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Muslims and Jews continue their decades-old warfare, liberal and conservative Christians do

violence to each other, Shiite and Sunni Muslims kill one another daily, Chinese atheists murder Falun

Gong adherents to sell their organs,[  Retrieved 4.20.12.[1]].  As a

friend said, “I don’t know of any wars that were started by atheists or agnostics.”  Can any approach to

communication help?  Is there any possibility that what I call “maximizing the presence of the personal”

might de-escalate any of these conflicts?

The Ethic of Reciprocity

De-escalation might be possible if we foreground The Big Question, “What does it mean to be a

human being?”  If we survey a wide range of human cultures across history and find even one common

thread, we may have identified something that is true about all humans and for all humans.  This

commonality might possibly help.

  People who have done this identify an ethical norm that emerges so frequently across centuries

and cultures that it appears to reflect a truly general, if not universal human value.  Since it’s widely

publicized on the Web, you probably know that it’s called the ethic of reciprocity; Westerners refer to it

as the Golden Rule.  Here’s how it appears in nine world religions:

Baha'i:  "Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to theee, and say not that which thou does not."  "And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself."

Brahamanism:  "This is the sum of Dharma [duty]:  Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you."

Buddhism:  "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."

Christianity:  "Do unto others what you want them to do for you:  this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets."

Confucianism:  "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you."  "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence."

Hinduism:  "This is the sum of duty:  do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you."

Islam:  "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself."

Jainism:  "In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self."  "A man should wander about treating all cratures as he hiimself would be treated."

Judaism:  "What is hateful to yhou, do not to your fellow man.  This is the law:  all the rest is commentary."  [  Retrieved 4.24.12 ]  

Across many cultural boundaries and many centuries, humans have affirmed this common ethic of

reciprocity. So one legitimate and potentially powerful response to The Big Question is, Humans are the

beings who recognize the importance and value of treating others as they want to be treated.

  Too simplistic?  Profound ideas are often uncomplicated while being incredibly difficult to apply. 

Contemporary events suggest that this might even be an impossible dream.  But there is evidence that

the ethic of reciprocity can be applied locally and globally—in work teams and legislatures, families and

war zones, if and when people are able to take a crucial step.

Staying Connected, Not Just Being Right  

  Many wise people have pinpointed the shift that’s required for combatants to apply this principle: 

The conflicting parties have to give up their fervent commitment to being right and replace it with a

stronger commitment to their relationship.  This is the challenge that’s relatively easy to understand and

incredibly difficult to apply:  To give up being right in order to enhance community.  To prioritize

relationships over our own ego.  When you really want to apply the ethic of reciprocity, this is what you

have to do.

  So, for example, when religiously-committed proponents of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender,

and Questioning (LGBTQ) relationships interact with those who oppose LGBTQ relationships on religious

grounds, it can seem impossible to find any commonalities.  One side is certain they’re correct about

critical scriptures and the other side is just as certain that they’re correct about the larger issue of loving

and accepting all God’s children.  Both sides have white-knuckled grips on being correct about

fundamental religious issues.  There’s no room for collaboration.  Matthew Shepherd is only one of

hundreds who’ve been killed in the name of these religious commitments.

            The reciprocity ethic points toward a way out of this impasse, and others like it.  The key is that

the relationship has to become the primary good, more important than being right.  But why would any sane

person prioritize a relationship over their own strong beliefs?  Especially a relationship with an

opponent?  How could this ever make sense?

  The right brain answer is characteristically simple:  Because, if you quietly listen to your heart, you’ll

know that this is the most humane, considerate, loving choice.  But this won’t satisfy many.

   The left-brain answer goes back to another response to The Big Question:  Humans are fundamentally

relational beings.  We become who we are in our contacts with others.  No person is an island.  Who we

are grows out of our significant interactions.

  It’s possible for me to loosen my white-knuckled grip on my own convictions when I deeply

understand that I’m a social being, which means that my quality of life depends most on the quality of

my connections with others, not on how many arguments I win.  So, as a practical matter, I ask,

regardless of the issue and the side I’m on, How would I like to be treated by others who care as much

about this issue as I do?  The answer has to be: with respect, understanding, and confirmation of my

value as a human being.  So what might happen, as a concretely practical matter, if I actually were able

to treat my adversaries this way?

        Chapters of my books point toward specific communication practices that can help accomplish this

kind of reciprocity. 

  •  Each participant acknowledges the uniqueness of the other and listens empathically to discover the personal shape of the other's beliefs. (Remembering that understanding does not require agreement.)
  • Each verbalizes the life experiences that anchor their own position.  For example, shared worship time spent with a loving gay couple, beiing threatened by aggressive drag queens, feeling respect for a lesbian couple's parenting skills, hearing impassioned sermons supporting the traditional family.
  • Each discloses and listens with respect to relevant emotions such as worry and fear about a college-age daughter when she brings home a girlfriend, deep appreciation for the musical skills of a men's chorus, profound anger and sense of injustice when a bullied gay teen commits suicide, confusion and fear when confronted with evidence that sexuality is not simply binary.
  • Each is candidly mindful about doubts he or she has had about their own position--where I might be closed-minded, where I might be distorting the other side, where I might be wrong.
  • Each listens with respect to disclosures abaout the other's doubts, not to play "Gotcha!" but to understand.
  • Each reflects thoroughly on the impact of his or her beliefs on others--family members, spouses, subordinates.
  • Each owns the choices that ground his or her beliefs and that follow from them.        

When the people involved have the resources—time, courage, willingness to risk—to maximize the

presence of the personal between them in these ways, they commit to dialogue about this topic.  Each

lets the other happen to him or her while holding his or her own ground.

  On an issue this difficult, their experience might parallel that of the six Boston women, three pro-life

and three pro-choice, who met in secret for six years in an effort to end the bombing of abortion clinics.

They wrote a consensus article that the Boston Globe published in early 2001.  Over the six years of

meeting, none of these women changed their fundamental beliefs about abortion.   In fact, they

discovered over the years that their positions were based on irreconcilable world views.  Why, then, did

they continue to meet?  In their own words,

First, because when we face our opponent, we see her dignity and goodness. Embracing this apparent contradiction stretches us spiritually. We've experienced something radical and life- altering that we describe in nonpolitical terms: ''the mystery of love,'' ''holy ground,'' or simply, ''mysterious.''

. . . In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.   [Fowler, A., Gamble, N.N., Hogan, F.X., Kogut, M., McCommish, M., Thorp, B. (2001).  Talking with the enemy.  The Boston Globe.  Focus section, January 28, 2001.]

In other words, although the differences between the participants were not “resolved,” and each

of the six remained committed to their pro-life or pro-choice position, two things happened:

  •  They grew spiritually by being stretched to acknowledge the dignity and goodness of their opponents.  This was "life-altering."

  • They glimpsed an actual, concrete, practical new possibility:  disagreement that is civil and compassionate rather than personally destructive.      

What made this possible?  The women prioritized their relationship over being correct. 

These six demonstrated how holy humans can actually be.  A few renowned historical figures have

done the same—Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi.  No contemporary Palestinian or Israeli leader has yet risen to

this challenge, no Sunni or Shiite leader, no Chinese spokesperson, no prominent conservative or liberal


But the lesson for us mere mortals is that what can work globally can also work locally.  The

religious and moral conflicts that divide families, create extremist political groups, and lead people to

ridicule,attack, and inflict pain can be managed humanely when the people involved have the courage to

treat others as we want to be treated.


[1]  I also discussed this horrendous practice with Hon. David Kilgour, who has thoroughly investigated it.



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