Reconciliation – does the Bible help us?

When Irish Presbyterians come to resolve conflict they turn to the Bible and specifically to Matthew 18 where a process is clearly set out and to which church members are first referred should there be any disputes between them. The verses are entitled Dealing with sin in the church:-


15 ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 ‘Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’


The verses follow from a section specifically about not tripping up young or not yet mature followers of Jesus. Those verses follow from an account of a dispute between the disciples about who was going to be greatest and have the best place when they were all in heaven. Leading into the verses about causing others to stumble are a couple of verses about searching out the one that wanders away, even if there are ninety nine left in the fold. After the verses about dealing with sin in the church, or resolving conflict, there is a story about mercy and forgiveness – about how one man found himself at the mercy of a powerful king to whom he owed much and when he begged for mercy he found himself forgiven the debt. Going out into the street, his heart and spirit light, he met another man who owed him a small amount and when this man threw himself on the forgiven servants mercy he found himself thrown into jail. So the verses about conflict and its resolution are set inside a whole series of thoughts about power and how it is used, about the role of mercy and forgiveness in relationships and about the power of example to trip others up or, it is implied, to inspire more from them. Clearly what matters to the author is good relationships and so when those relationships break down there is a clear path for their resolution.

1 Try to resolve the differences quietly and between yourselves, if that doesn’t work –

2 Bring some others along with you and try to work it out and if that still doesn’t work –

3 Its time to go to the wider church community

4 If there is still no hope of restoring the relationship then there is no alternative but to treat the ‘sinner’, the one with whom the relationship has broken down, as a pagan or a tax-collector.

Lederach takes this passage and effectively unpacks it into the life of the church community, critiquing it from within the practice of his own Mennonite tradition and as I read I discover that Mennonite practice isn’t that far off Presbyterian practice. It’s a good read for church people who want to be Biblical in the way in which they approach the broken relationships within all our church communities.

But Lederach takes this passage further and inquires into what it can offer by way of model and guide to those involved in conflict resolution in other scenarios and situations. There are some helpful thoughts and they have provoked me in my thinking. What does it mean, for example, to move a process of resolving conflict beyond a room where there are two people working it out or a small group trying to address it? What does it mean to roll out the conflict before a whole community and seek there its resolution? And if there is no resolution we are to treat the other, the enemy, as a pagan or a tax collector – is that a good thing?

There are those who resist any notion of dealing with our history in the context of Northern Ireland and certainly a resistance to dealing with our history in any kind of organised way. They argue that there is enough going on, that there is enough disturbance and sharing of information and dragging this community down with truth-seeking and they want lines drawn in the sand, under the past and across the pages of inquests and inquiries. There are all sorts of good reasons offered into the argument for this ‘line-drawing’. Society has had enough; it costs too much; the truth would do no good; the truth could never be found anyway; we need to move on. Most of us, if we’ve been paying any sort of attention at all, have heard all the arguments rehearsed. But I have to wonder as I listen and I as look at those who make the draw-a-line arguments if it hasn’t more to do with feeling that truth is a one way process and it’s time that one way process ended rather than go on in an unbalanced way. So the resistance is more about balance than about truth itself and truth can always be sacrificed if it has become a weapon against one section of the community.

The Matthew passage and Jesus urging about what to do when there is conflict tells us that we are to move toward the person who has set themselves apart from us, become ‘enemy’ to us. We are urged to move towards them, to talk directly with them and if we find that we can’t make ourselves understood then we are to take others with us. There is no immediacy in the breaking off of the relationship. Should talking with the person in the company of others still be ineffective in developing understanding and remaking a relationship then the wider community becomes involved. While the passage is written for individual situations or internal community disputes there are still important aspects to this for a process of national reconciliation.

