There’s an invisible trail in Enfield, Connecticut. Call it the path of “What-ifs?” leading to “Might-Have-Beens.” What if the protagonists and antagonists had seized their dilemma as an opportunity? Potential adversaries might have become partners. What if the parties saw each other as people who disagree rather than as opponents? They might have teamed-up, shed their “rights,” and conjured innovative solutions. What if everyone viewed events through the prism of James 1:19 and 1:26, which counsel listening, and Proverbs 18:17, which counsels weighing all arguments? The wisdom in those verses light the path to creative conflict resolution and silence verbal knife fights.
As it was, the trail was never taken. The verbal knives were wielded and people were hurt. A lawsuit resulted in winners and losers and a “sexy story” with ill-founded allegations. A judge decided that graduations could not be held in a Bloomfield Cathedral, smudging its name despite its many contributions to the surrounding community.
My first “what if” revolves around those who brought the suite. They found the Cathedral’s religious imagery offensive. I understand, but I still ask: Is religious imagery intrinsically “offensive”? If so, then most literature and art offends you. Religious thought has informed human thinking from time immemorial. Perhaps you disagree with it – perhaps you think humanity stands on an evolutionary cusp beyond which it can turn deaf to intellectual primitives like me – but is it offensive? If so, why not object to pictures of the Dalai Lama smiling from our high school walls? He is, after all, revered as a Tibetan deity. How about Gandhi, whom some Hindus regard as Krishna’s latest mouthpiece? Such offense blinded you from seeing a gleaming gem: Bloomfield’s First Cathedral is not only a mega church, it is an African American mega church. Some of that “offensive” art portrays Jesus as black. Drop your offense. Admire a successful African American enterprise reaching into Hartford’s north end. Touch an entirely different but equally American culture from your suburban town’s. Perhaps you would still object to ceremonies there, but you could have broadened your perspective still and suggested win-win alternatives, such as field trips in which this church becomes one stop into the African American culture.
And yet, I feel sudden sympathy for one litigant – who, like many of my friends, is Jewish. I now understand that the symbols I cherish – the cross, the empty tomb – invoke communal memories of pogroms, forced Diasporas, death camps, and cattle cars. Did the Board of Education members ask themselves: Will Holocaust survivors sit among the on-looking grandparents? Older Jews remember when those symbols were used to exclude them from organizations and businesses. Perhaps the cliché question is relevant here: What would Jesus do? Would He insist on the right to impose the cross and “Christian” symbols? Or would He show genuine love and empathy for His people (he was, after all, a Jew) by understanding how those symbols have been so misused?
Another “yet”: My first reaction to Judge Janet Hall’s decision was to remember the Constitution’s literal wording (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”). The Board of Education was not establishing any religion or prohibiting the exercise of anyone’s faith or beliefs – and most framers were religious men who couldn’t fathom barring citizens from gathering in a church building. But we’ve forgotten something else: They viewed themselves as British. Our Revolutionary War heroes were angry Englishmen: the “mother country” treated these inheritors of the Magna Karta as lesser citizens, mere peons. That was enough to unpack the muskets. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington saw themselves carrying the mantle of British common law, which is founded upon precedent. Hall did her job when she applied precedent to this case – and, quite frankly, she made a good argument.
A third and conclusive “yet:” I was sitting on the front steps of my home about three weeks ago. I asked a question: “Would I want my son’s graduation ceremony (coming up next year) to be held in a Hindu or a Buddhist shrine? How about a mosque?”
Now that you mention it …
It was settled right there: I would have argued against holding the graduation ceremonies at the cathedral. My “rights” wouldn’t have mattered. We have the “right” to do many things; we needn’t exercise them. I sometimes snap at my wife. Bless her, she often chooses not to snap back. She understands her husband’s bad hair day. He’ll come crawling soon enough, begging forgiveness. “Rights” establish what we can do, not what we must do or even need to do.
I suspect the members on the Enfield Board of Education are like many town officials: they care. They ran for their positions because they want the best for their kids – and they’ve been swamped with you-should-have-done’s and I-told-you-so’s. I’ll add mine, then wish them well. First, apply Ken Sande’s PAUSE principle the next time you face potentially hostile negotiation: Prepare, which includes obtaining data from all sides; Affirm relationships (if, for no other reason, than you might meet these people again in the grocery store); Understand interests (identify the needs, desires, limitations, and fears of others); Search for creative solutions; and Evaluate options objectively and reasonably. Second, remember your obligation: it is to all the people of Enfield, including those on the margins. You were besieged by interest groups with conflicting principles and they fought their battles through you. Many high-minded, principled people forget that your first obligation is to those with flesh, blood, and feelings.
Finally, I remember the sage advice of one attorney: “Stay away from lawyers.”
Follow the path of “What if’s” next time. Those Might-Have-Beens could become reality. You can show an alternative to the verbal knife fights so prevalent in our society.