John Peacock on Training in a Local Theology of Reconciliation – Can Theology Contribute to Peace in Ireland?

imageOver the last two days, I’ve been engaging with some of the work produced in the Irish Peace Centres’ publication, Studying Faith, Practising Peace. The chapters in this volume are what graduate students in theology in Ireland came up with when asked to address the following question: ‘Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to peace on the island of Ireland?’

Today I continue my series highlighting some of the essays in the volume. In doing this I hope to recognise the work being done by some of our best young theologians, and to raise questions that I think the churches in Ireland should be asking themselves.

For those who think that theologies of peace and reconciliation are misguided or unachievable, John Peacock’s essay presents a compelling alternative – a local theology of presence rather than proclamation. Peacock, a former student on the Master’s in Reconciliation Studies at my school (the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast), is Community Relations Manager at Youth Link Northern Ireland and formerly an associate minister at Newtownbreda Presbyterian.

John Peacock on Training in a Local Theology of Reconciliation

Like Jon Hatch, whose work I explored yesterday, Peacock firmly believes that the churches in Ireland have not owned up to their own sectarianism. Of course, neither Peacock nor Hatch are saying that every church or every Christian on the island of Ireland is sectarian, in the off-hand way that we normally think of sectarianism.

Rather, Peacock takes our local churches to task for buying in to what Walter Wink has called the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ – the idea that God is on our side and that therefore violence is not only justified, but brings about God’s will in the world. Peacock challenges this myth, arguing (p. 61):

Christians, followers of the Prince of Peace who taught that we should love our enemy, need to find a theology of reconciliation that counters the all-pervading outcomes of following this myth. The starting place must be to see the evil in our position and the good in our enemy. We need to see that the line between good and evil runs through each of us rather than between us and our enemies.

Much of the remainder of Peacock’s essay is devoted to analysing how the Corrymeela community has embodied a local theology of reconciliation. It is appropriate to feature Corrymeela in the publication, which is dedicated to the late Corrymeela leader David Stevens and his family, Mathilde, Thomas and Naomi.

Peacock writes that he was inspired to contribute to the conference on which this publication is based after having a conversation with Stevens. Peacock shares Stevens’ chilling assessment of where Christians in Northern Ireland are currently ‘at’ in terms of reconciliation (p. 63):

David recognised a self-sufficiency currently within the Catholic community in the North whereas the Protestant community has retreated into itself, becoming angry, cynical and apathetic.

Yet, Peacock’s essay provides some hope by focusing on how Corrymeela’s theology of reconciliation has been embodied rather than loudly proclaimed, centred on the experience of people from diverse backgrounds simply being together.

This is an important point, which can sit alongside other recent attempts to analyse Corrymeela and Stevens’ theology, such as in Ronald Wells’ recent book Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and Stevens’ own books, The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation, and The Place Called Reconciliation: Texts to Explore.

Peacock concludes:

A constructive local theology of reconciliation in Ireland should be about ‘presence’ rather than ‘proclamation’. People of faith must come into continual and continuous contact with the local community they wish to influence and reconcile to each other and to God. We must be catalysts for change rather than acting like ‘assault troops’ who hop out of the trenches to evangelise the unsuspecting community and then quickly return to the safety of our walled sanctuaries. We must develop a theology which emphasises how much ‘we care about people’ rather than how much ‘we know about God’.

Granted, Corrymeela may seem like a special location, a place apart where this sort of continual contact can happen. The greater challenge may be thinking about how Christians from all denominational backgrounds can learn to better be together on the streets of all our cities and towns.

(Image: the Corrymeela centre, Ballycastle)

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