Sixth Order mastery comes from how well we are able to act in ways that support the varied needs of the many aspects of ourselves. How well can we hold in tension the apparently contradictory concerns and perspectives and act in ways that fully meet all of the needs of all of the parts?

At Eighth Order mastery comes from a manner of being rather than of doing. To achieve mastery at Eighth Order I have to be able to identify with all, not just with what is physically like my particular physical manifestation.

Thus the even numbered orders invite strategies that range along the continuum from doing to being. They are measured as effective to the degree to which they create the immediate experience, the ideals, the harmony, and the identity appropriate to the circumstance.

What characterizes nonviolence generally and nonviolent resistance particularly?

Nonviolence is a philosophy (and the strategies that derive from that philosophy) that exists as a distinction from both violence and passivity. It observes the destruction that comes from violent and passive strategies and rejects them both.

Nonviolence assumes the presence of oppression and structures by which the oppression is created and maintained. It seeks to dismantle systems of oppression. It assumes that the oppressed will be far more interested in working to dismantle the structures of oppression and so tends to be more easily allied with the oppressed, but it also sees the oppressor as one who is harmed by the oppressive systems. This harm is much less evident, therefore oppressors are not likely to be interested in changing the system, but rather will work very hard to sustain the system.

Nonviolence sees the system as the problem, not the people in it. It thus seeks to transform the system. It does so by recognizing that the system exists only because the people continue to serve it. The system collapses, or at least changes, when those supporting it decide together to transform it.

For people to be willing to experience the stress of change, they will have to hold to a vision of a way of being that is clearly better than the current system. This perspective will have to be from a developmental level above the current one for it to be seen as more effective (though those who are entitled or privileged by the current system won't like it in any case.)

Thus the nature of nonviolent resistance is to organize those who are oppressed by a system to act in a manner that is both not cooperating with the assumptions and activities of the oppressive system, and which embodies a vision of community that is more developed, and thus more complex, than the oppressive one.

So, could organized nonviolent action against the Nazis be seen to have been effective?

There are three things that I want to hold in the front of our awareness as I step into this.

One, the reason for this exploration is to see what we can learn about how effective we imagine nonviolence to be in addressing great evil. We are choosing the Nazis as the source and the Holocaust as the occasion because this is so widely understood to be a classic example of great evil (Holocaust deniers notwithstanding).

Two, any time we talk about what might have been different when we are talking about a circumstance in which one person or party is oppressed or victimized by another, we can be guilty of victim-blaming. It is always possible that things could have been different, if only... Nevertheless, there are good reasons why things were the way they were. European Jewry did not first experience discrimination and hatred and oppression at the hands of the National Socialist Party. Indeed, there was no action taken by the Nazis against the Jews that had not been done before to their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, short of the death camps themselves. So the gravity of the threat posed by the Nazis was somewhat like that of the frog who is placed in cool water with a fire under it. At what point does the frog decide that it is too hot and so jumps out?

Three, there were organized nonviolent actions against the Nazis. There were many individuals, some acting in concert with others, who opposed through noncooperation the activities and policies of the Nazis. The story told in the movie Schindler's List is an example. The widespread wearing of the Star of David by the Dutch is another. There was a small movement in Germany which came to be known as the Confessing Church. Its leaders included Martin Neimoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and hanged for his protests again the Nazi regime.

Still, if we allow ourselves to speculate what it might have been like if there could have been more widespread nonviolent action to refuse cooperation with the Nazis, what do we find. Suppose, for example, that many many more non-Jews chose to wear the star. Or that many more churches and church leaders spoke out against anti-Semitism. Suppose that Jews refused to move from their homes and into the ghettos, or refused to get onto the trains. Suppose that everyone talked freely and openly about what they knew about what was happening in the camps so that the whole world was aware that genocide was occurring. Would that have made a difference? Were there those who only went along because there seemed to be no alternative who, seeing an alternative, would have also chosen noncooperation?

Nonviolence is about recognizing that the "logic" of the oppressive system is actually not what it appears to be. The glass which has the juice rising higher is not actually the glass with the most juice [this is a reference to an example here]. There is another choice that works better...for everyone. Having recognized a better way, nonviolence then engages many people in taking a small step, a step that can easily be taken, but one which challenges the logic of the dominant system. The Montgomery bus boycott was about simply not taking the bus: a simple step that worked only because so many were willing to take it.

Nonviolence is not immediately effective in a First Order sense. If I refuse to get on the train and they shoot me, I am just as dead as if I went to the camp.

Nonviolence is not effective as a Second Order intervention. They have more power and I am not going to change them.

Nonviolence says to the Third Order forces that tell me who and how I am to be that I am not going to be their way. That makes me appear to defy convention to those who are operating at Third Order. That allows them to demean and dismiss me.

It is not until we get to Fourth Order that nonviolence begins to appear as effective. Nonviolence depends on finding others who are observing from a Fourth Order perspective that there is another way of structuring relationships and society. This new way is going to work better for all. And these others, these comrades, share a faith in that vision such that they are willing to live into it in a manner that challenges the Third Order assumptions. These are those we join with to live in the realm that is already but not yet.

To be able to act in concert with others in a nonviolent way, we must address our Fifth Order multiplicity and to know our parts that would seek to impose our Second Order will on others and have those aspects of who we are recede. We have to let go of the parts that want to be right and the parts that want to get even and just rest in the knowledge of our own complexity and complicity and be accepting.

When we can see from Sixth Order a way that all may be together in a manner that is best for all, with a Seventh Order compassion and perhaps even an Eighth Order capacity to identify with those who see us as enemies; then we can reliably let go of any attachment to the outcome and simply trust in the manifestation of Truth in our lives.

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