Saint Francis didn’t much like possessions.
In fact, he disliked them so much he gave up all of his. Threw them all away so he could follow Christ without hindrance. In this he was only following the advice of Jesus to the young man—If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Matthew 19:21).
Most people throughout history have taken that admonition metaphorically. Francis took it quite literally. It’s what made him so special.
It should follow then that a Franciscan approach to peacemaking would demand that parties to a conflict relinquish all of their material goods, forget about their lawsuits, and give their enemy their houses as well as their cars.
Ideally it would. But Francis knew better than anyone that the radical path of Christian virtue was not for everyone. However much we might wish we could follow in the great saint’s footsteps, most of us know in our sinful heart of hearts that such a narrow road was meant only for the most dedicated of followers. Indeed, when the Franciscan way of life proved too trying for one of Francis’ first followers, Francis wisely advised him to return home and seek his salvation in the trials and tribulations of normal domestic life.
So it was with Francis, so it is with Franciscan peacemakers.
Conflict Over What We Have
Unfortunately, the opportunity for conflict is endless when it comes to possessions. Triggers are everywhere. Someone took something from us. Someone prevented us from having our due. Someone signed a contract under false pretenses. Someone cheated us of property to which we believed we were entitled. We believe someone has garnered unfair gains. And so on…
First things first: the job of a Franciscan mediator is not, at least at the outset, to admonish people for having or fighting over possessions, but rather to understand how they relate to their possessions.
Unfortunately many people, particularly those with a Franciscan mindset, mistakenly assume conflicts over money or goods are simple and straightforward enough—matters of dollars and cents, or even greed and calculation. But while there’s no doubt that dollars and cents create their fair share of conflict and greed can be a factor, there is often more at stake than what meets the eye.
Conflicts over money or goods may be common, but they can also be contentious, not to mention complex.
Possessions aren’t just things that exist outside of ourselves. Well, perhaps they are, and perhaps they should be, but that’s rarely the way parties to a conflict see them. Rather our possessions often become a part of our very being; they carry emotional weight. Some people believe their possessions define them, or at least give them worth in the eyes of others. Money is tied to survival. More often than not it involves the exercise of power. Contracts and the exchange of value require trust and respect.
Perhaps that’s why, over the years, I’ve come to have greater respect for financial conflict. Cases that at first appear to be fights over money turn out to be no such thing. Or at least they aren’t that simple. Parties arguing over a bill may actually be concerned with respect, or the lack thereof. What seems at first glance to be a lawsuit over the cost of medical care boils down to issues of a patient’s dignity and worth. What seems to be a dispute over a sizable inheritance may actually be a battle for power and love within a family.
The Franciscan Way
Of course some fights really are all about money. But more often than not we need to understand all the issues that come attached to that money. Perhaps that’s where faith-based mediation diverges from traditional mediation. By including faith in our approach, we deal with the whole range of human values, from the merely material all the way to the spiritual.
That’s why a Franciscan mediator looks beyond the credit and debit columns of a ledger and probes deeper, for the underlying or complicating factors, for the values each party attaches to the goods over which they fight.
Only then can we understand what possessions mean to people; only then can we address the root causes of the conflict, and only then can we understand why possessions grab hold of us the way they do, why they cause such intractable conflict, why they destroy lives, and why Francis saw the need to relinquish them.
One step at a time. Perhaps after we understand the way we normal humans relate to our possessions, we can begin the slow, painful process of detachment.