  • move towards the other, the one considered to be the enemy. There is no standing back, no hanging out in the shadows waiting to see if something happens. There is movement and it is movement towards the enemy. It is up to the peacemakers and the conflict resolvers and those who want something better and believe in something better to move towards the enemy. It’s up to everyone to identify the enemy and move towards them.
  • move towards the other in the hope of a new relationship. Matthew 18 sets out the new relationships in terms of new understandings about power, new insights about who is important and sought out, new visions of mercy and forgiveness. (If you want it in the Biblical sense it is to give the chance to discover that in the Kingdom of God those who think of themselves as the greatest will be surprised then the least step forward ahead of them; it is a chance to discover that in the Kingdom of God the one is sought after even if there are already ninety nine safe in the fold, everyone counts; it is to provide the learning that example matters and everyone shares responsibility for the weak and the vulnerable and the easily swayed so that they do not stumble and fall; it is to open up the windows onto the issues of power and mercy and forgiveness that transform and reset relationships putting people into different and new and exciting places that they hadn’t imagined possible.) The process of resolving conflict is not only to move towards enemies but also to offer surprising and life-changing experiences of mercy and forgiveness to people who thought they didn’t matter to you or who imagined they wouldn’t register on your radar.
  • allow enemies to move towards one another in a way that is witnessed by the wider community for their healing, hope and change. There is a wider community to bear witness and to itself be changed.
  • if there is no new hope from moving towards the enemy then they are to be treated as ‘pagans or tax collectors’. Whole books have been written about what that might mean but in the Biblical sense it can be argued that what Jesus did with pagans and tax-collectors was to have dinner with them. They weren’t put so far from him that they suffered utter exclusion. The relationship can never quite be an easy or comfortable one but neither is it one that is cut off without hope.


This third area, the wider community, is one worth considering further and I will do that at another time. It has begun to run around in my mind that this wider community of whatever and from where ever it is constructed, might be something like a Commission of Witnesses to Transformation. We don’t need a Truth Commission here, we are never going to agree on one. There are all sorts of thoughts around as to how we become a society more defined by how we are reconciling than we are by our divided past. There are things that need to be done and there are those who are able to identify those things and even ask for them. We are more constrained in what we can do than we were a few years ago, before the economic downturn. But still we need something, a process, a dealing with the past, a way for enemies to lay down the burdens of the past in the best way that they can so that the tools for building the future can be held in their hands. Wider society needs to become part of it but the process is fraught with danger, with justice concerns, with sell-out concerns, with moral murk and emotional despair and maybe a Commission of Witnesses could help with that and enable those who are already being transformed to put that clearly into the public domain, to work further into their transformation and to have it borne witness to in a manner which will help all of society to bring energy to its own transformation. I’m not quite sure how it would work but somewhere in here there might be a grain of guidance and hope. From the Bible, after all – the book about God’s mission as reconciliation.



Reconciliation – let’s get real, not abstract

 I came in this afternoon from an event on Duncairn Gardens and thought to myself – get real, not abstract. I have a tendency to get abstract but always with the intention of getting real. So maybe now, for a moment at least, I will. I realised too how different things are. Twenty years ago I remember coming out the same doors to the same church halls and looking anxiously around to see 

  1. if there were any bricks flying overhead
  2. to see if there were any tense small groups of people on either side of the fence, and
  3. to see if any damage had been done to my car or to anyone else’s car. 

Today I came out of those same doors to the noise of sizzling burgers, the gusts of wind into bouncy castles and the music of fun and laughter as people from across the divide gathered to meet, to eat, to chat, to laugh and to learn that they could be in the same place at the same time and the world wouldn’t end. It was great!

It was great not to have to escort children through the mayhem, not to have to worry that tonight the stones and bricks could be tracer or sniper bullets. It was fantastic to feel that something had been gained, not that something had been lost, by people sharing space. Small steps in the eyes of some maybe but radical transformation due to hard work, risk taking, willingness to step out and readiness to make friends. I was reminded, and it was a timely reminder, that the work of reconciliation is one that requires everyone to get real. Some people have and sometimes they have paid a price for what they have done but their work has paid off and is continuing to pay off.

