The Resolution of Conflict

By Bernard S. Parsons 

Not a great deal appears in ancient literature or modern psychology about the resolution of conflict -- much more is written about prevention of conflict. The person who is acting as peacemaker is given a variety of ways of handling someone who is actively hostile by using phrases that are soft and turn away wrath, to use the Bible's expression. For instance, if you say, "It's a nice day," to a youth antagonistic to all authority, he is likely to say, "No it's not," or "So what," and sulk. But if you say, "Am I right in thinking you didn't enjoy yesterday's events?" you give him the chance either to deny that yesterday was a bad day or to agree with you. This offers the certainty of a positive response. The Buddha performed a similar maneuver when he gave the Four Noble Truths in an impersonal form: we experience trouble; all trouble is caused; there is a way to eliminate the causes of trouble; the way is the Eightfold Path.

The methods for resolution of conflict, it seems to me, are also those for its prevention and for restoring peace when there is too much friction in a person-to-person or a nation-to-nation confrontation. To see whether the peace-keeping and the conflict-resolving processes are identical, we can look at the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew [I draw largely from the learned exposition on the Beatitudes of the Rev. William Barclay, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland]. In introducing the Beatitudes, Matthew first says that Jesus sat down, which suggests that he had something of importance to say: to this day we talk of a Professor's position as a chair, of whatever subject. Next, he says, Jesus opened his mouth, that is, he opened his heart and mind without reservation, from spirit to spirit; he taught and explained rather than preached. To his disciples, the committed ones, he had these points to make about life and living: the Beatitudes. They begin, "Blessed" -- the Greek is makarios -- not unlike the Hebrew shalom, in Arabic salam (salaam) -- a sort of cry of joy, such as "Oh! the blessedness," the serene and certain joy and peace that cannot be taken away from those who follow this path.

The first Beatitude is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This does not glorify grinding poverty: it means awareness of being at the bitter end, no anchor rope left, no further resources available. It addresses one who has come to terms with the frailty of his personal soul, the volatility of his passions, his lack of strength of purpose, and then makes honest self-judgment. This brings to mind the seventh of the Eightfold Path, where the Buddha urges that we develop right contemplation, right recollectiveness or self-awareness. In handling a crisis of hostility, if we make an honest appraisal of the jungle of our own personality we will find enough weaknesses to give us fellow feeling and compassion for our potential adversary.

The second Beatitude is, "Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted." Those who are callous, without the ability to mourn, cannot express true joy. We should not desensitize our nature so that we can look at cruelty or another's calamity with indifference. Compassion is a noble sentiment and is, in no way, selfish. Tears are not the end, for the final result of the application of the spirit of compassion is the attainment of courage and peace. That is the challenge -- to be aware of others' needs and be prepared to make sacrifices on their behalf.

The third Beatitude is, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." Meek, in ancient Greek, is praos, the mean between two extremes, the happy medium between too much and too little. Moses, Jesus, and most of their countrymen could become irate, but the ideal put forward was unselfish anger when injustice was done to others or a principle was involved. Compare this with the Middle Way: the great strength of Buddha's appeal has been his teaching of moderation.

The fourth Beatitude is, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." This refers to those who have a blazing desire to find the just and proper course and pursue it. We have to put principles before passions, which requires that the soul yield its clamoring to the quiet peace of the spirit. He who truly loves truth will be satisfied. To find what is just and proper closely involves right discrimination, memory, and intuition.

The fifth Beatitude is, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall receive mercy," which is echoed in the Lord's prayer: "Forgive us our wrongs in proportion as we forgive others'." We often perch with great aplomb on the seat of judgment, expressing disgust at the depravity of our community's behavior. Buddhism and Hinduism, however, both teach that karma is a universal law. The results of our action are inescapable and, though we turn at last to the light, those who have suffered as a result of our selfishness or lack of forgiveness shall continue to be owed a debt by us. Mercy is not a popular plant to nurture in our soul, yet it is the one which most separates us from the brutal elements of the human condition.

The sixth Beatitude is, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Ritual purity is not enough: cleansing, fasting, abstinence for a period of time, and the performing of respectable, charitable, and devotional acts are not enough, though demanded in Hindu, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian law. Murder was forbidden in the Old Testament, murderous anger was forbidden in the New; adultery was forbidden in the Old, lust forbidden in the New. We must not be filled with internal conflict to be at peace. The charitable or spiritual side of our nature must be active, becoming more and more in charge of our human-animal soul, and the power that sustains it is this shalom power, the power of joy -- confident, calm, serene joy in the rightness of law, of compassion, of beauty, of truth, and of life.

Now the seventh Beatitude reads: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Peace, here, is the positive cry of joy -- Oh, the joy of it! -- not merely the cessation of hostilities, it is creating a dynamic state of joy, harmony, and balance.

This state comes by striving to apply the message of the other Beatitudes: self-appraisal; sensitivity to sorrow and joy; balanced judgment; putting principles before passion; mercy; the quiet rejection of evil thoughts; and finding and making peace.

The eighth Beatitude, "Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness' sake," addresses those who dig their toes in to stick up for a principle. We live in a vast slurry of persuasion and set opinion that would have us conform to the acceptable, to go along with the crowd. Folk would have you belong to this sect, this Party, this group, follow that fashion, eat such and such -- it is endless. Finding principles is very hard, and conflicts occur on all sides all the time. The more trivial it is, the greater the frequency of conflict. This was true also in the Roman Empire, where there were followers of many religions. The government tried to achieve unity by deifying the Emperor. All that was necessary was to toss a pinch of incense into the flame and murmur the Emperor's name and you were then allowed to worship your own gods. This the Christians refused to do and for a while were persecuted. This was a conflict over principle. There was no other way for them, as they saw it, than to dig their toes in and resist persuasion and compulsion, for righteousness' sake. That is an application of the eighth Beatitude. We need to consider how to apply the others to the infinite variety of confrontations and demands we meet in daily life.

Psychologists find that many who display antisocial behavior have a very poor self-image, from which their hostility arises. What a difference if they realized that within each of them abides a ray of divine life and that its engine or transformer is the human spirit! This is basic to all efforts to raise the sights of the average human being. That divine-spiritual side of our nature is the source of the joy in our heart, it gives us wisdom, discrimination, conscience, a sense of fair play, integrity, a love of the truth, sensitivity to the needs of others, a love of beauty: it gives us shalom, peace and joy out of this world -- the peace that passeth understanding.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)

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