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Newsletter for February 2002

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Virus damage

As many readers of this e-letter will know, nearly two months ago we were sent a really horrible virus programme, tellingly labelled 'sacred', which turned Andrew's  files completely into mush.

Perhaps a brilliant technician could have salvaged some of them, but the local guys here couldn't.   (They said their software showed it as a variant of Chernobyl.)   Our anti-virus software didn't handle it well, by the way, so we've gone back to Norton.

At the same time,  our webserver also - unrelatedly - took the site off-line for two weeks.  Andrew has been reconstructing the site, which is now fully live again, but has lost almost all his earlier e-addresses, as well as the bulk of a book he was writing

We are therefore in the process of building our readership anew.  So if anyone who receives this  e-letter forwarded from someone else would like to receive it directly, please do send a blank email or short message to the address at the top of this e-letter.

Creative authority : convening a 'just conversation'


Dave.jpg (8056 bytes) 1 Outline : The sign of someone's creative authority is that he or she can hold open a place or court of 'just conversation'.

Passive authority is not able to do this.  The only way to affirm the dignity of a human being is to give him or her the room and space to tell their story.   This is also at the very heart of forgiving.

2  Passive authority in organisations

3  The rebel

4  Creative leadership

5  Inside the hierarchy

6  Mandela and Tutu

2 Passive authority in organisations

In today's world, what kind of authority is required to affirm the dignity of other human beings?  US President Bush spoke eloquently in his State of the Union Address (29.1.02):

America needs citizens to extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world ... We have no intention of imposing our culture.  But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity:  the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.

Yet many organisations rely heavily on what can be called 'passive' authority.   For example, in a simple dialogue in the long-running comedy series Spin City, the nerdish James says to the rakish Stuart, "You can’t do that!"   "Why not?"  "It’s not allowed."  Most of us have this kind of conversation all the time, often inside our own heads!  Institutional attitudes coalesce around such norms - largely unread and sometimes unwritten codes of behaviour which have got into our social fabric. 

They usually appear to be negative because we only think to mention them when someone infringes one.  Passive authority is the kind of authority we grow up with at school, and it drives most businesses and almost all professional establishments. 

The US government is particularly concerned at the moment to protect "the American way of life" - and readers of this e-letter in Canada, Britain, Australia, and South Africa may recognise that their own governments can speak in an equally 'moral' and defensive tone.  Unless the country sees its values and way of life as in crisis, political leaders seek popularity by staking their claim to passive authority. 

(Aspects of power and authority are explored more fully in ForgivenessNet's feature article The power to initiate forgiveness.)

3 The rebel

It means that the internal images we have of someone exhibiting a different kind of authority tend to be ambiguous, and rather misleading.   Martin Luther's example launched a pattern of schism, whereby great leaders find they have to leave one organisation and found a new one.   In popular twentieth-century culture, Camus' outsider, or Che Guevara, or the lone good gunman in countless western movies, or Star Wars' Luke Skywalker or Lord of the Rings' Frodo, exhibit an authority which is not creative, but resilient, measured by its negative impact on a negative system or institution.

Perhaps the central attraction of the crime genre in literature and film is that an individual can achieve a kind of moral stature, briefly, by "bringing someone down" as if this were all "justice" entails.  Initially this meant bringing a 'clearly bad' person to arrest and trial.  In today's more sophisticated culture, we know that there are as many criminals inside the criminal justice system as without.  Therefore the genre now includes as many examples of a small, good-hearted figure (for example Sylvester Stallone's mesmerising performance as Sheriff Freddie Heflin in James Mangold's brilliant 1997 movie Copland) finding the courage to "nail" or "take down" corrupt and powerful police officers in league with the Mob or profiteering business interests.

4 Creative leadership

Yet there are examples of a different kind of authority.  One of the great signs of creative authority is actually at the real core of forgiving - creating or convening a space where 'just conversation' can occur.  Carly Fiorina, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, touched on this in an address to MIT:

A leader's greatest obligation is to make possible an environment where people's minds and hearts can be inventive, brave, human and strong, where people can aspire to do useful and significant things, where people can aspire to change the world.

