A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Negotiations and God

The other week I attended a negotiating workshop at the Kansas Association of School Boards in Topeka along with three other women who also serve on our local school board. I went with pretty low expectations so was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of helpful information offered. Particularly striking were two very different approaches to negotiation. In the morning we heard a young lawyer talk about the importance of posturing, of playing coy with the opposition as an effective bargaining strategy. The idea was to treat the teachers as some kind of collective object/obstacle to overcome. I didn’t think much about this at the time as this seems to be the traditional approach to negotiations, one I’d already seen in practice by both our board and our teachers. I suppose we believe this mindset gives us the sort of distance needed to do negotiations well.

After lunch, we had another lawyer speak about effective negotiation strategies. Her take on the topic, however, was far from traditional. She works with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and was well trained in conflict resolution. Most often this agency’s services are required once the negotiation process has broken down. But she emphasized how much easier their job becomes when they are asked to help in the collective bargaining process before impasse is reached. Some of the pieces she lifted out as crucial in the negotiation process were curiosity - trying to figure out labor’s perspective, an open mind, an ability to listen well, honesty and compassion. The idea being not to depersonalize the other side but to see how the two sides together might work to create something good and productive. Needless to say, I thought she was really on to something!

One of the lectionary texts yesterday was Hannah’s story from I Samuel 1. Hannah longs for a son, prays for a son and eventually goes to the temple and makes a deal with God for a son. “If you give me a baby boy, I will hand him back over to you as soon as he is weaned, to be raised in the temple."  In the past, I’ve always been quite sympathetic to Hannah, moved by her deep desire to be a mother. This last week, however, I read the story a little differently. It seems to me someone with a deep desire to be a mother doesn’t’ hand her child over to be raised by someone else when he is only one or two years old. Something else seems to be in play. Cultural context is perhaps helpful. Throughout the Bible and still in many cultures today, a woman’s worth is measured by her ability to bear sons. Without a son, Hannah’s position in society was precarious. Her husband, Elkanah, was clearly a rather counter cultural kind of guy and he communicates to Hannah that he sees their marriage not as an economic arrangement but as a love relationship. Still, that doesn’t help Hannah’s standing in the community, a fact Elkanah’s other wife exploits regularly. Nor does Elkanah’s love assure Hannah’s protection and security should Elkanah pass away first. A son was long-term health insurance.

So Hannah sets about bargaining with God and I’d say she follows a more traditional approach. Hannah doesn’t seem to listen to God, rather she does all the talking. She is honest, but her vision seems very narrow, fixed only on her own desire. This narrowed vision allows her to objectify her child. She bargains his life away in exchange for his mere existence. And she treats God a little bit like a genie in the bottle, assuming her idea of justice is sufficient in and of itself. That’s not to say Hannah shouldn’t pour her out heart out to God, but rather that her all consuming desire for social and economic security had perhaps skewed her ability to relate to others and to God in a more conciliatory manner.

Job’s another good example. If I didn’t find Hannah as sympathetic this week as I have in the past, I always find Job a character deserving of my most profound sympathy. But Job’s approach to bargaining is also flawed. He demands of God, “either kill me now or come down here and explain yourself.” He has an iron-fisted, “my way or the highway” kind of attitude. Again, he’s not really listening to God. He’s not open-minded. Rather he’s fairly certain God’s the bad guy in this exchange. And while God doesn’t seem to censure Hannah, God does call Job on the carpet. In the end, however, in both Hannah’s and Job’s lives we find a God who is listening, who is open, who is compassionate.

Because bargaining was a daily part of commerce in Biblical times, we have lots of examples of bargaining in the Bible and quite a number of people who work to negotiate with God. If Hannah and Job represent the more traditional approach to negotiations, than Abraham and Jesus present us with something different. In a neat story from the book of Genesis (18:16-33) we find Abraham negotiating terms with God. The hope is to save the people of Sodom, so Abraham bargains. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” God agrees to extend grace if there are indeed fifty righteous people. With the first item successfully negotiated, Abraham continues. “What if there are forty-five...thirty....twenty....ten righteous people? Each time, God and Abraham agree to new terms.

In this exchange, Abraham and God are depicted almost as friends. At the least, there’s a strong, mutual relationship in place. Abraham has spent enough time with God, listening to God, worshipping God, to know God is compassionate and desires salvation for all. Abraham demonstrates curiosity in this conversation and is sensitive to what might be God’s limits (an oxymoron if ever there was one!). You get the idea that together, Abraham and God are both motivated by the ideal of the greater good. Both long for the existence of good and righteous people in Sodom, the presence of hope and grace in the midst of depravity and despair.

And then we have Jesus. Jesus too bargained with God. Just one sentence, but it reveals so much. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want (Matthew 26:39).” Jesus wasn’t, perhaps, so eager to die as we like to believe. In fact, I would say he deeply desired a longer life, more time to minister and teach and be with those he loved. So Jesus approaches God with all honesty. He plays no games, just makes his request known. And then he demonstrates the utmost trust and openness and respect for God saying, but this isn’t about what I want, it’s about what needs to happen for the greater good, another way of saying, “not my will but yours.” How would our understanding and practice of negotiation be transformed if all sides could approach the table with such open honesty and altruism?

Application - “fiscal cliff” anyone? We need only to look at our current political situation to see the limits of the traditional approach to negotiations. At its worst, which is where we are presently at, each side approaches the issue with the idea that their position is correct and anyone with an ounce of common sense or intelligence will believe likewise. The aim is to do everything within your power to persuade without giving an inch. The emphasis is both on the results as well as on what stands to be lost. Success means both sides feel like losers. The assumption under girding this process is that we all have overlapping world views. That if we search hard enough we should be able to pull up onto common ground.

Last week, I found myself reading an article published by a college professor for some sort of business journal on the topic of negotiations*. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would spend time reading an obscure journal piece on negotiations! And yet, it was interesting. According to this instructor, the shift from modernism to postmodernism is impacting the way we understand negotiations. Postmodern thought is very relational. Primary effort is given to forging connections, networking. It also works with a very different assumption about world views. Rather than overlapping worldviews, the idea is that each person has his or her own unique world view. There’s no such thing as an American world view or a Kansan worldview. There’s also no such thing as a conservative worldview or a liberal worldview. Everyone sees and experiences reality very differently. So in postmodern negotiating, the aim isn’t to find the common ground, rather the idea is to see how different worldviews can join together to create something new and good and full of possibility. Here the emphasis is very much on the process as well as what stands to be gained. Success is when both parties leave the table feeling like winners. Given all this, a postmodern approach to negotiations would work with mediation and conciliation, affirming and encouraging an open-minded, honest and compassionate approach to the issue. Consensus is the goal. Postmodern models would be restorative justice programs as well as the Occupy Movement (which is alive and well!).

I like to think humanity is evolving. That postmodernism represents a greater stage of enlightenment than any philosophical age yet….including the Enlightenment. And that at some point in the future, we will pass into yet another age of better understanding, greater justice, more peace. Of course, it goes without saying that all too often it feels like we’re regressing instead. But I like to think the really big picture offers hope. And I found hope this week in our evolving approach to negotiations and the idea that two parties with different interests could come together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. That two conflicting groups could work together for the greater good. That negotiations could be an altruistic process. Maybe this isn’t so much pie in the sky after all. Maybe we’re already riding that trajectory. Can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps? “Yet not my will but thine.” Amen.

*Unfortunately I was unable to retrace my online steps in order to find and cite my source!

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