We have to get real because often the work is long and slow and the rewards can take years to appear. But today is evidence of the fact that the rewards do come and no one has to lose anything in the process. In fact, unless one prefers a warlike curfew to the freedom of the streets, unless one prefers the buzz of making it across the divide alive rather the rush of joy that comes with hearing people laugh and and chat, there is only gain.

Reconciliation is a real process with real challenges.


Reconciliation is – a process of the heart. 

Reconciliation is a process of the heart because it is one through which everyone wants to be treated humanely and well. In seeking reconciliation there is a heartfelt cry to move away from language like scum, rat, exploiter, colluder, tout, bigot, dog. There is a longing of the heart to hear others say – ‘I know where you’re coming from’ (even if there is no real agreement about that). There is a desire in us all to be treated better by others, to be made more human by compassion and understanding and that heartfelt cry is there in the search for reconciliation. And more deeply than that there is a daring to hope that one day there will be forgiveness. Confession and sorrow yes, but further down the road, perhaps, and maybe when much water has flowed under the bridge, forgiveness and a new reconciliation borne out of walking the long, hard and sometimes rough road that comes from opening hearts up to new possibilities and new relationships. 


Reconciliation is – a process of the head

The road to reconciliation is not travelled without some skills accumulated, learned and shared along the way. So in the local and community processes there has to be some thought given to how to go about it. That is true at the wider political level too. Thought has to be given to how to go about walking the road of reconciliation and some thought has to be given to the potential fall out, to the potential gains and losses and to how the losses can be mitigated. Some thought has to be given to how those already damaged can be protected and brought through if they themselves are too vulnerable to face into a new process of relationship building and some are. But reconciliation is a process of the head because of the commitment and understanding that will have to be set out before others and renewed again and again as the practice trips and falls. A process of reconciliation has to make sense and leaders locally and nationally are duty bound to help citizens make good sense of it.


Reconciliation is – a process for local communities. 

Interfaces are easy, at least I find that they are. The divisions are clear, the local sites of separation can be picked out, the identity markers are there and the local communities are among the most proactive and engaged that you will find. Some people seem to think the problem is at the interfaces. I tend to think that if others would try to do what the local interface communities try to do in terms of reconciliation then there might be more progress made. Reconciliation is something that every community needs to get real about and some ‘out of town, middle class’ communities discovered that over the Jubilee celebrations when what they call bunting was construed by others to be sectarian identity marking. Local communities need leadership up and down the land and there are natural leadership locations in schools and churches. We might add to those natural centres for leadership GP surgeries, social security offices, town halls etc. Local communities can make a difference. Some are trying. Others still have to get real.


Reconciliation is – a process at the political level. 

Reconciliation can be viewed in different ways and there is a clear political dimension to it. Political reconciliation sticks in the throat of many because of the compromises that are made in order to move things forward. We have faced into so many now that it has almost become second nature to us here in Northern Ireland, the North, the North of Ireland, Ulster. We have become used to the murk and mess of what is known as political reconciliation and the truth is that the murk and mess will continue if political reconciliation doesn’t press on, on the one hand, and if, on the other hand, there aren’t other processes in progress too to build the relationships that will lift society from what has become acceptable in so many ways and move society towards what is truly desired in terms of a community that provides space and grace for human flourishing. Political processes are not yet complete and there is leadership to be given. Often these political processes are despised and often too they are disowned. But they have their own integrity and purpose and should be valued for what they have helped this society achieve. Now is not the time for them to stall but for them to construct out of experience a way through the big issues that remain and rub against the move towards a more shared and reconciled society.


Reconciliation is – a process for individuals. 

