Coin sides and the shape of peacemaking processes

How many sides has a coin? When we toss a coin we call “heads” or “tails” because we assume that a coin just has the two sides. On the toss of a coin we are divided into winners and losers. The winners are able to claim that they won fairly (even though only by chance) and the losers have to suck it up. There are two sides now and both know whether they are on the side with greater chance or lesser chance. The losers’ last chance is to overturn privilege – and the odds are always stacked against them.

The 12 sided thrupenny bit was first minted in 1937

But there aren’t just two sides to a coin. There is another smaller side which nobody calls because it so disproportionately small that the chance of it landing on its edge are virtually zero. But then, who hasn’t spent time standing coins on their edge, and who of us of a certain age hasn’t enjoyed making the old thrupenny bit take its stand on one of its twelve sides (as opposed to its two large sides).

Just imagine twelve sides. That is precisely what our scriptures imagine – with the twelve tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob finding and founding society in the land they were caused to occupy. The early church shared that imagination, counting twelve apostles and replenishing that number when one fell out. The thrupenny bit represents a design to facilitate concelebration, conversation and dialogue – remembering that there are rarely only two sides to any question and that to resolve conflict many sides have to be considered. Sitting round a circular table is to adopt this design. Each person has their point of view, their side, in a facilitative process which intends to iron out the abuses of positional power.

Polyhedron 20 from yellow

Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti (2020), suggests the image of the polyhedron as the shape of better things to come. Promoting a “culture of encounter” he writes:

“The image of the polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made.”

Fratelli Tutti 2020

Colum McCann underlines how tricky it is to get beyond binary thinking about winners and losers and right and wrong in his novel Apeirogon. The title is a mathematical term for an object of an “observably infinite number of sides” – a shape that reflects that conflict can never be reduced to simple opposed positions. Apeirogon is based on the real life friendship between Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin, two fathers (one Israeli, the other Palestinian) united in their grief for their daughters – both killed in conflict. They both join the Parents Circle Families Forum – a group of people similarly bereaved who unite in their sorrow to press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity. Beginning from zero, one can use natural numbers to count on and on and even though the counting will take forever one can still get to any point in the universe in a finite amount of time

from The Apeirogon

And there’s another shape – the circle. The shape of things to come if ever we come to the time of resolution – when there are no sides to join or oppose, when the corners we tend to cling to are rounded off by our encounter with the various truths of any situation. The earth is well rounded as if prepared for peace making.

>Lambeth Walk

>What is “holiness”?

Is it the ability to “grasp the intense suffering of the human condition without fear or flinching, and to be able to live with that knowledge and find within it hope and a great compassion”? Madeleine Bunting describes holiness in this way as she recalls the recent meeting between, what she describes (and I agree) two of the world’s holiest men.

Madeleine Bunting’s article in today’s Guardian is very much on the ball about Anglicanism, Lambeth and the Archbishop.

This is what the men share, and strikingly it is not in what they say that one senses it, but in their presence and how they relate to people: the warmth and humour, the lack of egotism to neither perform for listeners nor manipulate them, the humility and the capacity to pay attention. The holiness is not to be found in slick communication skills – both men are complex thinkers whose ideas are very hard to compress into soundbites – but you sense the holiness in the face-to-face encounter. A world that increasingly speaks to itself through media of mass communications increasingly cannot recognise this, the most inspiring of human experiences.

Williams may be one of the most holy men to lead the Church of England, but shame on us and our age for proving the old adage true: a prophet is never recognised in his own land.

Madeleine Bunting recognises that global communications are disrupting all religious traditions, traumatising identity and fuelling a literalist fundamentalism; the result is a gross simplifying of the complexity and paradox that is part of human experience.

The presenting issue is “gay clergy” and ++Rowan is told to get a grip. What is the point of that when people have adopte such extreme positions? He would only have to “get a grip” on the next issue and the next. The presenting issue is “gay clergy” (or to others “women bishops”) The real issue is how we deal with difference. That is the issue of our post-modern world. In Archbishop Rowan we perhaps have someone who is wise enough, holy enough and strong enough to lead us on that.

Likes and dislikes

> If “no man is an island” (John Donne) why are we so insular? I often hear people report back from their holidays on friends they made while away. “We had so much in common” and “we all had similar backgrounds/jobs”. I wonder if we like the people who are most like us.

I’ve enjoyed the work of many people who have highlighted the many different styles of personality and behaviours we have. This is how we have been made. Some of us are built for a quick sprint, others for the long haul. We are individuals who need to like those who aren’t quite like us. Practical people lose patience with visionaries. Visionaries may regard the practical people as a bit boring – but both need each other. Those who can crack the whip can move people forward but may be seen as insensitive by those who are conscious of the feelings of others. To get anything done we all need to work together and talk together.

This is not a new insight. God from the beginning of time said “it is not good for man to be alone”. The stories of Cain and Abel, and the Tower of Babylon are both examples of how difficult it is to come to terms with our differences. Centuries later St Paul was shocked by the divisions in the Corinthian Church. Members had taken sides liking those who were like them. Paul calls them to order encouraging them to think that they were members of one body and that they needed to get co-ordinated. Every part of the body has a different function – fingers, bowels and eyes. Each member is gifted differently and we need to learn to like what we’re not like – otherwise we can’t live together or work together for a better world.

Paul’s is a good lesson (as is Belbin, Myers-Briggs and all those working on similar lines) for the Lambeth Conference (coming soon), and any group of people. Paul insists that it is all possible if we have a mind on the bigger picture and allow God to do the knitting.

written for Grapevine June 2008