Martin, Soldier for Peace
Four addresses given at St Martin-in-the-Fields on November 11, 2018
Cathy Reid Jones
I’ve had a strange and meandering work life, but the consistent thread is using research, insight, data and judgement to get people to commit to a defined strategy. Whilst the strategies I am talking about have, most often, been how to position a product or brand, and how to support it with marketing – and are therefore not life changing in any way – in some ways my work has similarities with soldiering. My role has been to define a plan of attack and then to rally people behind it. It involves making a thorough but rapid assessment of the available intelligence, staying focused on the objective in mind, defining a clear and actionable route forward, with achievable objectives; and then selling that route to a team of people with conflicting views. In so doing I have often had to deal with opposition, to reassure people who doubt. I have learned that you have to confront the lurking uncertainties or points of difference that you can detect in your team – because hedging on a strategy, being half-hearted or having some of your team pursuing a different plan is a disaster in the making. Achieving alignment and moving forward together is key. These principles also apply to my work at St Martin-in-the-Fields as we plan how to move forward commercially.
But aside from the reconnaissance and battle-planning-type process of strategy development, the time that I have felt most like a soldier is when business has been tough. I used to be deputy chief executive of an advertising agency that had grown massively on the back of the dot com boom. When that boom bust, followed swiftly by 9/11 , we found ourselves with far, far too high a wage bill and far, far too little income and at the tender age of 36 I found myself having to make decisions about how to cut that wage bill. The process of making redundancies is not something I would wish on anyone. We had to make 60, and it was awful – the experience has stayed with me for life. You cannot detach yourself from the fact that you are making decisions that are having profoundly negative impacts on people’s lives, on families lives. But, at the same time, you know that if you avoid those decisions the situation will spiral out of control and you will end up putting more people’s livelihoods at risk. You have to do the thing that will protect most jobs. And you have to accept that means that some people may well resent you for the rest of your life. In those months I felt I had a very, very small glimpse of what it must be like to be a military leader – to have to make the hideous decision that in order to protect the most people you are going to have to send some of your people in to war. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to make those decisions.
I suspect that my day job is much less aggressive than its popular perception. Barristers are notoriously social, and are much more likely to be found chatting convivially while waiting to be called into court rather than being at each other’s throats. Even in the courtroom itself, where confrontation is often unavoidable and even righteous indignation sometimes has a place, active aggression is seldom the order of the day: effective advocacy is all about persuading a judge that your client’s position is the right way forward – it’s frequently much more akin to winning ‘hearts and minds’ rather than an active battle.
The times when I feel my job most represents that of a soldier have been when I’ve been sent to court knowing that a case has gone slightly off the rails. Perhaps a client has done something I know the judge won’t be impressed by or some of the orders granted at previous hearings haven’t been complied with. My job, often, is simply to turn up and do my best to appease the court’s wrath. A colleague, who trained me when I was just starting out, describes going to this sort of hearing as one where she is required to put on her ‘tin hat’. The wartime metaphor is an apt one – in those situations it can feel sometimes as if fire is coming from all sides. There’s nothing to be done but stick it out and try to make the best of an already difficult scenario. The likely alternative would be to abandon a client – which, frankly, I wouldn’t even contemplate. Nevertheless, it can take quite a bit of getting used to, and it certainly helps to develop a thick skin, a professional armour that can be donned for any occasion, particularly when a judge is ‘weighing up something heavy to throw at counsel’ – another classic barrister metaphor.
I can only imagine what it must be like to be ‘under fire’ for real. High expectations from a client can be a weighty burden, but the thought of a whole country’s expectations on your shoulders is something completely different. Sometimes I reassure myself after a long day in court that my work is not (normally) a matter of life and death. The same of course cannot be said for a war zone.
It’s fair to say that lawyers don’t come off well in the New Testament. For example, the lawyer in Luke 10 who’s too clever by half is rendered almost speechless by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In short, we’re given a picture of those bound by arid rules, missing out completely on the life of the Spirit.
Of course, what the New Testament refers to as a lawyer (someone versed in the Torah and its associated traditions) is far removed from modern legal practice. However, I’m pleased to report that knowledge of the law is actually one of the least important qualities in a lawyer. In fact comfortably the most important training I’ve ever done was not studying the finer points of discrimination law, but actually several years ago when I trained to be a mediator.
