God in the process: Is there a place for religion in conflict resolution?

AuthorBrian Blancke,Rachel Goldberg
Date01 June 2011
Published date01 June 2011
God in the Process: Is There a Place for Religion in
Conflict Resolution?
Rachel Goldberg, Brian Blancke
There is a growing demand for religion and spirituality in conflict res-
olution processes. Is this dangerous or praiseworthy, and how should we
respond? The authors reviewed literature from conflict resolution, psy-
chology, and law. They conclude that faith, religion, spirituality, and
values: (1) can have a safe place in the process; (2) need to be a subject
of expertise for conflict resolvers; and (3) should be understood through
the self-awareness work of being an ethical practitioner, regardless of
their beliefs. The authors explore the implications of this for the self-
determination of parties and the legitimacy of third-party roles.
Does God belong in conflict resolution processes? Conflict resolvers are
usually told “no.” Religion is often seen as a source of division and
intolerance. Since the end of the Cold War, from the Waco siege in 1993
to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there has been increasing concern about the
rise of religious extremism and religiously inspired terrorism. Nevertheless,
religion, faith, and spirituality also motivate people to work for peace and
to dedicate their lives in its pursuit. Yet, conflict resolvers are asked to remain
neutral, to stay objective, to check their religious or spiritual beliefs and val-
ues at the door. This explicit “setting aside” may be appropriate and necessary
in some instances, but it may not be in others. Increasingly, however, conflict
resolvers are asking, “If we want to be ‘channels of thy peace’ in the words of
St. Francis and ‘be the change we want to see in the world’ following
Gandhi’s example, don’t we need to look at ‘beinga mediator’ rather than just
‘doing mediation’” (Bowling and Hoffman, 2003; Fox, 2004)? For many,
that means connecting to something deeper than processes and skills, to
something deeper in themselves, and deeper in their clients.
While we are looking for something deeper in these uncertain times, so
are our clients. Bernie Mayer (2004) has been telling us that we have a
CONFLICT RESOLUTION QUARTERLY, vol. 28, no. 4, Summer 2011 377
© Wiley Periodicals, Inc. and the Association for Conflict Resolution
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/crq.20032
problem in that our clients don’t feel we understand their needs. We may
have an opportunity here to build a deeper, more responsive practice. In
psychology, Aten and Leach (2008) cited research showing that “95% of
Americans believe in a higher power, 87% state that God answers prayers,
84% try to live according to their spiritual beliefs, and 93% identify with
a specific spiritual group” (p. 16). Sperry and Shafranske (2005) add, “70%
of adults said it was very or somewhat important to have a doctor who is
spiritually attuned to them” (p. 351). These numbers imply that our clients
may be looking for spiritual meaning from their conflicts as well. As Jones
(2009) notes in her recent research: “The one mediator whose spirituality
was based on her strong religious faith shared that if it is revealed that reli-
gion is important to a party, it should be acknowledged and included in
their decision-making process, just as one would attend to legal, financial,
or other considerations. She shared that some people come to her because
of her faith, and they welcome the recognition that their values and beliefs
will be considered in the mediation process” (p. 150).
A number of scholars and practitioners are already engaging issues of
spirituality and conflict resolution practice. For example, in the international
realm, eloquent arguments have been made for increasing the role of religion
in multitrack diplomacy, especially when religion is a key component of the
conflict (Abu-Nimer, 2003; Appleby, 2000; Diamond and McDonald, 1993;
Gopin, 2000; Johnston, 2003; Johnston and Sampson, 1994). Domesti-
cally there has been an exploration of mindfulness in negotiation, mediation,
and facilitation (see, for example, Mun Wah, 2004; Riskin, 2002), including
the role of the mediator (Bowling and Hoffman, 2003; Gold, 2003).
We believe that faith, religion, spirituality, and the “sacred” has a place
in the conflict resolution process; that there is a need for it to be a subject
of expertise for conflict resolvers; and that these aspects should be under-
stood through the self-awareness work of being an ethical practitioner,
regardless of personal beliefs. We understand the concerns associated with
such goals: How can we protect the rights of parties to determine their own
solutions and needs without being unduly influenced by practitioners?
What is the basis of our role if not as a pure neutral? As we are exploring
these issues, they are also being explored in the fields of law and psychology.
In this article, we will summarize the arguments against engaging faith, reli-
gion, and spirituality in our processes and the arguments for employing
them, including discussion of the ways the field is already engaging faith.
We will also review how law and psychology are handling the same issues,
and what conflict resolution may be able to learn from them.

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