This is a really difficult one and I will say nothing much about it because all of us are different and we all have had different experiences. But there is space for many of us to move into and it will take courage and grace. A human touch from others will make it easier and in the process at this level safe spaces are all important. There are some individuals whose courage has inspired and there are other individuals who need to set down the guilt about how they feel when they hear about reconciliation. Everyone is different and healing comes in different ways. But some of us individually need to act and to protect the broken from carrying yet more of the burden. But I might also say that some of the most challenging and society-changing relationships are found among those most personally broken by the conflict. Your courage and inspiration should not be allowed to pass without note.


Heart, head, local, political, individual.

Courage, inspiration.

Relationships, new possibilities, broken, healing.

Nothing lost, something gained.

Things are better than they used to be.

Process, process, process.

Reconciliation – let’s get real, not abstract!


Trust, mercy, justice & peace = reconciliation.

Years ago now I heard John Paul Lederach speak at Corrymeela about the four dynamics of reconciliation. Each of them plays their part in building peace and bringing about the longed for reconciliation. Those four dynamics move in and out of the front of stage, they work together and interweave, they correct and temper each other until something begins to take shape and that something is a process of reconciliation. The four are: Trust Mercy Justice Peace The difficulty is that for these four to begin to play their part and for a process of reconciliation to begin to take shape there has to first of all be relationship. For Lederach that relationship begins in the context of apology and forgiveness and the new relationship that emerges because of apology and forgiveness. Perhaps one of the difficulties with talk about reconciliation is the tendency to mix up the different levels at which reconciliation can happen and sometimes we talk past each other by meaning different things. So for some people the personal and individual matters most of all. That would be true for some of the victims and survivors. For them their personal experience of hurt and the devastation of their lives always comes to the top and when they talk about reconciliation or when they resist reconciliation they are doing so out of their personal experience. For other people reconciliation sparks off thoughts about the experience of their community locally. That could be at one of Northern Ireland’s interfaces or so-called peace walls or it could be along some border areas where there is a strong feeling that a Republican campaign was waged. For still others it is about remembering a time when their community was moved on, bombed or burnt out or when their community felt the weight of being at the bottom of the pile when it came to jobs or prospects or access to power. When reconciliation processes are spoken of in a post-conflict context what is ideally meant is some kind of process which takes account of personal and local stories but which is essentially society wide and is political in the sense that it will enable the construction of new leadership relationships and new community relationships. It will have to be palatable to enough people to make it work but it doesn’t have to be accepted by everyone or even totally accepted by the majority. What does have to be agreed that it is needed and the bitter pill has to be of a size that most people can swallow even if it isn’t honey to their tastebuds! In an earlier post I wondered about the role of truth, justice and dealing with the past in the process of reconciliation. That too is an interweaving process because different people make different emphases in line with their needs. For those who seek truth more than anything else there are some who want detailed forensic truth and there are those who want the acknowledgement that the truth they think they have is broadly true e.g. that there was collusion rather than all the details of what collusion took place. For those who want justice there are different levels of justice sought. So some are content to let the judicial system