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The Climate and Context of Reconciliation

Although reconciliation will take different forms in different contexts, the climate in which it is being sought needs to be the same, whatever the context.  Noah Salameh is the founder of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation (CCRR) in Bethlehem.  CCRR has two main objectives, first, to bring about peace ‘from the inside’, that is,  peace between people and families and communities.  Secondly, bringing about reconciliation.  In order for this to happen, Noah and his workers set about  creating an atmosphere in which different groups can meet and be open with each other in order to talk about reconciliation.  For example he has brought together journalists from Israel and Palestine, members of the security forces from both sides, and teachers. 

Noah is concerned to work from the ‘bottom up’, that is to involve the ordinary people on the ground rather than encouraging an industry of academic papers which may have little or no effect outside the universities in which they are written. To this end, his field workers are active in schools and in the community in general.  It is costly, because as a Palestinian Muslim, he is often accused of compromising with the forces of occupation.  However, he is not deflected for long from his aim of ensuring that people have a climate where they are able to talk openly and honestly.  Unless the climate is right, conversations about reconciliation cannot take place. On a visit to a speaking engagement at a school, the teachers immediately attacked what he was trying to do.  Noah challenged them by saying he had not received the welcome that he, as a visitor, would expect to receive and they had not respected his presence by listening to him.  Such customs are particularly important in the Middle East.   The teachers apologized to him.  Once the need for civility had been established, good and fruitful conversation took place.

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In situations of conflict, the first casualties are often the customs and civilities which are the glue of all cultures and families.  Whether one is working for reconciliation between individuals, families or nations, it is essential that there is a climate where those involved can speak with openness and honesty.  Reconciliation cannot be pursued in an environment of hostility and fear.

The processes for working towards reconciliation vary with the context and culture.  In many cultures (African and Arabic) the community and its leaders play a significant role in the reconciliation of two people or their families, whereas in the West, it is a much more private affair with a mediator.  In Lebanon, remaining silent when another person speaks can be interpreted as agreement – there is an expectation to interrupt: in the West, it is regarded as rude to interrupt.  In the West, a mediator is expected to be neutral, often drawn in from outside: in Arab-Islamic culture, the mediator would be an unbiased insider of some standing in the community who has a relationship with those in dispute.  

The main purpose of this book is to examine reconciliation from a Christian perspective, but that is not the most common understanding.  Political reconciliation is more akin to accommodation, usually agreeing the lowest possible threshold with which all parties can co-exist.  Deep-seated grievances are still emerging in  Northern Ireland even though the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.   For Jordanian Bedouin tribes ‘suhl’ is the customary process of settlement where reconciliation (‘musalaha’) is regarded as the best of judgements.  Once a settlement has been agreed, there is hand-shaking (‘mustafa’) and sharing bread and salt (‘mumalaha’).  Even though ‘the best of judgements’ is agreed between communities, it is not unknown for hostility to be buried only to flare up in a more virulent form years later. 

The Role of Religion

In a lecture in Westminster Cathedral in April 2008, former Prime Minister Tony Blair highlighted the work of his Faith Foundation, to be launched the following month, and argued that religion needed to be rescued from extremism and irrelevance to help meet a "profound yearning within the human spirit" at a time of unprecedented global turbulence.  He intends that his Foundation will help ‘partner those within any of the faiths who stand up for peaceful co-existence and reject the extremist and divisive notion that faiths are in fundamental struggle against each other.’ 

Since 9/11 there has been a recognition by the majority that religion and faith have a significant role to play on the world’s stage.  Sadly, religion has provided divine ratification for many attrocities.  The trials of those convicted of the bombings in London in July 2005 and the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013 have shown the misuse of religion at its worst. On the other hand, religion has also provided the climate and language of reconciliation as religious leaders have continued a dialogue in the background while political leaders have strutted their stuff on the world stage.

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Not only is it important that religion and faith are involved in such dialogues, but they need to be reconciled between themselves.  At one time, there was an ecumenical imperative for churches to dialogue and one of the reasons for the formation of the World Council of Churches was the promotion of dialogue. Now there is a world imperative for faiths to be in dialogue.  St. John reminds us that Christians need to be one ‘so that the world may believe.’(John 17.21)  Today it is becoming increasingly apparent that faiths need to be in dialogue so that the world may survive.   

The challenge for the twenty-first century is to provide environments and climates where dialogue can take place between the major faiths and religions where each acknowledges the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other’.  In such a dialogue each needs to be true to itself, holding firm to beliefs which are essential to the integrity of the faith.  So, for Christianity, it is important not to compromise on its mission to preach and live the good news of God’s love shown supremely in Jesus Christ and the liberation brought about by the cross and resurrection while at the same time being open to dialogue and the ways that God is at work outside the Christian Faith

 Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All - God's Gift to the World