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The Land of Unlikeness

Author(s): David Stephens

ISBN13: 9781856074377

ISBN10: 1856074374


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  • The Land of Unlikeness comes out of the experience of living in the society of Northern Ireland, which has undergone some level of political violence during the whole of the authors adult life. It is, therefore, about Northern Ireland, but is also about more, namely the many other societies experiencing violent conflict or coming out of violent conflict.

    The book asks the questions: Can such societies make good again? What can Christian faith bring to the search for reconciliation? In exploring the answers to these questions, David Stevens looks at the meaning of reconciliation and offers biblical and theological perspectives.

    At the heart of the book is an examination of the vital question of dealing with the past, in particular how the complex and multi-stranded weave of forgiveness, justice, truth and repentance can overcome the past.
  • David Stephens

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  • CHAPTER 1: The meaning of reconciliation


    Reconciliation has a particular resonance in situations that have undergone extensive conflict where we need to make good again, e.g. in South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in Northern Ireland where the logic of reconciliation is intrinsic to the Good Friday Agreement. (1) However, reconciliations meanings and possibilities vary considerably. We have to be attentive to particular situations.

    It also has to be admitted that the word reconciliation has been shamelessly misused to slide away from issues of injustice and rightful disturbance. It has been used to quieten people down and lead them away from the reality of their situation. Use of the word can disguise a lack of political specificity. Archbishop Rowan Williams says 'reconciliation' is such a seductively comfortable word... (2) But reconciliation can be misused in other ways. There are forms of reconciliation which are about making people fit into predetermined solutions. There is also a tendency in discussion about reconciliation to downgrade differences. Not all differences are reconcilable. A discourse of reconciliation can also be used to suppress pain and trauma and express a wish for a happy ending. And finally, a discourse of reconciliation can appear to claim too much in contexts where getting people into the same room together can be an achievement.

    However, I want to rescue the word from vacuity, false comfort and misuse, and to discuss its meaning using six different approaches:

    - seeing reconciliation as living together in difference;
    - seeing reconciliation in terms of the inter-related dynamics of forgiveness, repentance, truth and justice;
    - seeing reconciliation as a place - where the different conflicting parties meet and face together the claims and tensions between truth and mercy and justice and peace;
    - seeing reconciliation in the context of revenge and sacrifice;
    - seeing reconciliation in terms of a set of attitudes and practices that are necessary for dealing with plurality, for fair interactions between members of different groups, for healing divisions and for finding common purposes; and
    - seeing reconciliation as creating and sustaining conversation.

    Most of these approaches overlap. What is not assumed is that there was a time in the past when the parties were not divided and there were positive relationships. It will also become clear in the discussion that reconciliation is much more than peaceful coexistence. Co-existence is basically an agreement to proceed on parallel tracks. Reconciliation does not deny difference but speaks of continuing relationship and partnership.

    Living together in difference
    Reconciliation can be seen in this approach as being able to live together in difference. The model is of reconciled diversity.

    Living together in difference and diversity , racial, cultural, social, religious , is an increasingly challenging issue facing todays world. It raises profound issues about community, identity, recognition and how we meet the other. Often there is disease in the presence of difference and differences have been dealt with by belittling, dehumanising and demonising, overlooking, avoidance (polite or otherwise) and by making people fit in (sometimes through overt pressure). The possibility of people having real meetings where there is honest conversation, respect and mutual regard is narrowed in such situations and they become hostage to wider communal fears. For instance, there is evidence that Bosnias earlier tradition of tolerance was based only on a politeness which sought to preserve stability.

    All group identity is created by encountering what is different. Such an encounter involves a recognition of the other. A recognition of the other can be positive, but it can often be based on fear and mistrust and/ or a sense of superiority, as the following example shows.

    The former Bosnian President Biljana Plavsic pleaded guilty to war crimes in October 2002 at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. A former biology professor, she borrowed terms from her biology text books and told the Serbs that they were racially superior to the Muslims, and eradication was a natural process. At her sentencing hearing she asked the question, Why did I not see the truth earlier? (3) Her response was: The answer is I believe fear, a blinding fear that led to obsession, especially for those of us for whom World War Two was living memory that Serbs would never allow themselves to become victims... At the time I convinced myself that this is a matter of survival and self-defence ... The victimised become victimisers and the aggressors see their actions as self-defence.

