2015_09_08_BBeing able to relate to the other (that which, or the person who,  is totally different from us) is vitally important for reconciliation.  Yet, as I indicated last month, too often the other is excluded, dehumanized and demonized.  For there to be reconciliation the other needs to be heard and embraced, even if we do not agree with it.  What does it mean to embrace the other?

Cahal Daly was Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh during the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  He spent much of his time dealing in a very direct way with issues of reconciliation.  In one conversation, he demonstrated the significance of a willingness to embrace the other as part of the process.  He spoke of two people (A and B) trying to reach a point of reconciliation.  It was important, he said, for A and B to walk in parallel tracks with A telling B about the issues, dilemmas, struggles and difficulties which A was facing.  Next, the two need to walk back along the same track with B telling A about the issues being faced by B.  Finally, the two need to walk the same track telling each other what fears they have about agreeing.

Archbishop Daly’s simple story contains an enormous amount of wisdom and insight.  First, it is important to be able to talk to and communicate with the person with whom we are in dispute; there is a need to have a climate in which open and honest conversation is possible.  Secondly, there needs to be a willingness for each party to listen to the other which means respecting the person as a human being even though we may not agree with his or her views.  Real listening is a dangerous and potentially subversive activity as psychotherapist Carl Rogers points out:

If you really understand another person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempts to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or your personality.  This risk of  being changed is the most frightening prospect most of us can face.  I enter, as fully as I am able, into the private world of a neurotic or psychotic individual, isn’t there a risk that I might become lost in a that world?…….. The great majority of us could not ‘listen’; we would find ourselves compelled to ‘evaluate’, because listening would seem too dangerous. So the first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it. [1]

The Church is ideally situated to be a place where both listening and conversation can happen.  There are many wonderful and saintly people within churches who are gifted listeners, able to support men and women in the dilemmas and pains through which they are passing.  But is the Church a place of listening and conversation

2014_06_14_BThe church which I served as parish priest in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual area of northern Zambia was made up of people whose mother tongues were ci-Bemba and ci-Chewa ( from Zambia), Tamil and Malayalam (from India and Sri-Lanka) and English.  English was the only common language, but it was the language of the minority.    The different languages could be heard in services so that all language groupings would be able to worship in their mother tongue, even if it was only for a few minutes. So, parts of the Eucharist would be sung in ci-Bemba, the congregation would listen to a song in Tamil, prayers may be said in Malayalam and readings may be in English.  Even if worshippers did not understand the language in which a song was sung, they would listen to somebody worship God in their own language realizing that they were worshipping on behalf of all. 

Listening to others worshipping God in their language on behalf of all had a profound effect on all present as their listening showed a deep respect of the culture of the other.  If this could happen within church, it could also happen outside.  Listening often turned into conversation at some point as worshippers would speak about their singing or their listening.  One elderly English lady who did not understand the local languages commented that she did not understand the language in which the ‘Lamb of God’ was sung, but for her it was the most moving part of the service.

In other parts of the same parish where the congregation was from a common language background (ci-Bemba) listening and conversation took place in a different way.  There would also be songs recently written and sung by the young choirs, and traditional hymns (translated from the English) that were loved by the older people – the elders. Both groups offered to God their deepest concerns in the ways most appropriate to themselves.  Sometimes, one group within the church was critical of another either in the words of the songs or in the style of the music. For example, the young people would be critical of what they considered to be the hypocritical behaviour of their elders (this happens the world over) as can be seen in the following words of a song that they would sing.  In this song, which warns of God’s judgement, choir members also realize that they too will be judged:

To all mankind, come and kneel before me.

Chorus: We shall see Jesus and we shall say according to what we do.

He will ask how each one worked.  Some will say, ‘I was a choir member.’  What about you, father, seated there? ‘ You are my God, I was a priest.’

What about you, mother, seated there? ‘I, my Lord, I was a Mothers Union member.’

And you, father, seated there? ‘My Lord, I was a deacon.’


He will come with his angels to catch his children. 

They have failed to teach, even though they have come from my house. 

Catch them and put them in the life prison.

It is traditional in Africa to express criticism through music and song.  The congregation would be willing to listen to such songs, even though the criticism was leveled against them.  After the service in which a song such as this was sung, there would usually be lively conversation!  Here the Church was a place of listening and conversation in a creative and natural way.  Both young and old attended this church because their voice was heard and valued.

2014_05_02_BFinally, sharing fears about coming to agreement requires an enormous amount of trust and can be as challenging as real listening.  Today’s agreement can undermine yesterday’s battles and sacrifices.  Taking Dr. Daly’s situation as an example, the warring factions in Northern Ireland discovering that they can live and work together can be viewed as insulting the memory and sacrifice of those who have given their lives for the struggle.  The significance of memory and how we remember is an important issue.  The fears about coming to agreement are as much related to the past as they may be to the present.

Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.

[1] C.Rogers, ‘On Becoming a Better Person,’ quoted in B.Castle, Hymns, the Making and Shaping of a Theology for the Whole People of God, Frankfurt am Main, Lang, 1990, p.223.

Image 1: The Triple Handshake: Prime Minister Menahem Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the signature of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in Washington.  Author Tal Shabtai