Sa’ed Atshan: On the Quaker practice of embracing conflict

Excerpts from the Friends Journal interview

Republished from the blog of Quaker Universalist Fellowship @
universalistfriends.org/weblog/saed-atshan-on-the-quaker-practice-o....

Introduction: On March 31, 2018, Dr. Sa’ed Atshan will present the 54th Walton Lecture to the annual gathering of the Southeastern Yearly Meeting (SEYM) of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). His theme will be “Quaker Response in Turbulent Times.”

Dr. Atshan, a native of Palestine and graduate of Ramallah Friends School, is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, the UN High Commission on Refugees, Human Rights Watch, Seeds of Peace, the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, and the Government of Dubai.

In October 2015, Friends Journal published Dr. Atshan’s article “Realizing Wholeness: Reflections from a Gay Palestinian Quaker.”

The December 2017 issue of Friends Journal includes Senior Editor Martin Kelley’s interview with Dr. Atshan, “The Challenges We Face and Community We Forge.” We are republishing excerpts with permission.

We encourage readers to subscribe to Friends Journal at Join Us! for print-and-online or online-only access.


In early 2017, Peace and Equality in Palestine, a student group at Friends’ Central School in Wyndmoor, PA, was seeking a speaker. The group’s two teacher sponsors, both queer women of color, invited Dr. Sa’ed Atshan.

Two days beforehand the event was canceled due to parent complaints. In silent protest, 65 students and their teachers walked out of meeting for worship. Friends’ Central barred the two teacher sponsors from campus, later firing them when they refused a severance package in exchange for remaining silent about their treatment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered this story, which stirred much controversy among Quaker and others, but Dr. Atshan made a deliberate choice not to speak with the media. Friend’s Central eventually apologized to him and sought to reinvite him.1 He refused unless the two teachers were reinstated, which they were not.

Once the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigation of Friends’ Central for discriminatory treatment, Dr. Atshan broke his silence with an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.2

The theme for the December 2017 issue of Friends Journal is “Conflict and Controversy.” Martin Kelley interviewed Dr. Atshan about the conflict with Friend’s Central School for “The Challenges We Face and Community We Forge” (20-22, 40).

After a “just-the-facts” retelling of the story, Dr. Atshan described the process by which he initially chose not to speak with the press:

[One] of the challenges that we face now…is the inclination to give in to knee-jerk impulses: to respond immediately whenever we feel that there’s been an injustice, whenever we feel hurt, whenever we feel pain, or whenever we feel offended…. I really try as much as I can to be disciplined and to resist that urge.

I think that going through a process of discernment—reflecting on what just happened, collecting all of the necessary information that one needs, speaking privately with key confidants, giving oneself some space and some time—can be really useful. It can allow us to engage much more productively and constructively…. (21)

Some months later, though, when he saw that the two fired teachers were vulnerable and not being successful with their case, he felt a moral responsibility to speak publicly on their behalf. Then he went public with his Philadelphia Inquirer article, “Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends’ Centra... (8/8/2017).

The interview discussion next broadened to consider the difficulties modern Quaker and others have with confronting conflict. One concern is the stereotyping that Quakers may resort to even with internal conflicts. Dr. Atshan explained:

Stereotyping is very easy. As human beings, we need categories. We need them in our linguistic and conceptual toolbox. Using categories, it’s much easier to process the world around us and to communicate. But sometimes we don’t realize the harm and the danger involved in associating people with a particular label….

It would be wonderful if we were more curious about each other and if we wanted to dig deeper beyond labels. We should be more willing to engage groups directly and ask them how they self-identify…. (22)

A larger concern is the cliché that Quakers sometimes go out of their way to avoid conflict, rather than acknowledge and deal with it.

Part of our Quaker heritage is speaking truth to power. Quakers have been at the forefront of many social justice struggles.

Now Quakerism is morphing increasingly into a community of individuals who think that to be a pacifist, to see the light of God in every human being, and to be committed to our peace testimony requires us to actively avoid conflict and any form of confrontation. Confrontation or conflict is misconstrued as a form of violence.

That is disconcerting. In peace and conflict studies, we teach our students to embrace conflict. We teach our students that conflict is important and we should not avoid it. It’s the way we resolve our differences and address our misunderstandings or disagreements. But it’s important to raise conflict in a way that transforms it.

When instead we avoid conflict, we become passive aggressive, and the underlying issues continue to simmer. That can lead to violent conflict—or at least much more pain in the long run. So embracing conflict and learning to be comfortable with discomfort is a challenge facing Quakers. We have a lot of work to do in that regard. (22)

In the midst of conflict, Dr. Atshan says he finds hope in two ways.