    Identities can be mis-shaped by recognition or its absence. A group of people can suffer real damage and real distortion if other groups or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.

    The institution of slavery in the USA systemically demeaned the humanity of blacks and profoundly affected their identity. A black archivist and curator of a repository for African-American history says in Ema Parris book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History:

    I have yet to find a psychological study about the impact of the institution of slavery on people. About how one who was considered chattel, non-human, had to, and still has to, constantly try to convince another group of people that I am human. People sometimes dont understand that when a sports-caster recently said about a black athlete, Boy, he runs like a horse, then referred to the white athlete as intelligent , well, that sends shock waves. I think we havent started to look at the ramifications of dehumanisation. You saw the ships inventory that lists a person like a bag of spices and herbs? There is not a face or mind attached to that. Its a piece of cargo. You know, I think it was [W.E.B.] Du Bois who talked about oneness and twoness, that there is a constant battle within the black person to strive for oneness - oneness meaning that he is human, twoness, that he is perceived as not being totally human. The black person somehow strives to prove that he is human and it is an ongoing battle within. Even today. (4)

    Distortion and damage is mutual in a society of antagonised division. Shame and guilt will be passed down to later generations.

    The identities engendered in such situations are often negative identities, based on opposition to the other, e.g. through most of European history, Europe defined itself against the Turk, Arabs and Islam. President Slobodan Milosevic drew on this history when he told the Serbs of Kosovo in 1989 that never again would Islam subjugate the Serbs. Asserting such identities also serves to increase an awareness of difference and separateness. An identity politics of antagonised division often emerges. Plurality and heterogeneity within the group must give way to homogeneity and unity. Everything must be made pure, with the impure and the different expelled.

    Negative identity involves a need to abuse the other, often emerging out of ones own experience of abuse, fear, loss or powerlessness. If the rule of positive identity is love your neighbour [the other] as yourself (Lev 19:18), then the rule of negative identity is do unto others what they have done unto you, or do it unto them first. What the Serbs did under Milosevics leadership in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia clearly illustrates this. Under the guise of the Bosnian Moslems being the clear and present enemy, one of the prime motivators was to humiliate the other side for what was done in the past: We will do to you what your ancestors did to us.

    One of the deepest resistances to peace and reconciliation in many situations is the stubborn commitment on all sides to the negative identities formed over and against others. We need our enemy because of the identity this oppositional other gives us. We may desperately seek to continue the conflict because we cannot envision ourselves in a future that would include positive relations with the other. We need to keep the old story in place. Periods of transition are particularly difficult for identities formed in opposition and this may drive people to more desperate violence as they seek to keep the old world intact.

    For transitions to go in a good direction, there needs to be a movement away from constructing identities over and against others, to developing identities that through positive relationships respect others and leave room for difference. People need to have the confidence to engage in a journey that explores who they are and what they might become. This involves a new recognition of the other and a willingness to enter new worlds , a journey of re-imagination and the making of new stories.

    The duality of difference
    The presence of difference generates energy; that energy can be negative and destructive, but it can also be positive and creative. The duality of difference is ever present. The scapegoating and driving out of the other , polarising us against them , is always there as a possibility. However, living together in difference, without domination, opens up the potentiality of creative relationship and dynamic interaction, and a more enlivening future for everyone. Key is the acceptance and even the enjoyment, of difference. The seeking after the purity of sameness is the way to impoverishment.

    Covenanting together
    Covenant is a central biblical concept, referring as it does to the relation of God to the world: Gods covenant means a gracious commitment on the part of God to heal and restore Gods relationship with the world so that it might be brought to perfection. (5)

    The idea of covenant can be misused. It has been used in Northern Ireland and Scottish history as a way of mobilising opposition against enemies rather than as a way of establishing relationships. The Solemn League and Covenant for Ulster of 1912 (modelled on the national covenants of the 1500s and 1600s whereby Scottish Calvinists joined together, under God, the causes of church and nation in resistance to popery and prelacy, i.e. Catholicism and Anglicanism) was used to mobilise opposition to Home Rule. The Covenant used the phrase using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland (emphasis added). The Covenant Day

    was essentially a holy day; work ceased and the day began with congregations meeting for worship. Thus were combined together religion, politics and the threat of violence. (6)

