The Hand and Concrete Models of Conflict Resolution
The Very Rev. S.K. Ablorh, Diocese of Ho introduces the West African hand model and offers it as a model for a potentially flourishing church.
Almost every society or organization has challenges as a normal part of living or working together. Conflict is one of the challenges and can be seen as a world problem but if nothing is done to check it, it can drain individual vitality and organizational resources. Unresolved conflict may result into unhappiness and lead to a break down of the society. Breakdown in relationship and communication has serious negative effects on the individuals and the society as a whole. The Church is no exception to this phenomenon.
The hand or the five-finger model is used in many parts of West Africa to lay emphasis on the fact that unity and peace are necessary for the survival of the community and achievement of a common goal. The fingers are different in many ways but they all play equal role.
Many finger play games or rhymes portray the fingers as a united family with differences in size, height, character and behavior. In fig1, whilst some are caring, others like the thumb are greedy and do not care about the welfare of the others, not even the little ones; yet they live and work together as a family.
In the rhyme below, ‘SHORT AND TALL IS THIS FAMILY’ and yet each of them has an important role to play in the life of the family.
(Start from the Thumb)
This is the mother, so kind and good.
This is the father, who buys the food.
This is the brother, so big and tall
This is the sister, who loves her doll.
This is the baby, so little you see.
SHORT AND TALL IS THIS FAMILY.
The Hand model has a message to the human person which is the apex of everything created by God. Our dignity as image of God is reflected in our very being. It is therefore not right to consider anyone unimportant or merely as an instrument to be used for the benefit of others. For Christians, the Lord envisaged His Church as a community of love and unity, and each member is expected to provide the others with affection, emotional support and a sense of belonging. Paul emphasizes this view by saying, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”. (Gal. 6:2) This image can be achieved and maintained if conflicts within the community are resolved in a way that would help strengthen relationships for mission.
No loser, No winner, but Fellowship
In many traditional homes or villages in Ghana different methods are used for conflict resolution. The aim is to arrive at a solution that would bring reconciliation and a cordial relationship between the parties involved in the conflict. The Judicial/Court system of Dispute Settlement is therefore the last resort because at the end of the judgment the “loser” regards the “winner” as an enemy. It is for similar reasons that some cases pending before the Court are sometimes withdrawn for peaceful settlement at home, especially cases involving members from the same family.
The method to use may depend upon the background of the parties involved. For instance, issues involving husband and wife, parents and their own children are handled with care, in order not to worsen the uneasiness already existing between them.
Mediation is one of the common methods used for conflict resolution for the achievement of the desired goal. It is a method by which a neutral third person, called the mediator, facilitates communication between parties to assist them to reach a mutually acceptable settlement. The mediation process may be initiated by one of the parties involved in the conflict or a third party who has been consulted by one of the parties involved and who is to be a neutral person, or a concerned elder within the society.
In the first approach, one of the parties involved in the conflict contacts the other and suggests a dialogue or conversation on the issue with the view of resolving the conflict without the involvement of any other person. This seems to be in line with our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18:15f:
If your brother sins against you go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother back.
In the second approach, the matter is referred to a mediator by either both parties or one of them. They must have confidence in the mediator and trust that he is capable of helping them resolve the dispute. In many families, especially in the villages, religious leaders, teachers and opinion leaders are used as mediators.
Thirdly, people within the traditional set-up very often look to elders within the society as men of wisdom and goodwill whose duty it is to see to it that each member within the village keeps to the norms of the community. They are to help and do all that is within their power to bring peace, security and unity to their people. An elder who therefore senses break in communication or dispute among his people may approach the parties involved and express his displeasure about the poor relationship; he may make request that they take every necessary step to have the conflict resolved. If his plea is accepted, he looks for a person he trusts and thinks will be capable to act as a mediator to resolve the issue, and then appeals to him for help. A lot of research work is done by the mediator before the date fixed for the parties to meet for the peaceful settlement of the matter.
Certain rules are made to guide the proceedings. For instance, the parties are made to understand that the mediation is aimed at arriving at a solution that would clear the way for the two parties to re-unite and be good friends again; each party is warned never to interrupt when one party is given the chance to narrate his version of the story. No insults; any question asked will be examined and accepted by the mediating team before it is presented for an answer, and it should help only to clarify a point. No walk-away; due respect for the mediating team and order is expected from everybody.
The hand may be used to represent the village community or the Church, which is a community of believers and which by divine right is universal. The Church is present everywhere on earth, bringing people to Christ and giving them many advantages, spiritually, socially and economically.
Though the Church is one body with a common goal and destiny, it has different national backgrounds, politically and culturally. Our backgrounds from the separate independent countries could easily bring about certain differences many of which could be cultural practices. These should not be a stumbling block to our unity and loyalty to Christ. Like the fingers, unity does not mean uniformity. Uniformity can sometimes be deceptive because it would only be external in its effects without achieving the desired result. It may also restrict the individuals from developing the natural tendencies in themselves. Variety is said to be the spice of life. Some of them may even help to enrich our experiences and to broaden our horizon.
Many people who have adopted Christianity in Africa still retain most of their own cultural traits, customs and manners which are not in direct conflict with the principal tenets of Christianity. Some of the rich cultural practices, like drumming and local songs which were prohibited by the early missionaries, are now being used in Ghana to enhance our worship.
