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To Become Whole Again: Grace And Mercy In Mediation

by William Scott Harralson, J.D.
September 2008 William Scott Harralson, J.D.

The lessons of history reveal that in some instances social discord has served as a catalyst for improving the human condition. On the other hand, personal conflict often leads to a deep sense of aggravation for the affected individuals. It is not uncommon that during a protracted dispute one of the participants realizes that he or she has become progressively disheartened. The struggle has taken its toll. They awaken one day to discover that they are now broken—broken in spirit. In a very real sense they are not themselves. These are the “casualties of conflict.” This essay briefly examines the concepts of grace and mercy from a Judeo-Christian perspective. We consider several positive implications for the lives of disputants and for the mediation process generally.

An Ultimate Though Not an Inevitable Question

A Christian biblical narrative presents the story of an encounter between Jesus of Nazareth and a man who is physically disabled. [1] They meet at the great citadel of religious and political authority which is Jerusalem. Jesus finds the man lying on a mat next to a large pool of water situated at Bethesda, literally translated “house of mercy.” He has been unable to walk for thirty-eight years. The invalid is part of a throng of people suffering from various afflictions who are clamoring near the pool. It was believed that after each stirring of the water the first person to enter would be healed from their physical infirmities. Jesus confronts the man by asking, “Do you want to be made whole?” The invalid complains that no one will help place him into the pool and so he is repeatedly deprived of the chance to secure healing. Jesus instructs the man to stand, pick up his mat, and then walk. At once he is healed from his affliction. He takes up his bedding and walks away.

Why did Jesus ask the man an ultimate question? Clearly it was an inquiry calculated to probe into the very essence of his being. Wasn’t it obvious that he wanted to be healed? Of course he wanted to be healed...or did he? Perhaps Jesus was concerned about whether the invalid was prepared to assume a new place in society as a self-sustaining individual. Or maybe He was attempting to determine whether the man wanted to continue languishing in self-pity. One of the significant lessons that mediation practitioners can learn from this story is the life-changing effect that grace and mercy can have upon the lives of ordinary people.

The Power of Grace and Mercy

Traditional Christian notions of grace include acts of kindness, benevolence, and charity shown by God to Humankind. Grace also contemplates charity extended by one individual to another individual. But grace, especially as the principle is expressed in New Testament scriptures, means much more than that. An act of grace requires doing something beneficial for a person under circumstances when you are not ethically or legally obligated to do so. Grace involves unearned, unmerited favor. Grace flows independent of and without regard for satisfying any emotional or intellectual need that exists within the mind of the benefactor. In short, the recipient of grace is one who has been redeemed.

Grace and mercy are close allies. Mercy involves withholding or lessening the infliction of punishment. Mercy is relief--- relief from pressure and relief from distress. The one who receives mercy has been spared from paying a heavy price. An act of mercy dramatically alters the course of life’s events; circumstances that only moments ago appeared destined for ill fate. To show mercy is to transform the concept of Justice from the abstract into that which is concrete. Mercy represents the convergence of Divine intervention and human intercession.

There are at least four characteristics that distinguish grace and mercy from simple charity. Grace and mercy are always unsolicited; they are never bestowed in response to a request for aid. Grace and mercy are always unconditional; they are freely given with no strings attached. Grace and mercy are always unanticipated; they typically appear in our lives at a time when we least expect them and in a form that we may not readily appreciate. [2]And grace and mercy are always unencumbered; they are never burdened by abstractions or complexity. Whenever they appear and regardless of the circumstances grace and mercy are always “good news.”

Each one of us is presented with opportunities to give or withhold grace and mercy. As an example, you are driving in your car and reach an uncontrolled intersection just seconds before another vehicle. You are in a hurry to meet some friends at an important social gathering. You glance over at the other driver and your eyes meet for a moment. Most drivers have found themselves in this situation at one time or another.

Ego speaks into your conscience: “Go ahead first—you deserve to be on time. Let them wait their turn!” In a matter of seconds you contemplate your course of action and conclude that common sense stands in your corner. You deserve to be first for a change. But then the still, small voice of Grace whispers: “Put yourself in the other driver’s shoes...she may have an urgent errand that needs to be accomplished....she may have loved ones that are depending upon her to return home quickly.” You finally decide to defer to the other driver despite your urgent need to get to your destination. Your choice illustrates something more than mere courtesy or random congeniality, it is grace.

The Mediation Context

Grace and mercy are difficult concepts for some people to embrace because they are not rooted in logic or common sense, but instead, they are grounded in Love. And yet, their impact in the context of mediation can prove to be significant because grace and mercy are powerful forces that have the potential to positively influence the heart, mind, and spirit of human beings.