run its course and if there is never enough evidence to convict then let it be so because they will not compromise justice as they understand it even for some lesser kind of justice, lesser in their minds. But for others some other kind of justice is enough – a justice procedure which allows acknowledgment and/or apology rather than courts and evidence and convictions. It is already possible to see that some would prefer not to deal with the past unless it can be dealt with by traditional means while there are others who want to deal with the past and are willing to construct something different for the purposes of that and in recognition of the fact that we lived through abnormal times and so abnormal means may be needed to put those times behind us as a society. Interweaving, interplaying, constructing for the time – all this suggests to some a lowering of the bar which is to give in to those who terrorized in the past. I prefer to think of it as an opening of the doors so that something new and more hopeful can emerge and out of which something more moral, more inspiringly upright can be born. In this way reconciliation: … brings people together, enabling them to grow beyond the past to re-establish a normalized, peaceful, and trusting relationship in the present. ( For me coming to this from the perspective of the Christian faith it is good to be reminded not only of apology and forgiveness which are words in usage every day of the Christian life lived in the sight and presence of a perfect God, but also of mercy. Apology and forgiveness mean nothing if it were not for the mercy of God and that is a lesson as we walk out through our doors – a lesson and a challenge and a humbling reminder. Reconciliation clearly takes times. It is hard to trust a good friend who lets you down and so much harder to trust one who once trained their gun sights on you or your loved ones. It is sometimes well nigh impossible to offer anything even remotely like mercy to people who insulted you or tarnished your name never mind someone who typified you as a monster without eyes for the weak or for your humanity. Justice is a good thing – most of us wouldn’t argue with that. But sometimes the justice that we seek slips over into a desire for retribution. Allowing the reconstruction of justice is an awesome challenge. Peace is hard to accept when hurt continues to run deep and refuses to heal. Hurt takes its own time and sometimes it never heals so to let things ‘be at peace’ can be an almost intolerable request. Reconciliation cannot happen over night but equally it cannot happen unless people are prepared to risk relationships with each other. Uncomfortable, prickly, judgmental, suspicious relationships they may be, but without that basic commitment there is no hope. In his book The Journey Toward Reconciliation Lederach returns to the story of jacob and Esau – two brothers who were thrown into disarray and conflict and who walked away from each other. For a long time they lived apart and for a long time they wondered each about the other and then steps were taken for them to meet again. There was preparation to be done. The separation had been for a very long time. All of this is to point to the fact that reconciliation cannot be rushed and there are some things about which people simply cannot meet. So Lederach writes: … we must be cautious about quick formulas of “forgiveness’ and being “nice” to each other. Well-intentioned people may advise estranged parties to quickly forgive and forget. Yet those parties may need a long time and geographical separation for healing to occur. (p133) For Jacob and Esau the separation lasted for decades. In the process of reconciliation mercy, trust, justice and peace matter and must work together in the relationships being woven through experiences of apology and forgiveness. None of it is linear, not even the beginning in apology and forgiveness. Sometimes the trust of friendship despite backgrounds comes first. But always in the process thought must be given to the spaces people need to part, to separate, to wonder among ones own or on ones own about what is going on and to wander away from the process for a time and then to find the way back. That is natural in human experience and human experience cannot be written out of the reconciliation process and the hope it brings.


