Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business

Prodigal Peacemakers

prod-i-gal, Noun: One who spends recklessly and extravagantly.

peace-mak-er, Noun: One who makes peace by settling disputes.

prod-i-gal peace-mak-er, Noun: One who invests all in settling disputes.

The story of "The Prodigal Son" stirs the heart of old and young, male and female of every culture. Three larger-than-life sculptures depict this story at the front entrance of the La Sierra University mall as bold reminders of the university's mission and the mission of the Center for Conflict Resolution.

The story begins in conflict and ends in conflict and is the greatest short story ever written on conflict resolution. Its succinct details reveal aspects of conflict, and the attempts to resolve conflict, present in every person's life. The story fascinates the reader by denying a storybook ending since the final scene does not reveal the outcome of the final negotiation.

Some commentators on the story note the inaccuracy of the title given by most to the story--The Prodigal Son. Some say the correct title should be--The Prodigal Father. The best title, however, may be--Prodigal Peacemakers--for in the story we discover a father recklessly and extravagantly working to end conflict, find reconciliation and bring peace to the family.

The story begins with the youngest son, often the one referred to as "the prodigal," violating the cultural norms of then, and now, by asking for his inheritance while his father still lives. The father violates social norms and acquiesces to the demand, dividing his estate and making lifetime distributions to both of his sons.

The story introduces the fact that perceptions create conflicts. With respect to the father and the younger son, the younger son evidently feels a conflict with the father and wants to leave. Whatever his perception of the father, they seem to be invalidated by the father's acquiescence to the unreasonable demand. The notion of a perceived conflict with the father also shows up in the discussion with the oldest son at the end of the story. The oldest son feels the father hasn't treated him fairly, even though the father made a present gift to him of the largest portion of the estate, retaining only a life estate. So it is with conflict in our lives. We make choices of self-interest, as do both sons, putting ourselves and others in jeopardy by risking, or even discarding, relationships. Over time, as in the case of the younger son, we discover that the things we thought were so important don't matter as much as the lost relationship. Then we wonder if the relationship can be recreated but see the magnitude of the wrongs and deem resolution impossible.

The story illustrates how some parties perceive settlement as a threat. Often these parties have benefitted from the conflict. In this case, the older brother received his inheritance early thanks to the rash action of his younger brother. The older brother fears the father will undo the gift to him and further divide the estate, reducing his share. The father detects this fear and reaffirms the gift to the oldest son, telling him, "All that I have is yours." In attempting conflict resolution in multi-party conflicts, one party often feels violated or betrayed if their ally or co-disputant expresses an interest in settlement. Sometimes, the notion of settlement violates their sense of fairness or they feel their opportunity for personal triumph is being undermined.

The story embodies other aspects of the conflict resolution process. As illustrated by the father, in conflict resolution, often there is a disputant who has been awaiting an opportunity for resolution. Like the father, the disputant watches the road every day, looking for any movement towards settlement. As illustrated by the younger son, in conflict situations, often one party suddenly realizes that settlement is better than continuation of the conflict. And just like the younger son, they prepare an offer, an overture for resolution of the conflict. Somehow they find the courage, or are sufficiently desperate, to make the first step towards peace, fearful of an imminent rebuff.

The story also describes what some call the "third option," the option to be a peacemaker. The father runs to meet the younger son as soon as he spots him on the horizon. In this case, the father watches for the opportunity to resolve the conflict, knowing that even when he has made peace with the younger son, he will need to mediate between the two sons. In his role as the Prodigal Peacemaker, the father hopes eagerly for the return of the younger son and watches for him. He does so in order to protect the younger son from the family, the community, the predatory third parties looking for an opportunity to inflict pain on an outcast.

As soon as the younger son and father meet, the younger son makes his settlement offer and without negotiation, the father places his robe around his son, and his signet ring on his son's finger. He does these things to protect the younger son from being stoned or scorned by the do-gooder friends, relatives, church members and neighbors who would take it upon themselves to teach the younger son not to shame them again. In running to the younger son, the father lays claim to the dispute, denying interlopers the opportunity to insinuate themselves into the matter and educating the community to the importance of reconciliation.

So it is in saying "yes" to the call to be Prodigal Peacemakers. We choose neutrality, remain neutral, we do not invest ourselves in the positions of the disputants, and refuse to participate in any escalation of the conflict. Prodigal Peacemakers know how to approach the conflict and instead of running from the conflict, run to it, ready, willing and able to take the risks of attempting resolution and reconciliation. And, yes, Prodigal Peacemakers run to protect the nacent overtures of settlement, no matter how unreasonable the first offer. Prodigal Peacemakers protect these overtures for peace by asserting the moral authority inherent in peacemaking--Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the earth.

Prodigal Peacemakers protect the disputants by enveloping them with the cloak of confidentiality, refusing to divulge the salaceous details of the pig slop tainting the younger son. Prodigal Peacemakers protect the negotiations from attempts to incite further conflict by the older son by separating the parties, speaking with them in private. Prodigal Peacemakers protect the fragile process of conflict resolution by using the cloak of confidentiality to thwart the intermeddling of third parties and their voyeuristic desires, their partisanship, and their predatory needs. Prodigal Peacemakers, by taking the risk to bring peace, educate their community on the high value they place on conflict resolution. Just as the father announces a party for his returned son, so the Prodigal Peacemakers celebrate the overtures for settlement, affirming the only value it may have--an admission that the relationship is more important than the issues dividing the disputants. Sometimes, the Prodigal Peacemaker must remind the parties that the relationship at issue isn't the relationship with the other party, but one's relationship with their own person, their loved ones, their community, their relationship with life itself, all of which can be destroyed by the demands of sustaining a conflict.

Finally, we see the father declining to take umbridge at the accusations of unfairness by the older brother, instead working out the feelings expressed and reaffirming the relationship. Likewise, Prodigal Peacemakers take it upon themselves to establish rapport with the disputant who rejects the concept of neutrality and assumes bias in favor of the other party. Prodigal Peacemakers separate issues from relationships and remind each disputant of the value they see inherent in the relationships affected by the conflict.

The story ends with a declaration of the father's motivation and a question.

Love motivates the father, you can hear it in his statement: My son was lost and is now found, was dead and now alive. In other words, the father declares that his relationship with his sons exceeds any value he places on possessions or status. Likewise, Prodigal Peacemakers recognize the miracle of life in this universe and the stark reality that every human being is dying and will leave behind all wealth or honor accumulated in this life. Prodigal Peacemakers remind parties that they have built relationships on a foundation of love and goodness and that foundation is the only asset that survives any one life and is the only asset on which a sustainable future can be built for those who follow.

The story ends without telling how the older brother responds to the entreaty of the father. By so ending, the story asks its readers to ponder the conflicts in their own life.

So how does this story end for you?

Are you the younger brother, ready to recognize you have nothing left to lose but a relationships to save?

Are you the father, ready to lose the respect of those around you by entreating for mercy and reconciliation?

Are you the older brother, ready to renew the conflict because it's not about the money but the principal?

Do you wonder how much time you have left and what it is you will leave behind?

Will you leave a legacy of destruction or peace? Resentment or reconciliation?

Have you heard the call to Prodigal Peacemaking?

What will happen if you say, "Yes"?


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