I rarely act as a formal mediator in a dispute. But this training opened my eyes to several skills. I rely heavily on all of them in my professional life now; and the reason they’re relevant to us today is that they’ve all given me a window into the craft of peacemaking. I’m going to briefly highlight five.
- First listen – really listen. This lets the client feel they’ve been heard – which maybe hasn’t been the case for some time.
- Second, a dispute’s not always about what it appears to be about. So the apparently trivial incident at the work social event that lead to a total breakdown in a relationship might well be the result of years of inattention, of lack of respect, or perceived favouritism. I learned to ask questions to bring these issues to the surface.
- Third, reframing can be powerful. One party might describe an issue with loaded words like ‘unfair’, ‘hostile’, ‘lazy’, ‘bullying’. They might be true. But in terms of resolution, they’ll trigger a defensive reaction in the other party, entrench positions, and a solution – outside litigation – might become impossible. As the middle-man, I can take away those words and replace them with more neutral language. You might think this is mealy-mouthed lawyer speak. I disagree. Used at the right time, the message is the same – but with words less full of accusation, we can open up new paths of possibility.
- The fourth thing is getting a win – any win. It is amazing how even the smallest agreement, where there’s only been disagreement to date, can open up the ground for a more comprehensive settlement. Get parties to agree something concrete, whether it’s a payment of outstanding expenses in a large bonus claim, or an acknowledgement of each other’s hurt or distress, even if there’s no acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Starting moving in the right direction gives you momentum.
- The final thing is delivering difficult news. I very often see clients, convinced – usually with some justification – of the righteousness of their cause. They cannot see how another person (like a judge) might see things differently. The client might be so focused on hurting the other party, that they cannot see the collateral damage, not just financial, but maybe personal or health-wise. What to do? First build trust and credibility and relationship – and listening is again the key here. Only then speak, sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, and try to find a way to help the party see things differently. It’s not easy, and of the five aspects I’ve spoken about, it’s the one that comes least easily to me.
Most of my clients, whether employers or employees, are good people, trying their best. I’m not (quite) deluded enough to see what I do as God’s work. But, on occasions, I think I am practising the skills of a peacemaker, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And for all citizens of the kingdom, practising its ways has to be a good thing. Not least because, one day, perhaps, they might come naturally.
Righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness AND peace. The psalmist doesn’t advocate one over another. In another translation, it is truth, justice, mercy and peace that weave themselves together, that meet and kiss and create a path for God’s steps. It’s not either/or. It’s not win/lose. It’s both/and: they each have things to teach us, things to encourage us. John Paul Lederach dramatized a conversation between them so they can each have their voice.
When I was breaking up with my first boyfriend, one of his parting shots was ‘Everything depends with you, Alison, doesn’t it?’ I took it as a criticism but now, forty years later, I would take it as a compliment. It’s very seldom either/or, and both/and is generally the better way.
Although the different elements of my work look very different, the same thread runs through them all. Listening, and providing a safe process, encouraging honesty and bravery and a chance to explore options and move some steps forward in whatever the challenge is. Perhaps it’s like soldiering – the paying attention to a goal, formulating a strategy, planning how to get there.
A key skill is not to feel threatened by views or behaviours that are different from my own. Part of my journey has been to learn about negative capability. Keats gets the credit for it, but it’s very Godly concept that says that action is not better than non-action. W.H. Vanstone says much the same thing in The Stature of Waiting. If we can set aside the compulsion for certainty, for action, we can learn to be more comfortable with mystery, with uncertainty, with both/and, with the existence of known unknowns. St Martin exemplified both/and when he tore his cloak into two halves.
Our faith is founded on salvation, saving, making whole what was broken. I believe it is what we are for, and what we are here for. I like the Egyptian story of the god Isis whose husband Osiris was murdered and his body broken into 14 pieces. Isis didn’t rest until she had gathered up all the fragments and recreated a whole Osiris, using their love to breathe life back into him. We mend what is broken. There’s also the ancient Jewish tradition of tikkun olam – that we are here to repair the world, that we must aspire to act constructively and beneficially. It was to our broken world that God came to join us and show us how to mend things. We still have a lot to learn. And mending what is broken doesn’t need to be portrayed as a soldierly activity and I could wish that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians had used a less militaristic analogy. What if the analogy for how to prepare yourself to be a Godly disciple hadn’t been wearing armour and fighting a battle? It could be about building a bridge or creating a garden, or about the dance, the conversation, the kiss between truth, justice, mercy and peace. It could happen.