I wrote the following article at the request of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, as part of a series of articles on cultivating community committed to the “ongoing work of living lives of mutual care and accountability as a community.” It is lightly edited.
The first article in this series brought our attention to human diversity as “a source of tremendous richness.” And that's appropriate and wonderful, because there’s a lot to celebrate! But there’s also this other thing, the “ongoing work of living lives of mutual care and accountability as a community.” Because we can also stumble over the differences.
I was once involved in an organizational conflict (as a stakeholder, not as a facilitator providing conflict transformation services) where the board had mishandled an instance of racial injustice. When called into accountability, they made more missteps. It connected with a history, both organizationally and regionally, of how people of color have been mistreated and then ignored. The pattern was simple: people (especially people of color) spoke up; people in power (almost always white people) agreed something needed to and would be done; nothing was done; and the folks who initially spoke up eventually were exhausted, tired of getting hurt, and became quiet or went away.
This time, however, the community came together and insisted that things change. It was painful, and the first steps toward making amends were also painful, as the board fumbled towards becoming accountable to our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. And we white folks who were involved had to recognize uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our world, and then join the process of dismantling the mechanisms of white entitlement and white supremacy in ourselves and in the organization.
I bring this up because none of the white people who served on that board intended to harm anybody, but they still did. They said and did things that deeply injured people in our community. To make it worse, more than one board member became defensive, insisting that they had just been misunderstood, and that, because they didn’t intend to hurt others, they shouldn’t be held accountable and be asked to change. In fact, the board’s first public response was to say the call to accountability was, instead, a defamatory statement that put the board members' careers and well-being at risk.
This is one of the ways that unhealthy patterns in organizations (and oppressive systems in general) perpetuate themselves: constantly, though generally silently, doing maintenance without us ever noticing. Harm often flows along these well-worn patterns of historical and social injustice, whether it is racism, sexism, disablism, gender and sexuality antagonisms, classism, or some other system. As we grow up, we learn the rules of domination unconsciously. We are complicit, and don’t even know it. This is one way that harm can be done without us doing it intentionally and knowingly. And when called to account, we can easily become defensive. After all, we were just acting according to the rules we had been taught.
I understand that defensiveness. It feels spiritually and psychologically uncomfortable to be faced with something in ourselves that doesn’t align with our self-view and values. But that is where the work is.
As most of you know, a great deal of my life has been dedicated to conflict transformation and transformative justice work. I spend a lot of time with people who are hurting, and hopefully healing, from conflict, and those moments are difficult, often devastating, sometimes transformative, and always sacred. And what I keep learning, through the years, is that there is always more to learn.
Conflict transformation is a practice and a spiritual discipline. Although we may become more comfortable with navigating conflict, and more skillful and creative in using the tools available for us, conflict transformation remains more of an art than science. And I can’t think of a better reminder of our own limitations, or for opportunities to practice humility. New pain from old wounds may erupt unexpectedly and suddenly, sometimes stalling or even derailing a healthy process. And healing can spring forth with just as much suddenness, sometimes when it seems least likely.
These intense experiences of grief, conflict, and change are also opportunities to reflect again that:
- Change is possible, but -
- Conflict is often rooted in our deeply worn ruts of social injustice, such as racism.
- For those of us in positions of relative power and privilege, our defensiveness can get in the way of even our best intentions, and
- People with relative power and privilege have a lot of work to do and are responsible for doing that work.
It is always easiest to see the work that other people have to do. It’s harder to see the work that needs to be done in ourselves and in places we love. As one of the order's documents explains, we can’t separate our personal growth from this “ongoing work of living lives of mutual care and accountability as a community.”
So this is the commitment required of each of us, renewing this ongoing spiritual discipline of transforming conflict and transforming ourselves, of learning to love and be loved.