First, he acknowledges that dealing with conflict is “part of a lifelong journey and will take experimentation, patience, and humility."

Second, he is sustained by the community and relationships built among Quakers, by the egalitarian spaces, and the “ordinary, everyday acts of kindness, compassion, love, and joy in the Quaker world.” (40)


Notes & Image Sources

Image: “Dr. Sa’ed Atshan” from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

1Swarthmore professor meets with Friends’ Central to try to settle d...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (2/20/2017).

2Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends’ Centra...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (8/8/2017).

Image: “Welcome new light,” by Alice Popkorn on flickr (12/15/2008, Creative Commons-Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Views: 86

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 12, 2018 at 6:00pm

Back when I was writing about whether there should be more conflict between Friends, I was thinking in terms of them being more open about disagreements, more willing to contradict each other -- in hopes of reaching agreement by airing & examining the disagreements.

But one thing I've been considering since then: neither in the Bible nor in subsequent history does God seem to be working to impose uniformity on people's ideas. Big, unified empires and religious organizations seem much better at bullying people into  believing nonsense than in helping them reach agreement on how things be.

It is a good thing for people with conflicting concepts to seek to converge on the truth of a matter.

But both conflicting concepts may well be needed to get there. Sometimes people need conflict just to maintain diversity long enough for the available views to be fully developed, to make it clear what each of them leads to...

Comment by Mike Shell on 2nd mo. 13, 2018 at 10:05am

Thanks, Forrest.  You speak my mind.

For 30-some years I've had reactions ranging from amusement to despair in response to what I call the Quaker "Niceness Testimony."  It's troubling when one knows that there are conflicts and disagreements--sometimes deep and bitter ones--in ones meeting, yet no one is willing to bring those conflicts to meeting to be dealt with openly in a Quaker way.

My own meeting has been torn apart several times by this passive-aggressive approach to conflict.  No one faces each other honestly before other Friends; instead they use emails and phone calls and run to the clerk and others in private, stirring up the "you-know-what."

Since I became clerk myself a year ago, one of my first private rules has been: No discussion of conflict by email, and phone calls only to arrange for public discussion in meeting, in committee, with a third party, etc.  The one exception is that I sometimes elder an individual privately by phone.  Even in that situation, I prefer to do it face to face if I can.

Nonetheless, I agree with you that the aim is not to solve every conflict.  Simply to bring conflict into the open, so that we are all aware of our differences and diversity.

Thanks for this comment,

Mike

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 13, 2018 at 1:54pm

Hello Mike. So are you suggesting that awareness of differences and divisity through bringing conflict into the open is the path to peace? 

Comment by Mike Shell on 2nd mo. 13, 2018 at 3:36pm

Friend Keith,

I think that was Forrest's point, but he can speak for himself.

What I took from Sa'ed Atshan's works in the Friends Journal interview, was that Quaker hurt themselves (as do others) when we avoid facing our conflicts openly within the safe space of Meeting.  But that means that Meetings must learn how to be safe places for conflict: places where the participants can trust that Friends will listen openly to all party, not taking sides but, rather, facilitating in a worshipful way the (re)opening of communications among the aggrieved parties.

Blessings,

Mike

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 13, 2018 at 4:17pm

That is fair Mike.  I have no issue seeking open, honest, and safe, communication.  Atshan is quoted as saying:

”In peace and conflict studies, we teach our students to embrace conflict. We teach our students that conflict is important and we should not avoid it. It’s the way we resolve our differences and address our misunderstandings or disagreements.”

My question is whether the activity you have shared is, (as with Atshan) entered into as a way to “resolve” differences and manifest peace. That is, do you promote that the act of embracing conflict through the establishment of safe places for open communication where the participants listen to one another as a process that leads to peace? Put another way, does the act of embracing conflict heal conflict? Or are you just promoting the activity as a way to just understand and sympathize with one another even though conflict itself cannot be resolved through the activity?

You have said that Quakers hurt themselves by not embracing conflict. Are you open to the Quaker experience of coming out of all occasion for conflict so that there are some who transcend conflict in all their relationships and know peace itself in itself in all things? In this experience, it is not an avoidance of conflict, it is an actual coming out of all accessions for conflict.

I apologize for the questions. I’m just trying to understand your point more fully.

Keith

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 14, 2018 at 1:11am

I favor achieving peace ('Shalom') by not swindling people of other nations out of their goods and labor, not marching troops in to install governments willing to let us swindle them, not dropping or shooting explosive devices on their people to terrify them into compliance with our local accomplices. Things like that.