Reconciliation – what is it and how does it happen?

Sometimes when we talk about reconciliation we mean a particular time or moment when something changes and with it a relationship changes too. That relationship can be at its beginning or it can be one put back together after a fracture, a fracture that can be deep and hard to heal. Sometimes when we speak about reconciliation we are talking more about what will need to be done to achieve it than we are about reconciliation itself So we may resist the steps that need to be taken, in our view, to be reconciled and in so doing we resist reconciliation itself in any shape or form. For example it is the case that some from within the broad unionist family do not wish to change their view of why they were involved in the security services and while they are prepared to admit that there are a few bad apples everywhere and that things may have gone wrong they are not prepared to admit anything more or to be open in any way to the possibility of more going on within the British establishment in terms of collusion etc. If pushed they may concede that there could have been things going on but only, they would qualify it, because there was no alternative. It would be their view that the State would have acted with as much integrity as  was possible in the circumstances. Being already unwilling to get into discussion about such matters it is sometimes the case that those who hold this view will not get involved in any process of reconciliation as they understand this to be the intended goal of ‘the other’s sides’ process of reconciliation.

So the question arises about what reconciliation is and how it happens. Is it a goal or a process and if it is a goal can that goal be forced or decided upon before a process begins? When a society begins the move from a divided past to a future in which old enemies lay down their weapons and begin to tolerate one another, co-operate with one another and one day value one another, then reconciliation has become a reality. It is not, though, complete. A society knows it is making progress when it is more defined by how it is reconciling than by its divided past. Whether or not society has reached that point in Northern Ireland is open for debate but clearly there remain matters from the past that still have to be dealt with even though it may be said that some aspects of reconciliation have been achieved, for example in sharing government no matter how far short of the ideal that may fall. So reconciliation is both a goal and a process and in the process of being reconciled there will be goals along the way. It is important that the reached goals are marked and not forgotten but it is also important that the process retains momentum until such times as society is defined more by how it is reconciling than by its divided past. Reconciliation has, therefore, to be committed to both as a goal and as a process, or perhaps more pertinently as a way of life. Without reconciliation the pull of the past is strong enough to overwhelm. This has to be resisted and the reconciliation process resourced so that a better future is not only imagined but also achieved.

The processes of reconciliation are many and various and all are needed at all levels of society if an ultimate reconciliation is to be achieved and the process to remain energized. The processes can be as local as local neighbourhoods working together on some common issues such as community safety or what to do about drugs in the locality or even on issues such as local areas for children to play together. When people decide it is possible to work together locally in ways that they wouldn’t have in the past then reconciliation processes are under way. In interface localities the working together faces the challenges of reaching out across old divides and transforming the space that was once a place for violent encounter to become spaces of creative engagement and growing interest in and understanding of each other. Considerable work goes on in this way and often the stories are not told or not heard. In rural communities new ways of meeting where there is real engagement one with another in ways that wouldn’t have happened in the past are also possible but in some cases that means stepping outside of self-sufficient rural communities to cross over into other self-sufficient rural communities. Then there are more political processes that are needed if reconciliation to occur at a more middle level. That will involve public story-telling, art work that takes up the issues in plays or music or photographic exhibitions or the like. Some of the institutions of society will be involved in this middle level peace-building and reconciliation work – schools meeting with other schools, churches stepping out beyond their own walls etc. Then finally there are government led processes which in the context of Northern Ireland have been about the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement the St Andrew’s Agreement etc. At all levels of society there are processes of reconciliation under way.

At this point in our history, knowing that reconciliation is a process and that it has goals and understanding that reconciliation needs to be embedded as a way of life we face the question about what needs to be done to take the processes on to the next stage There are some issues that remain unresolved and as trade-off politics continues I would suspect that soon we will run out of things to trade in. The big issues will finally have to be faced and there will have to be decisions made about information sharing, about what to do in order to get more information to victims and their families. Something will have to be done about the justice that is never going to be achieved in the usual way but there may yet be justice for families and loved ones as they have their questions answered. Something still needs to be done about the stories that haven’t been told, about the hurts that haven’t been healed and about those who believe the peace has no dividend for them. Something still needs to be done about sectarianism lest it comes back to haunt, or worse comes back strong and violent. Something still needs to be done about the sectarianism we tolerate so that services are dispersed and improperly resourced – education provision, health provision, local community cohesion and development – all of these are still addressed in a sectarianised way which divides resources and results in failing to achieve all that could have been achieved. Something still needs to be done about the re-integration of prisoners and about how prison officers and ex-UDR personnel feel about how things have played out for them. Something still needs to be done about the way in which people can openly demean each other or put each other down. I hesitate to propose any form of commission but something needs to be pulled together so that the past doesn’t hover with ghostly presence over everything that is done so that decisions are always made in the shadow of that ghostly past. New processes are still needed if the goal of a better place, a place which is more defined by how it is building better relationships and a society in which people can flourish is to be achieved. Reconciliation happens when there are good processes in place at every level of society and sometimes reconciliation processes have to be formed out of leaps of faith that the brace take because they believe that they have come along way but also that things can so still be so much better.

Reconciliation doesn’t happen quickly and it doesn’t always happen easily and it certainly isn’t a linear process with only one goal in view. In all of it it is important to note that Lederach argues, and he has been involved in more peace-building and reconciliation processes than more, that resolving or finding a way out of the conflict can take as long as the conflict itself.