One of the greatest books of spirituality in the last century was Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen identified a framework of three journeys or growths in human spirituality, which have resonated with many of us ever since.  Perhaps the most fertile of all was the "movement from hostility to hospitality."  What he said about hospitality was:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. (Reaching Out, pp 68-9)

In Nouwen's hospitable space, people tell their stories.  There is always some unresolved issue, some enmity, between people, waiting to surface when triggered.   Yet here, enemies become friends.  The wrongdoer has the same space as the wronged.  The aim of the space or court is to assist listening and understanding, not nailing someone or allowing the wrongdoer to achieve revenge on his or her accusers.  

The host - the convener of the space - does not bring people to his or her point of view (say the "American way of life" or the "British way of life"), but trusts that the mutuality of meeting will have a spirit-changing effect on all.

There are always good reasons, complexities, mutual responsibilities for what went wrong, damaging responses to an initial wrong, and so on.  As we hear a wrongdoer, or an accuser, or a victim, tell his or her story, we see aspects of their inner dignity and worth, and it becomes more conceivable to forgive them and begin a new relationship with them.

Jo Tufnell, the daughter of one of the British politicians killed in the 1984 Brighton bombing by the IRA, began to recount her experiences at victims' workshops, and met a senior Sinn Fein representative.  She says, "He heard my story and I heard his.  It was another bridge being built."  She asked to meet the chief bomber Patrick Magee (released in 1999 under the Good Friday agreement), and did in Dublin in November 2000.   Jo said in a recent BBC interview,

"He said, 'I want to hear everything you have to say.  I want to hear your anger.  (And) I want to share what I've been through and why I did it. ... My sense is that he felt through taking up violence he's lost some of his humanity.    Now, with the peace process happening, it was time to redress the past ...   One way is to see humanity in people who would be your enemy."

5 Inside the hierarchy

Nouwen nonetheless wrote within a hierarchy - the Roman Catholic Church - which relies heavily on passive authority, and not only in the Vatican.  The dominant expectation of priesthood in the church - excepting some in Latin America - is passive, acquiescent within the ecclesial system.   The expectation stems from parishioners as well as the hierarchy, and the history of the parish system in the West has had a profound influence on the small-mindedness (='parochial' world-view) of mainline church religion.   Inoffensive, self-effacing, helpful in domestic matters, family concerns, losses, etc. - this is what is expected!  So Nouwen did not think - or wish - to explore the kind of personal leadership required to hold open such hospitable space in his church or in political arenas.

When forgiveness becomes an issue in wounded relationships, it is often not clear who should make the first step.  Even for a hurt party to pronounce forgiveness can seem like unjust arrogance, if the hurt party's inadequate responses seem to have contributed to the present impasse!  When relationships have broken down, everyone becomes hurt, and we approach a meeting with defensiveness, even fear.  Creative leadership takes the initiative, and invites all parties into an hospitable space.

Nonetheless, Nouwen carefully and brilliantly explored this creative role of making space in the 'safer' areas of parenting, teaching, and medical care.  Parents who view their children as guests; teachers who listen for what new insight their pupils have to offer; healers who, while bringing expertise to bear in one area, allow their patients to sometimes empathise with other parts of their own lives. 

As for the more controversial aspect of community and political leadership - well, this is less familiar to us.  Indeed South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is still the only high-profile example of it.

6 Mandela and Tutu

It is impossible to conceive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission without thinking of two charismatic and boundlessly creative human beings - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed was among the formative influences in the initial stages, but Tutu's chairing of the Commission gave it extraordinary authority in action.

A colleague from Sierra Leone told me that when Tutu chaired the African Council of Churches, he would sometimes suddenly interrupt a difficult dispute among members by inviting them to join him in silent prayer - sometimes quite long!  Most participants somehow seemed to have changed their viewpoint when the meeting resumed.  He created space in which enemies could become friends.

As for Nelson Mandela, Tutu writes:

He invited his white gaoler to attend his inauguration as an honoured guest, the first of many spectacular gestures he made that showed his breathtaking magnanimity and willingness to forgive.  He has been a potent agent for the reconciliation he urged his compatriots to work for, and which was central to the purpose of the Truth and reconciliation Commission he appointed to deal with our country's past. (No Future without Forgiveness, p 7)

Such personal strength and goodness in leadership does not guarantee forgiveness.   Tutu was always aware how much it could "blow up in our faces".  But it does empower, reassure and sustain those who tell their story and admit their guilt - on all sides - that they may leave with dignity.  It provides a space in which people's hearts feel encouraged to soften, and forgiving, assisting and rebuilding become somehow easier.

Andrew Knock

Follow up some links to "telling our stories" at ForgivenessNet's Index of Main Themes

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