Promoting discussion and consideration of diverse views is simply worthwhile for its own sake.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 14, 2018 at 12:38pm

In the interest of promoting discussion and communication …


Forrest, your response is curious to me. You have written that you “support achieving peace …” by doing various things and other things like it that you do not mention.


Is your underlying principle that there are certain principles which, if we adhere to and actually do them, that peace can be achieved?

Comment by Mike Shell on 2nd mo. 14, 2018 at 1:03pm

Friend Keith,

Thanks for the clarification.  You ask:

Do you promote that the act of embracing conflict through the establishment of safe places for open communication where the participants listen to one another as a process that leads to peace? Put another way, does the act of embracing conflict heal conflict? Or are you just promoting the activity as a way to just understand and sympathize with one another even though conflict itself cannot be resolved through the activity?

Excellent questions.  I personally strive for that healing, though sometimes all we can do in a given moment is make certain that we have heard each other--including each others hurts and hopes--without being able to get any further.

I had a 15-year career as a clinical counselor, and then another 17-year career as an adult reference librarian in a county public library system.  I know from experience that trying to avoid or ignore conflict always backfires at some level.

Few people enjoy conflict, and it is a natural animal thing to avoid it.  The expression "fight or flight" is backwards.  Even martial arts masters usually teach that the first response to attack is to run, only fighting if given no other choice.  That seems both instinctual and reasonable.

However, recall what I wrote above:

My own meeting has been torn apart several times by this passive-aggressive approach to conflict. No one faces each other honestly before other Friends; instead they use emails and phone calls and run to the clerk and others in private, stirring up the "you-know-what."

Quakers meetings are unhealthy, even toxic, if they avoid dealing with real conflicts within their community.  That's why I advocate and try to practice bringing conflict into the safety of Meeting.

Note: The whole of the October 2017 issue of Friends Journal addresses these concerns.

You write:

Are you open to the Quaker experience of coming out of all occasion for conflict so that there are some who transcend conflict in all their relationships and know peace itself in itself in all things? In this experience, it is not an avoidance of conflict, it is an actual coming out of all accessions for conflict.

Very much so.  However, my human experience, as the Light shows it to me, is that we "come out of all occasion" only by first looking at ourselves and at how we each personally deal with or avoid or suppress conflict.

For example, every Thanksgiving I struggle though a week of visiting by my sister-in-law, who is a very needy, manipulative survivor of an emotionally abusive family. It was only this past year, after much anger and resentment toward her on my part, that I was finally able to center down and see that my "occasions for conflict" were not really about my sister-in-law. They were about a gut-level reality: that her behavior triggered my own childhood/adolescence reactions to dysfunctional behavior in my own family.

Once I saw that, I was more able to simply be with my sister-in-law.  I still do not like her behavior, and sometimes my husband and I are very troubled by how stuck she is in defensive patterns.  However, now I have a healthier detachment, and that lets me be with her on a deeper level, rather than reacting out of my own defensiveness.

So...when I write that meetings need to deal openly, honestly, and kindly with any conflicts in their midst, my first hope is that the people involved will see more of their own dysfunctional ways of meeting conflict. Where or not they "solve" anything, they may be able to start "coming out of all occasion."

Thank you so much for asking these questions. These are challenges I am currently facing as a meeting clerk, and it helps a lot to try to put my maturing understanding into words.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 2nd mo. 14, 2018 at 1:04pm

Thank for your "Shalom" comment, Forrest.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 14, 2018 at 2:41pm

'Peace' means that people aren't doing awful things to self and others. There is no 'underlying principle' guaranteed to produce that condition -- although Jesus' rule should preclude doing any such awful things yourself

(or supporting other people doing them on one's alleged behalf, which is the more common condition in the US: nice people letting other nice people tell their minions to keep on doing awful things. & refusing to publicly oppose those things, not that it would stop them.)

Meanwhile... Wars and oppression are like natural disasters (of the physical world, mental processes, & emotions.) I'm not sure why people need them, & I very much hope I personally don't. But God continues to let them happen, not because anyone "deserves" trouble and misery, but because [I gather] people can somehow gain spiritual benefit from things that are ruinous from any other standpoint. "Learning Experiences Of The Worst Kind."

'Principles' are intellectually-produced descriptions of various spiritual realities, from human perspectives. I wouldn't make a principle of avoiding them; but one should keep in mind that they're only descriptions, necessarily incomplete & brittle about the edges.

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