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Is time running out?

One of the wonderful aspects of my job is the opportunity to meet some amazing people. Time after time, I get to spend time in the company of people who are doing, writing or thinking extraordinary things and half the time don’t recognise it. These encounters not only energise me, but sustain my hope that the world can be transformed and that the universe’s moral arc does indeed bend towards justice.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending time with a fantastic couple about to depart Europe to work in south Asia. That they are prepared to give up a comfortable lifestyle in the West to assist development in the Global South is impressive enough, but it was the nature of our conversations over three days that left me reeling and excited.

We spent a good deal of time talking about reconciliation, what it meant and how it worked. We even spent some time at Coventry Cathedral, drinking in the wonderful architecture of Basil Spence and breathtaking windows of John Piper. The question I was left with was whether reconciliation had a best-before date.

What do I mean? Since the 1990s, the world has become used to, and even complacent about, peace processes and systems of transitional justice. Apart from the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-apartheid South Africa, there have been dozens of agreements and process in virtually every continent. We have come to expect that a framework for reconciliation, truth-telling, transitional justice, ritualised remembrance, symbolic gestures, will kick in almost before the ink is dry on the peace agreements or the guns fall silent. In places like South Africa or Rwanda, this has been the case and yielded some positive results. But my question is what happens when it is not possible to agree a framework for years or even decades? In the former Yugoslvia, where peace was imposed rather than negotiated, or Spain, where the death of a dictator was dealt with through official amnesia, do we believe that griefs and grievances simply dissipate with time? The eruptions of violence at the end of the Cold War surely reveal the opposite, where battles and humiliations from long ago are far from long-forgotten.

So I ask: is there a window of opportunity for reconciliation and how long does it last? In other words, is time running out? In the most recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, those born after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement were voting for the first time. We know that memory is a collective endeavour and children today will have inherited past grievances at their grandparents’ knee. So how does Northern Ireland and all those who were/are part of the story of the Troubles, move from peace to reconciliation? When will it be too late to begin or has that time already passed?

The good news is that reconciliation has already begun and is happening today. It is carried on my individuals, communities, churches and charities and it is bearing fruit. But it does so against a backdrop of hardening sectarianism and increasing cynicism and it is that which must change. From the experience of the past three decades of peace-making and peace-building, it would seem that the most effective processes are not simply political in nature. Where peace has been accompanied by reconciliation, it has been a collective effort of politicians, the judiciary, civil society, the international community, NGOs and the media. There have been strenuous efforts to take the local culture(s) seriously, to work within already existing community structures and to create new spaces where shared and multiple identities can be explored. This, by necessity has largely been out of the hands of political parties, especially where political allegiance is closely allied to ethnic or religious identity. The Good Friday Agreement was a political document that steered clear of the non-political. Although local politicians have become better at reaching compromise without outside intervention, the nature of political allegiance means that partisan advantage will continue to trump the common good.

Now is the time, in a period of relative stability, for civil society to step up and provide some leadership. Reconciliation can only come from below, but it needs support and leadership. Church leaders and others have the resources, if they choose, to provide genuine spaces in which reconciliation can flourish. It will not be easy, as religious spaces have been ‘sectarianised’ by the conflict. It will be a case of mutual hospitality, of a willing to be guest as well as host, with all the risks that implies. It will also call for creative thinking in the use of premises – what would a genuinely de-sectarianised space look like? And finally it will call for bravery on the part of leaders to challenge their followers to new ways of thinking, believing and acting. For some that will mean saying things that run counter to the feelings of the majority of their congregations and that comes with a cost.

All this to say that reconciliation can never wait for a better or more auspicious time. It is a process that begins whilst the conflict rages but must become embedded as an attitude, a set of public policies and practices, a way of doing theology, a way of life.

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