Rev Dr Johnston McMaster on ‘Faith as a Social Ethic in a Divided Society’ at the Irish Churches Peace Project Conference

image.pngRev Dr Johnston McMaster, who works on the Junction’s ‘Ethical and Shared Remembering’ project, spoke on ‘Faith as a Social Ethic in a Divided Society,’ Friday at the Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) ‘Faithful Peacebuilding’ conference at the Hilton in Templepatrick.

The ICPP is winding down after a roughly 2.5 year, £1.3 million programme funded by the EU’s PEACE III Programme (Special EU Programmes Body). Additional funding was provided by the Northern Ireland Executive through the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) of the Irish Government.

ICPP’s work will conclude in June, but it is hoped that the programmes and resources they promoted will be sustainable in some form at the grassroots level.

McMaster’s talk drew on ideas he has been developing over the years with the Junction, as well as his 15 years as coordinator of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ ‘Education for Reconciliation’ programme in Northern Ireland and the border counties, which was wound down in 2012.

McMaster opened by citing research from the Irish School of Ecumenics, which revealed that Christians on the island of Ireland overwhelmingly think of reconciliation in individual terms (between individuals and God and between individuals) rather than social terms (for instance, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the island of Ireland).

[I carried out this research, which included surveys of faith leaders and laity on the island of Ireland. For further details about the data, see an article I wrote for Shared Space.]

McMaster described Christians in Northern Ireland as ‘culturally captive to individualism,’ arguing that this contributed to ‘a lack of awareness that social reconciliation should be part of what it means to live as a Christian’ on this island. There is also a lack of awareness that the bible should be ‘read as a socio-political text … a book written in the shadow of [the Roman] empire.’

The bulk of McMaster’s talk focused on the Apostle Paul’s writing on reconciliation in II Corinthians 5. He noted that the word Paul uses for reconciliation is ‘an economic one,’ which means ‘to give and take.’ For McMaster, ‘this is no accident,’ and ‘chapters 5, 8, and 9 of II Corinthians are littered with economic terms.’ This points to the idea that reconciliation is not individualistic, but also includes socio-economic and ecological elements.

For McMaster, it follows from this that ‘a radical ethic of reconciliation is a social and political reconciliation.’

So while individualistic forms of reconciliation may be important, it is equally (perhaps more?) important that Christians see socio-political reconciliation as vital to living out their faith on this island.

Drawing on the work of Prof Daniel Philpott from Notre Dame University, McMaster then listed six practices that can contribute to socio-political reconciliation:

  1. Socially just institutions
  2. Acknowledgement of wrong-doing and suffering
  3. Reparation
  4. Apology
  5. Punishment
  6. Forgiveness

It is worth noting that Northern Ireland continues to struggle with implementing these six practices.

McMcMaster followed this with his own ‘integrated model of reconciliation,’ which includes six elements. He said the prefix ‘socio’ emphasises the relational aspect of reconciliation:

  1. Socio-political
  2. Socio-economic
  3. Socio-ecological
  4. Socio-legal (including the rule of law and human rights)
  5. Socio-psychological (including issues of identity, and ‘who we are’)
  6. Socio-spiritual (including the search for meaning, purpose and values)

McMaster said that this translates into ‘three strands of practice’:

  1. Reconciliation as Social Justice. This means naming and putting right injustices, developing just laws and institutions, and showing a preference for the suffering of the vulnerable.
  2. Reconciliation as a Re-ordering of Power Relations. McMaster noted that justice tends to mean different things for different people. Those with power tend to favour punitive justice, while those without power tend to favour restorative justice. This calls for a re-ordering of the practice of justice in relation to the practice of power.
  3. Reconciliation as Forgiveness. McMaster argued that a ‘divine’ approach to forgiveness ‘does not wait’ for the other to make the first move. It includes mercy and compassion. It avoids ‘Christian quietism and political pietism.’

Of course, McMaster’s model and practices are not easy to work out in the real world. Indeed, much of the difficulty lies just in convincing people that reconciliation even should be a priority in our society.

More from the ICPP Conference:

Rev Emmanuel Murangira on Reconciliation and Forgiveness

Photo by Brian O’Neill

2 thoughts on “Rev Dr Johnston McMaster on ‘Faith as a Social Ethic in a Divided Society’ at the Irish Churches Peace Project Conference”

  1. Thanks as ever Gladys for keeping so many of us up to speed day and daily with some of the things going on across the world from your socio-theological perspective.

    I too was at the conference, and both heard and appreciated the talk by Johnston.

    But I also share your angst that the deep thinking is often linguistically quite inaccessible to those ‘on the ground’ who actually have to do the reconciliation. This means that new ideas and analysis such as those by Johnston do not get taken up where they should and by whom they should. May I suggest that academics, when they are talking to a wide audience, could do more work to unpack some of the key ideas, set aside some secondary ones, and explain the implications and make some practical suggestions for implementation – if their wok is to have real traction in our society.

  2. “There is also a lack of awareness that the bible should be ‘read as a socio-political text … a book written in the shadow of [the Roman] empire.’”

    Utter nonsense

    What about the Old Testament: you know the bit about when Rome was nothing more than a few wooden huts?

    That leaves aside the fact that traditionally Christians regard The Bible as the Inspired word of God not a socio-political text.

    With nonsense remarks like that little wonder most Christians long since stopped listening to the gibberish of the likes of McMaster.

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