A couple of weeks ago, I was ‘In Conversation’ during the evening service at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast. It was a talk-show type event, where Rev Steve Stockman quizzed me about my background, my work at the Irish School of Ecumenics, and my latest book (co-authored with Claire Mitchell), Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture.
At some point in the evening, I commented that what we have now in Northern Ireland is peaceful co-existence, rather than reconciliation.
A few days ago Fr Martin Magill from St Oliver Plunkett Church got in touch asking if I could explain more fully what I meant by that.
It’s never easy to define reconciliation, or to lay out a vision for what a reconciled society might look like. But I can tell you what (‘peaceful’) co-existence looks like:
it’s cities divided by ‘peace’ walls, rural areas which have informal ‘no go’ areas if you are of the wrong sort, segregated, some polite middle class friendships across the sectarian divide, and a political class content to carve up resources along sectarian lines rather than to make bold moves to work together.
‘Peaceful’ coexistence looks like today’s Northern Ireland.
You notice that I am enclosing ‘peaceful’ in quotation marks. That is the term I used at Fitzroy, but ‘co-existence,’ all on its own, would have been a better choice of words. That’s because I understand peace in the Biblical sense of Shalom.
Shalom is a great deal more than the absence of violence or war. Good and positive as such absences are, shalom is a totally comprehensive vision which encompasses the whole of life and the whole community of life, shalom is total wellbeing. It is personal, social, political, economic and environmental wellbeing. It is, as John’s Gospel has Jesus put it, ‘not peace as the world gives’, not peace as the empires, superpowers and domination systems give, but the alternative peace inclusive of the personal, social, political economic and environmental.
So if that’s peace, reconciliation is also something much more substantial than the cessation of political violence. It’s more than people being nice and polite to each other.
Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins, who have worked for years on the Irish School of Ecumenics’ adult/continuing education programme, Education for Reconciliation, once defined reconciliation this way:
‘reconciliation is transforming relationships and structures.’
That’s a short and simple way of saying that there won’t be reconciliation until people from divided communities have strong and meaningful friendships with people from the ‘other’ side (something that often takes considerable intentional effort in a society as divided as ours).
And that’s a short and simple way of saying there won’t be reconciliation until the structures that keep people divided are dismantled.
By structures I mean all the geographical barriers, social norms, political policies and so on that accommodate our differences – the segregated schools, the churches that fail to acknowledge each other as part of the same Christian family, the political system organised around ethno-religious parties rather than social issues. It’s no mean feat dismantling those structures, either. This requires not just grassroots action but also political elites courageous enough to destroy a system that is currently keeping them in power because they are ethno-religious parties.
Back in March, I prepared a paper for the Political Studies Association Conference called ‘Reconciling the Past? Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland’s Post Violence Transition.’ In this work-in-progress (you can download it here), I grappled with some definitions and visions of reconciliation developed during the Troubles by three faith-based groups: Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics, and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity).
I see the paper as an attempt to evaluate how some grassroots Christian organisations have conceived of reconciliation, and to recover their insights for us today.
That doesn’t mean that I think that Christian groups have a monopoly on reconciliation – they clearly don’t – but I think that the work of these three groups has something to offer to our wider society.
So the paper advocates a return to the emphasis on the relationship-building aspect of reconciliation developed by these groups. But it argues that ‘social justice’ aspects of reconciliation have been relatively neglected and it remains a challenge for the churches and faith based groups to engage in creative action that could change Northern Ireland’s sectarian socio-political structures. Further, it argues that in the present context, reconciliation can be useful as both a religious and a political resource only if it is grounded in practical projects and policies that advance Northern Ireland’s efforts to deal with the past.
My reflections here of course leave many questions unanswered:
- Do the churches really have the moral authority to contribute to reconciliation at the present time?
- How can grassroots groups effectively make links between dealing with the past and promoting wider visions of reconciliation?
- How can grassroots groups encourage political elites to address the structural aspects of reconciliation?
- And so on …
But the alternative is a continued co-existence, which mightn’t always be so ‘peaceful.’
(Image – Reconciliation statue in Stormont, sourced on flickr, by Dennis Deery)