Corrymeela Lesson in Relativism

When we visited Corrymeela in Northern Ireland for our mid-year Mitchell retreat, I was unprepared for the deeply philosophical conversation that ensued – much like I felt prior to our initial retreat in Limerick. Padraig, a community leader, orchestrated the convicting discussion, accompanied by the beautiful backdrop of the Irish Sea.

To me, conflict resolution, as a practice, seemed foreign in that the work is often overlooked in periods of “peace.” Corrymeela takes an opposing stance. Routinely, they host a variety of groups on varying topics in a region still feeling the undertones of its sectarian conflict. According to Padraig, the conversations range from talks about LGBTQ+ inclusion to religious differences. After we probed as to how Padraig exactly conducts these talks, he followed with a seemingly paradoxical remark: “I am uninterested in consensus. I am interested in disagreement.”

Such caused me to reflect on how often appeals to universality are used to cure conflict. For example, as an opposition to the onset of identity politics, many Americans champion the zero-sum response of suppressing differences, be it race, gender, income, sexual orientation, etc. to uphold this idea of being “American.” Albeit tangentially related, Alastair Bonnett addresses this topic, differing between the strands of anti-racism in her book entitled, Anti-Racism: Relativism and Universalism. She loosely endorses a relativist approach where uniqueness is emboldened to further peace. In some ways, Padraig held a similar view.

Upon reflection, Padraig’s comment is incredibly wise. Embedded in feigned consensus efforts can be divisiveness. While our humanity bonds us, our lived experiences separate us. That dissonance is what contributes to the richness of cultural exports. However, when efforts are not made to understand the fruits of individual dissonance, an embargo is placed on individuality. Suddenly, a society becomes too concerned with trying to agree rather than being comfortable with distinctiveness.

Conflict resolution is not about changing another’s mind or defending one’s dignity. It is, however, about finding “strange ground for peace.” That is something I can get behind. Thanks for the lesson, Corrymeela.

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