Why does reconciliation matter?

Why does reconciliation matter? I have been spending some time thinking and reading about reconciliation – what it means, how it happens and all of that. For that reason it has been some time since I posted here. I will get to some writing about what I have been reading in due course but first of all I have found it helpful for my own thinking to consider some key questions about reconciliation.

Why does reconciliation matter in a society emerging from or transitioning from conflict?

Reconciliation – is it a process or a goal?

What is the place of truth, reconciliation and dealing with the past when we start to talk about the future in a post-conflict society?

What types of processes can be called ‘reconciliation’ processes?

What issues need to be resolved in a process of reconciliation in the context of these Islands?

Reconciliation is a fairly unstable word in terms of how we use it in common conversation. Some use it theologically, some use it politically and some use it believing it to be a redundant term and prefer the word conciliation. It was important for me to try to define the term and consider it for myself and to do that I first started to consider why reconciliation is important in societies that are emerging from conflicts such as our own.

In a society transitioning from conflict there are memories that run deep into history at individual, community and society levels. Conflict has, as one of its side effects, what may be called a ‘dehumanizing’ impact on every member of a society where there is conflict. This is seen in an easy familiarity with news of conflict and murder, an unusual situation to which people become accustomed, tolerant of what would not otherwise be tolerated. The effects of this ‘dehumanizing’ are seen in learning to live with a set of circumstances that would not normally pertain in a society. So, for example, I remember hearing talk on the airwaves when I was growing up about ‘an acceptable level of violence’. The phrase was used to indicate that things were improving but in its very use there was a lowering of the bar of what a society should tolerate or accept as a good way of life. So conflict brings about a change in what is morally acceptable in a society.

Conflict demands a complex set of moral considerations in order for it to be addressed militarily and all around people lower the level of what they will tolerate despite being outraged, as they seek a life that is better than the worst days of conflict that they know. The longer the conflict goes on the lower the bar drops distorting memory, embedding hurt and warping vision for the future. So during conflict things happen which would not happen in peace time. The result is that there is injustice to be addressed, forgiveness to be sought and given, hope to be rebuilt and hurt to be healed. If that process of forgiveness, making right and building in hope with healing, is to be successful and a society is to be constructed with less possibility of violent conflict, then reconciliation has to be part of it.

Reconciliation is the process by which the past is set into its proper perspective, relationships are renegotiated and reorientated towards the future and actions are taken to shape the future so that it is different from the past. The process of reconciliation is long, often painful and deeply challenging as people, structures, systems, communities and even dreams, brutalized by violence, are addressed and revisioned. This revisioning no longer takes only oneself or one’s own into view but also ‘the others’. To commit to reconciliation is to commit to something much bigger than any individual group or aspiration and by its very nature will be a long-term commitment, not least because of the depth of suffering, often unacknowledged, in a society which has been dominated by violence.

So reconciliation is both complex and long term, taking account of the past which requires forgiveness, acknowledgement, healing, truth-seeking, truth-telling and justice taking account of the future and beginning to co-operate with old enemies, inspire hope, work together and hold out compassion and understanding to one another and it will require everyone, or as many as possibly can be secured, to bend their efforts to the process. So why does reconciliation matter? Clearly it matters if societies are to places in which the best is possible for all members of that society and if there is to be any healing for the past or hope for the future. Clearly healing may not be complete and perhaps we shouldn’t aim for that for it would be to diminish those who have been lost. But there is nevertheless healing to be done and without hope we know that the people perish, get lost, cast off restraint. The writer of Proverbs, pithy extracts of wisdom for living, puts it clearly:

Proverbs 29:18a (ESV)
18 Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,

Proverbs goes on to point out that is blessed to keep the law but the point is that in conflict law has collapsed into what is acceptable rather than being the law of life, of society which is life-giving. It becomes a society of what can be tolerated. Reconciliation contributes to there rebuilding of a lawful society which isn’t simply a place where ‘law’ is respected no matter what the law is but a  place where law is life-giving for the people, all the people, protecting them and securing their place in relationship with one another. So reconciliation matters because it serves to put relationships back together in a way which brings respect for each other, for the law and for both past and future. it matters, it seems to me, but it also seems to me that reconciliation is an immense challenge. In my view it is a challenge worth making every effort to rise to.