In his letter on New Light on Social Problems (p.48), Pope John XXIII calls on men to respect every nation’s individuality. According to him, every nation has certain distinctive characteristics of its own, resulting from the nature of the particular region and its inhabitants, with their time-honoured traditions and customs. The Church is not to discourage or belittle those peculiarities and differences which mark out one nation from another. “Every nation has its own genius, its own qualities, springing from the hidden roots of its being”.
Everyone has a vacuum to fill within the community because by human nature we depend on others for survival and satisfaction of our individual needs. The wise development and encouragement, within limits, of the genius and individual qualities can enhance the performance of the individual.
The “Holy Church”
The popular image of the church amongst some groups of people in Ghana is one free from conflict, jealousy, anger, discord and all the evils of the day. This idealistic image is not real. Like other institutions, we have challenges as normal part of people living together. We cannot take the challenges for granted because they can result in unhappiness and breakdown of the church as a body.
Christ the Mediator
Jesus Christ is our mediator who listens to all parties in our day-to-day conflicts. He allows us to talk. Is it not possible that we are always talking, interrupting one another without obeying the initial rules of the mediating process? The love of Christ as our mediator should compel us to be willing to find time to talk about the conflict, without interruptions and distractions, in order to resolve it.
The conversation must go on and the Indaba process should help us to be honest with ourselves, admit our imperfections and be able to support one another in dealing with them. The challenge is to strive consciously and tirelessly to be a healthier and ‘holy’ family, with the Holy Spirit leading us along the way of Christ.
The Concrete Model
We cannot depend on our human knowledge or experience alone to resolve our differences, but there is a way ahead. The concrete model can give us an insight into what God Himself can do to assist us.
The concrete used for buildings is often a mixture of cement, sand and stone-chips. When the three things are mixed together they continue to remain exactly as they were, separate in composition and identity. Surprisingly, when water is added to the mixture and stirred, the three items are integrated.
Some changes occur in their composition during the process, with the three impotent items giving birth to a new substance – the concrete. This concrete is able to stand any stress or strain that confronts it.
As the saying goes, “In unity lies strength.” This is not uniformity because the stone chips and the cement can still be identified. The unifying agent, which is water, is rather the invisible item.
The unifying agent within the Church is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in the church to guide and guard it in spite of our human failings. The unity of the Holy Spirit is a spiritual unity.
With our different backgrounds and the babble of languages which sometimes make communication difficult, we need a unifying agent that can weld us into an indivisible whole, i.e., the Body of Christ, complete in every sense of the term.
The Spirit brings about the unity in the hearts and consciences of those who belong to Christ. Through baptism we are immersed in Christ (Gal.3:27f). We are called upon to place ourselves in Christ through faith, to ensure that we belong to His Body; then like the cement, sand, and stone-chips mixed with water, the unity established by the spirit will be manifested. This unity offers many opportunities in which genuine forgiveness can be conveyed in words, attitudes and quality of relationship. It helps us to transmit and promote the important value of respect for every individual no matter his or her status or circumstances.
With Jesus’ prayer for the unity in the church (John 17:23), and the points raised in this article we can conclude that:
- The unity among Christians is not just an option, but a must.
- The unity of Church demonstrates the power of the Gospel in breaking down barriers.
- The unity of the Church makes the Gospel credible.
- From the local level up to the top, there are differences within each parish and between Dioceses; our mission cannot be complete if we allow these to divide us.
- Mission and unity express the nature of God.
The Church can be likened to the five fingers of the hand that have their differences, but live and work together to perform greater tasks, some of which cannot be done on individual basis. Together the fingers can a tie knot beautifully. No finger, however, can tie a knot easily all by itself.
A similar analogy is given by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12 verses 12-26.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ … if one member is honoured, all will rejoice together.” (Revised Standard Version)
The Church is expected to live and fulfill God’s plan on earth in a community of persons. The mediation approach needs a neutral person in whom all the parties can repose their confidence, and trust that he is capable of resolving the conflict for them. The concept could work within our individual Dioceses and parishes if the leadership could be trusted by the church members.
Deliberate attempts should be made for the conversation to go on. Every story has three sides: yours, mine and the facts. Let us listen to each party without judgment because it is only God who knows the facts of all arguments. The willingness to journey together in conversation could give the Holy Spirit a chance to unite us to become a formidable force to win the world for Christ and the Kingdom of God.
We may feel discouraged by the present state of the Church, but let us remember that the Church is like a candle exposed to the wind. It will sometimes be steady and bright, whilst at other times it would look dim or appear as if the light has been blown out; but the light of Christ can never been blown out. Any unresolved conflict amongst us can overshadow the brightness of the Church.
The future belongs to God who is able to do all things. The indaba programme must continue, whilst holding to faith and prayer as the pivot around which the Church can revolve.
Agbezuge, Sylvester. Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR: A Contemporary Approach to Conflict Resoultion. Place Unknown: St. Francis Peace Centre, Catholic Secretariat, 2010.
Christian Home Week Booklet, 1992.
Pope John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra Perkins, Richard F. Image of a Christian Family, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1964.
Thomas, Madathilparampil Mammen, and Richard W. Taylor. Tribal Awakening: A Group Study. Bangalore, India: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1965.