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.


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