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COMPASSIONATE NEGOTIATION:
 A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE OF OUR TIME

Dr. John Young
 UU Church of Jacksonville
 October 3, 1999

The basic truth of religion is that each human being is potentially divine. Our human task is to work together to unleash this divine power, to help one another, and through this hard work of mutual understanding and compassion to be saved, evolved, created, and nurtured together. As the Buddha suggested, individuals can, through correct understanding and individual discipline reach enlightenment. However, for enlightenment to be real, in order to live one’s personal salvation in this world, we need to become compassionate. We need to return to the world to help other humans. Each great religious tradition has argued some variation on this cosmic theme. Mohammed made help for the poor a basic element of every Islamic believer’s faith. The Jews argue that our sins with particular people must be worked out with those people. Forgiveness needs to be sought from them, amends made to them, and different and better ways need to be found to live with them. Jesus asked people to love their enemies, to see God in the least and worst of their fellow humans, to treat even their worst opponents as they themselves wished to be treated. This golden rule of practical reciprocity runs through all the world’s religious traditions from ancient China to modern Wiccans. Selfish truth or selfish ritual are not yet true religion. Religion must be filled with practical compassion in our daily lives before the flowers of the spirit will bloom into saving power.

I consider M.K. Gandhi to be the most important religious figure of this century. I think so because he discovered, taught, often lived and demonstrated new steps in this path of practical compassion. He reminded us of realistic political techniques for mutual understanding and gave us ways of making our compassion work in the real world of human differences and mistrust, anger and hatred. Gandhi called his method satyagraha, truth-force, and in it the enemy became ill-will. He called satyagraha the child of the marriage of truth and love within a context of non-violence. As Gandhi said: "the object is not to attain perfection, but by compromise to arrive at understanding and make it a success." he urged us to stop considering any person to be "a dirty speck in our moral vision." Gandhian practitioners around the world strive to be self-reliant. They work to communicate fully their objectives and their tactics to all concerned, to reduce their demands to the very minimum consistent with truth, to persistently seek for ways of cooperating with their adversaries, and even ways to be helpful to their adversaries whenever possible, as a clear sign of good will. Gandhians do refuse to surrender the essentials in any negotiation and do insist upon full agreement upon fundamentals before accepting a settlement. However, they also try to keep those essentials and fundamentals to a minimum based upon mutual and objective criteria for they believe that most conflicts can be resolved satisfactorily for all concerned through negotiation and arbitration—if all the persons and groups really communicate and accommodate as much as they can within the boundaries of justice. Only in those few instances when negotiation and arbitration do not resolve the conflict satisfactorily do Gandhians proceed to more direct action. This direct action, so often associated as the basic stance of the Gandhians, is in fact not the basis of Gandhian methodology but its last resorts. These direct actions are ways of proceeding which remain non-violent and continue to focus upon minimizing the necessary demands upon constructive solutions, and upon any possible face-saving for their opponents.

Some Gandhians are quaintly out-of-date in India, and some of Gandhi’s own ideas may have been foolish to begin with. Every religion and ideology has its share of out-dated ideas and foolish practitioners. To condemn a person or theory because elements of them are out-dated or foolish would be to condemn all human ideas and every person.

Let’s concentrate upon the non-violent and compassionate methods of practical negotiation with our perceived opponents which Gandhi personified for this century.

A very useful contemporary re-statement of truth-force negotiation is made in a book called GETTING TO YES—NEGOTIATING AGREEMENT WITHOUT GIVING IN by two Harvard University professors, Roger Fisher and William Ury. They compare two usual kinds of negotiation, which they call "hard" and "soft" negotiation with the truth-force method, which they called "principled negotiation." They argue that we should separate people from the problem, that we should focus on interests, particularly mutual interests, that we should not get caught in fixed positions, that we should generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do, and that we ought to insist that the result be based on some objective standard and then be willing to live with the standards mutually agreed upon. The chart in your Order of Service compares these three different styles of negotiation.

Gandhi’s truth-force or the principles Fisher and Ury call principled negotiation can be applied on every human level from the most intimate, as in arguments between husband and wife, among family members and close friends, through the disagreements among volunteer groups and parties of action, to the global arguments among nations. Most importantly, it can be used between people or groups that feel hostility, anger, distrust, fear, even hate for each other. It can be used with any opponent. Many of our traditional ways of solving disagreements, like war, violence, hate, running away, acting as though we are unconnected with a problem, and so forth, are increasingly inappropriate and inapplicable in our world today.

We need to accept our pluralism. People will continue to choose a variety of paths for themselves. We need to recognize that we are connected and have no choice but to live together in increasingly harmony, or fairly soon, not to live at all. We must learn how to be involved with each other in ways that preserve our individual integrity and human diversity while substantially increasing our mutual understanding, cooperation, and regard.

Our liberal religious groups have vital roles to play in these essential tasks of humanity. We need to persuade an increasing proportion of humanity to live by religious disciplines which go beyond seeking personal selfish salvation to embracing daily lives of practical compassion. This practical compassion needs to be very political, struggling realistically with the divisions of power and wealth in the world. This practical compassion needs to be very social. It needs to include all the groups in a community, all the peoples in a culture, all the nations of the world. The present and the future demand an age characterized by patient, persistent, caring negotiation.

Central to this task is the Gandhian religious discipline of refusing to believe that people, groups or nations are our enemies, to see them as devils. As Fisher and Ury say: "separate the people form the problem." Understand that the real enemy is ill-will. Concentrate upon the interests we share with our opponents, not upon selfish positions usually based upon our own greed, or upon our habitual ways of thinking. We need to creatively invent options for the mutual gain of all the parties and people concerned. This will not happen unless we all become willing to make major changes, to make great personal sacrifices, to become passionate enough to give up many of our own worn-out dreams and outworn slogans. No one has all the right answers. No party or religion, group or individual has the whole truth. We must learn how to live lives of negotiation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., an important American hero and a principal American Gandhian said that "we do not need to like our enemies, but we need to learn to love them." This reflection on the ideals of Jesus and the practices of Gandhi underline the religious discipline of truth-force. Anyone can love their friends. It is not difficult to practice the golden rule of mutual reciprocity, of doing to others as you have them do to you, with the people we already get along with well. It is rather our opponents, those we do not like and therefore most often misunderstand, whom we must learn to live with, cooperate with, understand, respect, and yes, even love, if our religions are going to mean anything—if our enlightenment is going to bear the flowers and fruits of the spiritual, of practical compassion. William Sloan Coffin, an American Baptist minister, said it well: "personalize your sympathies, depersonalize your antipathies, stop thinking that your enemies are more powerful than your enmities."

Our liberal religious tradition is a grand tradition. however, it demands of us not simply the selfish faith of wise understanding and individual improvement but even more importantly the practical compassion of both daily practice with our neighbors, families, and colleagues, but also patient negotiation with strangers and opponents. This compassionate negotiation deserves to become the central spiritual discipline of our time.

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