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.

The leadership and ministry of fools (and other outsiders)

The Fool (1944) by Cecil Collins
The Fool features in much of Collins’s art. The Fool represents saint, artist and poet – the saviours of life, according to Collins. He always portrays the fool as an innocent figure who, although finding no place in the modern world, has the vision to find fulfilment and eventual reward. Here the Fool is carrying a heart (for love) and an owl (for wisdom and freedom)

When it comes to power and leadership in the church are we confused by worldly perceptions of power and success?

Recently I have heard about arguments amongst leaders about who sits in the “best seats” in the chancel, and there’s real power politics at play in ecclesiastical processions!

If we are entitled (Rev, Reader etc) what are we entitled to? Cases of abuse show how wrong some of us so entitled have been.

What are the qualifications for leadership? And what is our unconscious bias about those qualifications – and how much potential is wasted by those biases?

Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the case that our understandings of leadership are qualified and conditioned by Hollywood and the leadership of those on the “wild frontier” as portrayed by decades of “westerns”. (Donald Trump fits that well.) Lewis-Anthony talks about “the myth of leadership” and describes the way the myth is told.

Someone comes from the outside, into our failing community. He is a man of mystery, with a barely suppressed air of danger about him. At first he refuses to use his skills to save our community, until there is no alternative, and then righteous violence rains down. The community is rescued from peril, but in doing so the stranger is mortally wounded. He leaves, his sacrifice unnoticed by all.

This is the plot of Shane, Triumph of the Will, Saving Private Ryan and practically every western every made. It is the founding myth of our politics and our society. It tells us that violence works, and that leadership only comes from the imposition of a superman’s will upon the masses, and preferably those masses “out there”, not us.

The new archbishop of Canterbury should be a disciple rather than a leader in The Guardian, 4 February 2013

The Bible is very critical of worldly systems of power and leadership. Walter Brueggemann (in Truth Speaks to Power) makes the point that the pharoah is never named in Exodus, but that he is a metaphor representing “raw, absolute, worldly power”. He is never named “because he could have been any one of a number of candidates, or all of them. Because if you have seen one pharoah, you’ve seen them all. They all act in the same way in their greed, uncaring violent self-sufficiency.” Samuel is scathing about the Israelites’ insistence that they be led like the other nations. He knew (1 Samuel 8:11-17) that those sort of leaders are always on the take (sons, daughters, chariots, horses, fields and livestock – everything).

The ways of God are very different to the ways of preferment and career advancement. Paul is amazed when he surveys his fellow disciples. He wrote to the church of Corinth: “Consider your calling. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Similarly Jesus praised God that she had hidden the things of heaven from the seemingly well qualified. “Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Luke 10:21).

What difference would it make to our CVs if we focused on our foolishness and our weakness? Would it prompt us to realise that power and leadership is found in some very strange places and surprising people? What difference does it make when we recognise that leadership qualifications are the gift of God and that the leadership qualities are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) by which measures pharoahs look hopelessly unqualified.

I have recently had the privilege of reading The Bible and Disability edited by Sarah Melcher, Michael C Parsons and Amos Yong. I quickly realised how pervasive disability is and how important a lens it is to view Christian leadership. Under their prompt it is easy to see how “disabled” the people featured in scripture are. Moses was chosen in spite of his speech impediment. Jacob bore his limp with pride that he wrestled with God (and Israel takes its identity and name from that fight). Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate disability.

I asked the question on Twitter, “would it make a difference in leadership if we focused on disabilities and vulnerabilities rather than just abilities?” Friend Mark Bennett replied: “In Matthew’s gospel Jesus uses parables so that people hear, “see”, understand anew, overcoming disabilities of preconception, prejudice and fear.” Friend Jenny Bridgman replied: “”What are my blind spots?” is a tough but necessary #leadership question. Some more are: What can someone else do better that I can? How can I free them to do that well? Or even – how do my/our disabilities and vulnerabilities make my/our leadership more effective?”

I suspect that as long as we ignore these questions there will always be “us” and “them” – a few privileged by the powers-that-be working “for” (or even “against” as some sort of pharoah) rather than working and living “with” and in love with others.

PS. I didn’t include the title of Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book because it is so flippin’ long – It is You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a Heresy) .