    Similarly in South Africa the traditional Afrikaner story was of a covenant made between God and the Voortrekkers on the eve of the Battle of Blood River in 1838. The Voortrekkers pledged to God that they would remember the day as a holy Sabbath in perpetuity if God granted them victory over the Zulu army. The event became the key to the interpretation of Afrikaner history during the decades of the twentieth century, celebrated as the Day of the Covenant. The covenant became a cornerstone of the ideology of apartheid. It provided a divine justification for maintaining a separate Afrikaner nation, for the policy of apartheid and the entrenchment of white power.

    While the idea of covenant can be misused, and we cannot directly use the idea of a divine covenant in the social and political arenas, nevertheless it is of central importance for people seeking to live together.

    The German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, (7) was clear that there were two primary requirements for people to live together: (1) the willingness of people to be bound together by promises and agreements, and to keep them, i.e. they create a covenant together; and (2) the willingness to set aside the past , its enmities and the vicious circle of action and reaction , and start anew; this is where the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation arises.

    Making a covenant together is an attempt to create partnership without dominance or submission. It does not assume that the parties are equal in power. Covenants exist because people are different and seek to preserve that difference, even as they come together in a continuing relationship. The covenant together requires a mutual making space for the other; which may mean redefining identities, in the light of the others presence.

    A covenantal relationship goes beyond social contract, because it is concerned with reconciliation rather than mere coexistence, as was recognised by Nelson Mandela when, in his inauguration address as President of South Africa in May 1994, he declared:

    We enter into a Covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity , a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

    The willingness of people to be bound together by promises and agreements, and to keep them, is necessary for order and trust in human life. But the imperfection and sinfulness of people mean that we frequently fail to keep promises and agreements. Therefore, we have to find some way of repairing covenants by setting aside the past with its failures and enmities. Forgiveness therefore is a vital component of social healing, of rebuilding relations and creating trustworthy and sustainable structures.

    The inter-related dynamics of forgiveness, repentance, truth and justice
    I want to argue that for reconciliation to take place there has to be the presence of justice, truth, forgiveness and repentance. What proportion of each of these elements is present in a particular situation is a matter for detailed investigation, and what the implications of this are for the quality of the reconciliation achieved is again a matter for investigation.

    The meaning of justice, truth, forgiveness and repentance is developed in greater detail at other points in the text. At this juncture, however, some preliminary clarifications are in order.

    The meaning of justice
    The different meanings of justice include:
    Punitive justice , the punishment of wrongdoers.
    Structural justice , aimed at the structural inequalities of society.
    Restitutional justice , which seeks to make amends by providing reparation for victims.
    Legal justice , directed to the reform of law, the judiciary and policing.

    The meaning of truth
    The different meanings of truth include:
    Factual or forensic truth , legal or scientific information which is factual, accurate and objective and is obtained by impartial procedure.
    Personal and narrative truth , the stories told by perpetrators and, more extensively, victims.
    Social truth , the truth generated by interaction, discussion and debate.
    Healing and restorative truth , the narratives that face the past in order to go forward.

    Truth involves truth-telling and truth-learning, and is suffused with moral judgement.

    The meaning of repentance
    Repentance means stopping what we are doing; recognition, examination and acknowledgement of wrongdoing; accepting responsibility; expressing remorse; seeking forgiveness; and seeking to repair the harm done.

    The meaning of forgiveness
    Forgiveness involves letting go of the past (including letting go of vengeance), acting lovingly towards a wrongdoer, and the possibility of a new relationship with the enemy / perpetrator. Letting go of the past does not mean that a justice claim is abandoned (see below).

    Forgiveness and repentance have a collective and communal aspect which interacts with the personal and individual.

    The relationship between justice and repentance
    Joseph Leichty says:

    At the heart of repentance is always a justice claim, but one of a particularly important kind , it is a justice claim that we acknowledge against ourselves. Repentance involves the uncomfortable awareness that injustice is not solely something we suffer, but also something we inflict, and in this way repentance offers an antidote to the self-righteousness that so easily accompanies the pursuit of justice. (8)

    A further link between repentance and justice is that an element in repentance is putting wrongs right.