A genuine offer of reconciliation or not?

Earlier in the week I posted the following piece on Eamonn Mallie’s website so I am posting it here just for my own record. However, I would want to say that I am just sharing an opinion. I don’t think I am anyone special other than an ordinary citizen who has a view and who is willing to try out some things in an attempt to contribute to building a better, more shared and reconciled society. I want to talk about how to do that. I am not interested in instructing others but rather in debating with them in an open way without hostility but with genuine concern for building something better.

When it comes to this question about reconciliation and about whether or not Sinn Fein and their cohorts can be trusted I think there is a misconception about the meaning of reconciliation, or perhaps it might be better to say that there are different understandings of how reconciliation works out. So maybe there needs to be some unpacking of that notion done. 
Alex Kane’s determination that he would be uncomfortable at the table suggests that everyone else is comfortable. That is, quite simply, not the case. In fact for me the very reason to be at the table is my discomfort. So reconciliation is not for me something that happens before the talking starts but something that is held out as a prize which may only be a possibility, but a prize which is examined in the process of conversation which is seeking reconciliation. Reconciliation is a journey, taken in bits and pieces. It is never a matter of one side in the process having got it all right before they started and entering a process in which others will be enticed over to the other side. For it to be real reconciliation has to be a process to which people sign up in the knowledge that they have hard things to say – but also that there will be hard things to hear. So reconciliation is not an easy way out of the difficulties we are in as we reach a sticking point on the big issues, the smaller ones having been tediously but resolutely cleared away. We will be in trouble politically if we do not address the big issues – the war and why it happened; the mayhem that we lived through and who did what that they shouldn’t have done; the dehumanising of each other; the torture, murder and corruption that was embarked on within communities never mind between them. To those broad sweep issues, and there are of course many more, we have to say things like – Finucane; collusion; Stevens; settlement and majority decision. We have to be prepared for the time when we hold our hands up, each and all of us, and say that we have done things we should not have done and we have left undone things we should have done. 
All of that happens at the table, not before we ever get there. So we need to be sure what is meant here by reconciliation. What I mean by it is that I want to tell others why it is they need to be reconciled to me – what they have done to break a relationship, what they have done to me, to my loved ones, to the community into which I was born, to my life and hopes and dreams. But more than this. I have to sit and hear why I need to be reconciled to others – what my community did to them, why they felt they had to do what they did, how they justify it to themselves and cast me in a certain light to do it. Then, I suspect, that we will together have to face what has happened in our name that we never intended. We will have to face the collapse of relationships that led to all kinds of immorality which was easily justified as part of the cause either of the war or as resistance to the terrorist threat. War is dirty and it makes a society dirty too. There is no innocence but equally there have been outrageous acts of inhumanity which some have carried out and which others have been struck dumb by. We aren’t all equally bad. But no one of us is entirely clean either. The process of reconciliation will need all of that to be aired one way or another. It may not all be resolved but then that’s also part of the process. Each will have to be prepared to listen and to modify and to take on board. And we will have to attempt to construct a way out of it. We will have to deal with what we can and decide what to do about the things we can’t deal with – record our history of those things and park them for a future generation or whatever. But a way out will have to  be found and from time to time we will have to turn away from one another in the hope that a way will be found for us to turn back.
If that’s not what Sinn Fein mean then we will only know when we try it out and it may be that another opportunity to try it out won’t come our way again for a very long time. So I believe that Unionists need to deal with this by standing up and being counted, by speaking out and telling, by being big enough to listen and to argue and debate. I believe this doesn’t mean giving it all away. I also believe that non-engagement is giving it away. So far Sinn Fein have got themselves up onto the high moral ground. So far they have only a few lightweights around them. And I don’t use lightweights pejoratively because the conversation is far from light-weight. I mean that there need to be people with a political mandate there and if the unionist people haven’t mandated their leadership to get out and tell how it has been for the unionist community then I am not sure what they have been mandated to do. I am convinced that Republicans have opened a door but if no one goes in they will have the high moral ground to themselves and that would be a pointless victory for them and an own goal for unionism. But somehow unionist leaders still need to be liberated to get involved and I am not sure how that is going to happen. Maybe it is the case that all Sinn Fein are interested in is their political goal but if there’s no real, relational resistance what are they to believe? What are they to believe about unionists and the Union?