David Stevens on the Prodigal Son & the Transformation Required of Everyone

imageIn yesterday’s post about the ‘Picking up the Pieces’ documentary on RTE Radio, I noted that the role of former prisoners, or ex-combatants, in conflict transformation is controversial for some people:

This can be a controversial topic, as some doubt the sincerity of ex-prisoners, others still blame them (and them alone) for the conflict, and others believe that promoting ex-prisoners as community workers allows ‘paramilitaries’ to maintain undue influence in communities.

In addition to scepticism about the work of ex-prisoners, there is often resistance to the idea that in situations of conflict everyone caught up in the sectarian system that spawned and perpetuated violence bears some responsibility for it.

I think resistance to any notion of structural or communal responsibility is particularly strong in situations of low-burning but deadly communal conflicts, like in Northern Ireland.

But the idea is that people with the power to change society and politics did not do enough to make the changes that might have created conditions so that others (with less power and privilege) would not resort to violence. Still others – the ‘ordinary’ Joes and Janes – were content with the status quo and also did not work for change.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating moral equivalence between people who participated in violent acts, and people who did not. Some people  heroically resisted pressure to become involved in violence. And many others, understandably, just didn’t know what do to and didn’t have the power to effect change.

But I do think there is a tendency to scapegoat groups, which in turn makes it easier for people to overlook ways in which the underlying causes of violence remain unaddressed.

We blame violence on a few ‘bad apples,’ but fail to notice that the tree is rotting from the inside out.

I was reminded of this recently when re-reading David Stevens’ 2008 book, The Place Called Reconciliation: Texts to Explore. Stevens, who passed away in 2010, is a former leader of the Corrymeela Community.

I think his reflections from this book on Luke 15:11-32 shed some light on what I have discussed above, as well as other matters (p. 104-105).

David Stevens on The Parable of the Prodigal Son

A couple of years before he died, Henri Nouwen wrote a beautiful book entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son; it is both a commentary on Rembrandt’s famous painting by that same title and a long spiritual reflection on the fatherhood and motherhood of God. Nouwen points out that, in Rembrandt’s painting of the father of the prodigal son, the figure painted there, representing God, has a number of interesting features. First of all, he is depicted as blind. His eyes are shut and he sees the prodigal son not with his eyes but with his heart (to which he is tenderly holding the son’s head). The implication is obvious, God sees with the heart. Moreover, the figure representing God has one male hand (which is pulling the wayward son to himself) and one female hand (which is caressing the son’s back). Thus God is presented here as both mother and father, loving as does a woman and as does a man.

The scene, as depicted by Rembrandt, highlights three characters: the prodigal son, his older brother, and the all compassionate father/mother figure who is offering the embrace of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation (the blood red in the picture is the colour of forgiveness).

The focus of the parable has normally been on the wayward son who journeys into a far country, finds himself and returns home to seek reunion with his father and indeed, in the picture, the Prodigal Son has fallen on his knees before his father with such emotional haste that his right shoe has come off – just as it might do in real life. It is a sublime image of the stripping of the spirit, of humility and repentance.

However, it is also important to remember the often forgotten older brother who is consumed by anger, resentment, self-righteousness and the refusal of generosity. All of this is expressed by his inability to call his brother ‘this brother of mine’. Instead he refers to him as ‘this son of yours’ (v30) and by doing so he disavows his relationship not only with his brother but also with his father. Why does he have these feelings? Possibly it is because the two brothers have a history of rivalry (echoing the stories of warring brothers in Genesis). Perhaps the older brother’s goodness has not been given sufficient recognition by the father. He would really prefer the father to punish the younger brother rather than welcome him home. The older brother wants to be told how right and good he was, and is (and, of course, in one sense he acted better and more rightly). However, some forms of ‘goodness’ really need other people to be ‘bad’. It may even be that some ‘good’ people drive others into ‘badness’.

There are two shadowy figures in Rembrandt’s picture. One is a woman. The other looks directly at the viewer, inviting a response, perhaps asking us in which of the figures do we see ourselves. Or perhaps inviting us to see ourselves in each of these characters, that is, in the weakness of the wayward son, in the bitterness of the older brother, and in the compassion of the father/mother figure who does not behave mimetically, who does not see the sons as rivals for love and affection, prestige and property, and who does not set up categories of reward and punishment, but who embraces and offers the chance to make good again.

In conflict situations there are the sins of people who have journeyed into the far country of violence. There are also the people who stayed ‘at home’, who remained law abiding but who have been consumed by anger, resentment, self-righteousness and the refusal of generosity. This parable reminds us about the sins of the prodigal and the respectable, and the transformation required of everyone.

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