What do we mean by reconciliation? Is there not a danger that it is defined differently every time it is used? At its simplest, reconciliation refers to the desire to repair fractured relationships in order to move forwards, but, as we shall see, reconciliation is complex and, as the cross testifies, true reconciliation is costly.
There is a sense in which reconciliation is something celebrated before it is explained and any discussion of it needs to focus on examples and the experience of those engaged in the process. It cannot simply be a fireside exercise. Accordingly, we will use stories about reconciliation drawn from a number of contexts and encourage readers to reflect on their own experiences (political, social and theological) in order to create a living conversation.
Reconciliation defies definition and yet most people recognise it when they experience it: four features need to be taken into account in the pursuit of reconciliation. Indeed, it is more realistic to work towards an understanding of reconciliation rather than actually provide a definition. Christian theology has a distinctive understanding of reconciliation and it is the calling of the church to reveal this as God’s gift to the world.
The four features– and there are more – essential to be taken into account when working for reconciliation are:
- Memory – or remembering
- Forgiveness – not mercy
- The Other
Is reconciliation achievable?
Reconciliation is more a process than a fact. Robin Eames, formerly Archbishop of Armagh who worked tirelessly for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, was visiting a school and was asked by one of the pupils, ‘How do we know when reconciliation is achieved?’ Probably we can never know. As human beings we cannot experience full reconciliation, but there can be brief experiences and glimpses of it.
Celebrating reconciliation is giving thanks for a fresh form of relationships, usually achieved after great struggle, and making a statement about a new future; it is a recognition that an important mile-stone has been reached. But has full reconciliation been achieved? Is Northern Ireland a reconciled province? Is South Africa a reconciled country? Are human beings ever fully reconciled within themselves?
Reconciliation describes the relationship which, however imperfectly, the questing Christian both has with God and, at the same time, would like to deepen: Christians are being reconciled with God but there is always a long way to go. Reconciliation is to be viewed from the perspective of eschatology, which means that complete reconciliation is a future goal which may not be achieved in this life but working towards it will shape the way in which this life is lived.
Finding the time ripe for reconciliation
Conditions need to be right before the work of reconciliation is undertaken – it is necessary to wait for the ‘kairos’ moment, that is, until the time is ripe for reconciliation. Usually the process can only begin when those involved think it will work or when they reckon it is in their own interests. There is no point in working for reconciliation in the middle of battle, the fighting first needs to stop and there needs to be a just peace.
There can be no reconciliation between a strong person and a weaker person: true reconciliation can only take place among equals. The South African Council of Churches in 1968 said that it was impossible to talk about reconciliation in South Africa while apartheid still existed. Partners need to recognize that they are equal before reconciliation can happen if the risk of exploitation is to be avoided.