During the mediation session issues frequently surface that create a stalemate between the parties. The mediator believes that all of the key issues have been raised and discussed. Various options have been considered and then rejected. No one wants to budge from their respective positions. The parties are becoming weary and disgruntled. A cloud of anxiety looms over the mediation because it appears that settlement talks are breaking down. “If this problem is ever resolved I hope that I can finally get my life back,” one party laments. At this point the mediator may want to consider raising a series of ‘ultimate’ questions preferably during private caucus:

“Both sides seem to be deadlocked at this juncture. So just between you and I...what do you really want to accomplish here? Do you want to win on every issue and every contested point, or do you want to recapture your life and regain peace of mind? Which is really most important to you? Are you willing to extend grace if grace is called for—can you show mercy if mercy is needed in order to move these negotiations forward. .Do you want to become whole again?

This line of inquiry may engender feelings of resentment or hostility. If the party is represented by counsel, the attorney may feel that the mediator’s questions are invading the province of the attorney-client relationship. But yet, there is also a chance that the message will resonate in the minds of the “casualties of conflict.” In my view the mediator is in a unique position to pose these questions in a challenging though authentic manner when this course of action is motivated by a sincere interest in the welfare of the disputants. A mediator can offer questions that many lawyers are reluctant to broach with their clients. He or she can ask the disputants to come to terms with their real motivation fueling the dispute; their true sentiments harbored in their heart of hearts. A mediator can challenge parties engaged in conflict to count the tangible and intangible costs associated with settling versus not settling the dispute. A party involved in a dispute may or may not squarely address the questions. But actions speak louder than words. If the parties truly want to resolve their conflict, and if they can find mutually acceptable terms, then the infusion of ‘ultimate questions” may prove beneficial.

There are several parallels between the plight of the disabled man in the Biblical story described earlier and the struggles faced by parties engaged in contemporary disputes. Grace and mercy have a significant place in both settings. In first century C.E. it was widely believed that the physically infirm were so afflicted because sin, in a theological sense, had found its way into some aspect of their lives. The invalid described in the scriptures may have been broken in spirit in large measure due to years of physical and emotional suffering. For him, the gift of healing may have meant far more than the renewed ability to walk. Perhaps healing represented a second chance at life. Healing was tantamount to new found independence and liberation from his former status of estrangement from the community. The man who for many years was labeled as an in-valid was now validated through the grace and mercy of Jesus.

For parties in mediation, healing from the wounds of conflict can mean far more than arriving at an equitable resolution of their dispute. Healing may take the form of freedom from the anxiety, stress, and distractions that often accompany a lawsuit. And for some, healing will ultimately mean a long-awaited chance to exhale; a chance to regain one’s life and to become whole again.

Closing Thoughts

There will always be individuals engaged in conflict who become over-burdened and broken in spirit. It is as if they are afflicted with a kind of sickness, although not a sickness unto death. The goal of defeating one’s adversary no longer maintains the bright luster that it once did. These are the “casualties of conflict” and they sincerely want to become whole again.

There is no human agency that is capable of calming the turbulent waters of conflict like grace and mercy. Their enduring power is unique because grace and mercy are the fruits of God’s love for all Humankind. No one can artificially inject them into the heart of an individual. A mediator can merely endeavor to inspire parties to display grace and mercy if and only if grace and mercy first reside within them. The mediator’s sphere of influence is limited to planting the seeds of harmony. The parties may in turn water the soil of goodwill if they are so inclined. Then it remains in the hands of the Creator to bring lasting Peace to the mediation table if it is the Creator’s will to do so. [3]

End Notes

1 The Holy Bible; John 5: 2-9 (NKJV)

2 This is not to say that the Christian does not expect God to show grace and mercy in his or her life. Christian theology and the Holy scriptures teach that God’s grace and mercy are gifts of love that the Believer comes to anticipate and depend upon. This, the Christian believes, not as a matter of fact but through faith and trust in God’s beneficience. However, the timing of the gift and the nature of it cannot be predicted with certainty. Similarly, we cannot prophesy the identity of the person that God will use in a particular situation as an instrument to extend grace and mercy. This creates an interesting paradox for the Christian. To that extent grace and mercy are always uncertain and unanticipated.

3 See The Holy Bible; 1Corinthians 3:5-8 (NKJV)

Biography


William Scott Harralson, J.D.  is a trained mediator specializing in civil rights, employment, personal injury, and conflict involving clergy and religious congregations.   He has been particularly effective in mediating disputes where sensitive cross-cultural, ethnic, and racial issues adversely impact the relationship between the disputants.  Harralson volunteers with a number of public and private entities including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Contra Costa County Attorney Fee Mediation Program, and Small Claims Division-Alameda County Superior Court.   His experience also includes more than 18 years of civil litigation as a legal assistant and independent advisor to California attorneys.

Mr. Harralson is a former adjunct professor with Pacific School of Religion and has lectured at the Graduate Theological Union, both in Berkeley, CA.   He taught courses on legal issues affecting clergy and Faith Communities, as well as organizing religious non-profit corporations.



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