    The relationship between forgiveness and justice
    Joseph Leichty says:

    Forgiveness is linked to justice in several ways. As with repentance, there must always be a justice claim at the root of forgiveness, otherwise there is nothing to forgive and the language of forgiveness should not be used. But the genius of forgiveness is to offer a way of pursuing justice, without being destroyed by the frustration and anger of repeated failures. Forgiveness also helps to ensure that the recompense involved in justice claims will be directed towards restoration rather than sliding into revenge. This bias towards restoration brings new options and room to manoeuvre into the pursuit of justice. Because forgiveness focuses so clearly on restorative justice it allows the possibility that I may settle my justice claim by demanding less than full recompense, or perhaps none at all if that might aid restoration. (9)

    Thus forgiveness does not give up on accountability or justice claims, nor necessarily on punishment.

    The relationship between truth and justice
    Justice and truth are forms of acknowledgement and accountability. In truth-telling and truth-learning, wrong-doing and injustice are publicly recognised and acknowledged. What has happened is brought to light and is faced. There is a weak form of accountability. The pursuit of justice requires truth because truth is required to find out what happened, to (re)-establish the dignity of the victim and the responsibility of the perpetrator. In justice there is a strong form of accountability.

    The relationship between truth and repentance
    Truth-learning (I recognise what I have done) and truth-telling (I acknowledge what I have done) are key aspects of repentance. Truth in reconciliation has to be understood in terms of the lies that wrongdoers perpetrate and the untruthfulness that is created, (10) and how these are overcome.

    The relationship between truth and forgiveness
    Forgiveness involves knowing and facing what has happened in the past in order to become free of it. We need some encounter with the truth in order to have freedom from the past and to be able to forgive. In fact we cannot fully forgive if we do not know who the perpetrator is.

    Justice in the context of reconciliation
    This is a perspective which places justice in the context of reconciliation. What is being argued is that the overarching framework is reconciliation, not justice. The demands of justice do not trump all other concerns. This does not mean that justice is unimportant. The contrary is the case, for justice is indispensable to reconciliation. Nor does it mean that in some situations the priority should not be on justice, liberation from the oppressor and regime change. Nor is it being suggested that in contexts of oppression the oppressed should simply forgive the oppressors without a change in the situation. In some situations forgiveness - in its political aspect - is not appropriate. What is being argued is that a perspective of justice is not enough; it has to be placed within a more over arching agenda of reconciliation, (11) which is the search for a new relationship. Seeing reconciliation as being built on the inter-related dynamics of forgiveness, repentance, truth and justice makes most sense in the context of a political settlement; a political settlement provides the space in which reconciliation may take place.

    Full repentance and full forgiveness, or the rectification of all the injustices perpetrated during a protracted conflict, or a shared agreement about the truth of the past and its painful interactions, are not likely to be fully achieved. However, if each side comes to a better understanding and empathises with the other side, and some elements of repentance, forgiveness, justice and truth are present at the individual, community and political levels, there is a chance to end the conflict and establish peaceful co-existence - a patchwork quilt of reconciliation. In some cases a deeper reconciliation may emerge over time.

    1. The Irish artist Shane Cullens sculptural work, The Agreement, has digitally routed all 11,500 words of the Agreement into 56 high-density urethane panels, 67 metres long. The meaning of the Agreement is shimmery, shifting, contradictory, elusive, multi-faceted in the words of The Belfast Telegraph columnist, Eamonn McCann (May 8, 2003). Texts and art are multi-vocal, like the meaning of reconciliation.
    2. Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, Blackwell Publishers, 2000, p 266.
    3. For Plavsic quotes see Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, December 15, 2002.
    4. Parris, Long Shadows, p 201.
    5. De Gruchy, Reconciliation, p 185.
    6. Liechty and Clegg, Moving Beyond Sectarianism, p 96.
    7. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp 243-7.
    8. Joseph Liechty, Christian Identity and the Things that Make for Peace, Lion and Lamb, January 1996.
    9. Ibid.
    10. Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation, p 118.
    11. Volf in The Social Meaning of Reconciliation in Interpretation, April, 2000.
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The Land of Unlikeness