Religious texts can help explain key concepts in mediation if used correctly. Image credit: Olga Caprotti.

Mediating disputes can profitably draw on religious sources
A pastor tells a negotiation expert: “The truth will set you free!” The negotiation expert responds: “What ‘truth’? It all depends on your perception! And anyway, why are you telling me this; what is the interest behind your position?”

It is easy to imagine how this type of conversation can deteriorate. But it can also be taken as a starting point to reflect on how different groups – in this case, religious communities and mediation experts – can interact constructively.

Training workshops focus on providing participants with the necessary skills for constructive dialogue, negotiation and mediation. Such workshops, normally lasting a few days to a week, have become an integral part of many dialogue and conflict transformation processes. The logic behind these training workshops is not only to provide participants with a platform to exchange, but also to provide methodologies to help make this exchange more constructive for all actors involved.

What guiding principles can facilitate this type of training and discussion? Mediating disputes can profitably draw on religious sources, such as the Bible and the Koran, to train negotiators and mediators. But it is important that they are used in the right way.

Why use religious resources?

Why should mediation or negotiation trainers use religious resources in their interactions with a religious community? One obvious reason is to make the principles behind attempted reconciliation more legitimate and digestible. The language is that used by communities themselves. And such terminology can make ideas come alive, mobilise a community’s religious resources, and talk directly to the values and ideas of a group of people.

At the same time, using religious resources is potentially dangerous, and authentic interpretations of religious texts are only possible from within the community in question. The danger is not just of trainers cherry-picking quotes out of context, but who is doing the picking. The more a person is an ‘outsider’ from a religious community, the less interpretative authority she or he has. By nonetheless trying to use a religious text to argue a point, a real or perceived imposition or manipulation of view can result. And in mediation that is not appropriate, because imposing a worldview or a way of framing issues – which is at stake when meddling in a community’s religious narrative – is potentially also a form of violence.

Criteria for using religious resources in mediation

There need to be clear criteria for if, when and how to use religious resources
Given these problems, there need to be clear criteria for if, when and how to use religious resources to teach negotiation skills. The following principles are instructive, if not comprehensive.

Mediation trainers should use religious resources to legitimise an idea only if they are familiar with the relevant religious traditions, and if they are perceived as “insiders” with the religious community they are dealing with.

So a mediation trainer with a Christian background can use biblical language to explain and legitimise an idea to fellow Christians, but the trainer should shy away from this approach when talking to other religious groups. Interpretation, in short, is an intra-community activity. Coming from outside a group and claiming some kind of authority based on your interpretation of the group’s religious texts can lead to difficulties.

Outsiders should use religious resources only for accessibility, not to legitimise. If you exist outside a particular religious community, you are much more limited in how you can use a religious text. What outsiders may be able to do, if they can understand and respect another religious tradition, is to refer to a religious saying, item or metaphor (such as “shura” in Islam to refer to a consultation process), or even to quote from its texts, in order to communicate clearly. But this should not be done to legitimise particular ideas.

Making an idea digestible means linking it to resources that can be taken up by the receiving community. Outsiders can do this because they do not claim authority. In contrast, if outsiders seek to legitimise an idea by referring to a religious text, this person will end up meddling with the community’s internal authority and its own legitimisation processes.

A two-way process

Trainers and mediators should use open questions and ask for peer- or elder-review
The best way to develop ideas is in a two-way form of dialogue. Even as an insider, religious texts should not be used as a tool to ‘prove’ that you are right, but instead to develop ideas and grapple with possible new meanings, interpretations and nuances.

By taking a two-way approach, the non-religious principle and the religious text can end up teaching something to the other. Coming from a negotiating standpoint, it is also vital to be humble, and stress that the origin of an idea is more likely to be in the religious text (such as the Bible) than in the most recently published article on negotiation or mediation. Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum comes to mind: “I have nothing new to teach the world, truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.”

Trainers and mediators should use open questions and ask for peer- or elder-review. As an insider focusing on legitimisation and accessibility, and an outsider focusing only on accessibility, there is still an additional criterion to keep in mind: checking with others to make sure your use of a religious quote is OK. Rather than saying this is the only or best way of understanding, it is advisable to pose your desired point or observation as an open question, and thereby focus on different ways of understanding, and not just one which is right or wrong. By taking this tack, a discussion can be started with the peers or elders of a group about whether a religious text is usable in a particular way or not.

Using religion to teach mediation

The way religious resources should be used to teach negotiation skills depends on whether someone is a member of a community or an outsider. This is also relevant for sub-communities. For example, you can be from a religious tradition (Christianity), but not from the sub-community (Catholic or Protestant). This means you will still be considered an outsider.

Insider and outsider are thus relative terms. Even as an insider, the community still needs to be engaged in open dialogue, peer-review and a two-way dialogue of understanding and legitimisation. As an outsider, it is even more important to be careful and humble. All efforts to legitimise ideas should be avoided. Instead, one should simply focus on effective communication and the accessibility of ideas, which can then be accepted or rejected by the religious community in question.

A version of this article was first published by CSS ETH Zurich. An example of how these principles were applied with the Heads of Christian Denominations in Zimbabwe is available at