Michael Bennett on the Major Christian Task of Reconciliation

image I’m always heartened when I see graduates of our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation applying our course material in their work once they graduate. Yesterday’s guest post by Joram Tarusarira was one example of that. Today Fr Michael Bennett provides another example in the form of an article titled simply, ‘Reconciliation,’ published in the July/August 2011 edition of Africa, the magazine of St Patrick’s Missions based in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Fr Bennett a few weeks ago in Maynooth, as he was back visiting his native Ireland on a break from his work as a parish priest in South Africa. Previously Fr Bennett worked in Zimbabwe, but he is unable to return, as Africa magazine puts it, ‘because of his work for justice and peace.’

Fr Bennett completed our Master’s in Reconciliation Studies the year before Tarusarira began his studies with us. In his article, Bennett picks up on many of the themes raised yesterday by Tarusarira.

Tarusarira writes of ‘the multi-faceted character of reconciliation which we had discussed in the classroom,’ particularly in Dr David Tombs’ Dynamics of Reconciliation module.

Similarly, reconciliation’s multi-faceted character is reflected in Bennett’s description of reconciliation as an ‘umbrella’ concept:

Reconciliation is an ‘umbrella’ concept: underneath the umbrella are many different terms including justice, truth, mercy, forgiveness, apology and healing. These different terms could indeed be further sub-divided. For example, justice can focus on the need for: a) punishment (retributive justice); b) restoring wholeness of both victims and perpetrators in a community context (restorative justice), or c) monetary compensation (reparative/restitutive justice).

Bennett also discusses various ways in which truth can be approached in post-violence contexts:

Truth can relate to: a) cold bare facts (factual truth); b) the emotional perceptions of someone giving their version of an event (narrative truth); c) what emerges from dialogue between different parties to a dispute (dialogical truth); d) what is agreed and shared by different communities (historical truth). Historical truth finds its way into history books and school curricula but it requires the passage of time and emotional distance from events.

These two short paragraphs from Bennett’s article provide some glimpse into the complexity of reconciliation processes. Bennett’s sub-division of the terms justice and truth demonstrates that these words can be approached and defined in very different ways.

For me, this underlines the need for post-violence societies to engage in meaningful public debate about what kind of justice, truth, and ultimately reconciliation they wish to pursue.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen a high enough level of debate around that in Zimbabwe – the context with which Bennett and Tarusarira are so familiar – or here in Northern Ireland.

It is a short article, but Bennett also makes a brief, specifically Christian case for putting reconciliation on the agenda. Bennett’s call to Christians should be especially relevant in societies in which the Christian churches are socially prominent and might be expected to play a public role in post-violence transitions.

Of course, Christian churches must be sensitive about the language they use in the public sphere, even and especially when it is about reconciliation. For example, one of the criticisms of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been that its chair, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was too enthusiastic in his application of the Christian ideal of reconciliation, which alienated people of other faiths and put unnecessary pressure on Christian victims to forgive perpetrators.

Be that as it may, I’ll conclude with a quote from Bennett’s article – one which alludes to the passage of scripture (Ephesians 2:14-15) that inspired the tagline for this blog, Building a Church Without Walls:

Reconciliation is a major Christian task. Jesus refers to the need for reconciliation continually in his parables and makes forgiveness central to the ‘Our Father’ which he teaches us to pray. The great reconciling event of cross and resurrection means that Christ has broken down the walls that divide us. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). If St Paul were compiling his list today he might say that there is neither nationalist nor unionist, republican nor loyalist, black nor white, Jew nor Arab, Serb nor Croat, Kikuyu nor Kalenjin (Kenya), Shona nor Ndebele (Zimbabwe).

Christians have died to all that is life-denying – fear, division and hatred, and have risen to all that is life-embracing – truth, integrity and justice. Paul reminds us that we are a “new creation”, that we have become “ambassadors” for Christ, and that God has “committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-20a).

What’s a message of reconciliation that will resonate – both here in Northern Ireland and further afield in places like Zimbabwe? And are our churches up to communicating it?

(Image Michael Bennett and Gladys Ganiel in Maynooth)

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