Review of Embodied Peacebuilding by Leah Robinson – A Theology of Reconciliation that is not Practical is not Reconciliation at all

In Northern Ireland, ‘reconciliation’ can be a divisive word – so much so that the very use of the term accomplishes the opposite of its meaning. A prominent study led by Prof John Brewer concluded that ‘reconciliation’ was so contested that the term should be avoided altogether. My own surveys of clergy and churchgoers revealed that almost no one can agree about what reconciliation actually means.

Despite this, I still think that the concept of reconciliation can add something of value to public debates in Northern Ireland. A new book by Leah Robinson, Lecturer in Practical and Pastoral Theology at the University of Edinburgh, provides examples of how reconciliation can add value and provide visions for the future.

Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology (Peter Lang 2015) not only engages historically and theologically with reconciliation – it also profiles two communities that she sees as having lived out practical theologies of reconciliation: Corrymeela and the Cornerstone.

In the process, Embodied Peacebuilding provides resources for those – primarily practicing Christians, it must be said – who are still willing to advocate reconciliation as a worthy pursuit.

Embodied Peacebuilding is full of examples of how Christians have used the ideal of reconciliation as an inspiration for living counter-culturally in the midst of a divided society and a politics characterised by conflict rather than compromise.

Of course, the long-term impact of Corrymeela and Cornerstone on wider society remains up for debate. But Robinson’s key message is that such communities should participate keenly in current debates about the future and the past. In the process they can raise awareness of the possibilities that are opened up when people believe that reconciliation is possible.

Robinson argues for the theological value of reconciliation by building on the considerable body of academic work on the topic – a significant portion of which has been generated by theologians working in Northern Ireland.

She takes as a baseline John Paul Lederach’s conception of reconciliation based on Psalm 85.  Lederach is an American Mennonite with a Ph.D. in Sociology, who has visited Northern Ireland on numerous occasions and included it as a prime example in his scholarly work. Lederach conceives of reconciliation both as a process and as a goal, which includes the elements of truth, justice, mercy and peace, as named in the Psalm.

Robinson notes that Joseph Liechty (an American Mennonite who worked for many years in Northern Ireland and a co-author of an excellent historical-theological study, Moving Beyond Sectarianism) and the late David Stevens, a former leader of the Corrymeela community – both amended Lederach’s model ‘to include forgiveness and repentance as opposed to mercy and peace’ (p. 39).

Given the historic popularity of atonement theology in Northern Ireland, especially within Protestantism, it is not surprising to see forgiveness and repentance surface as key themes for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Although Robinson does not discuss this, it is worth noting that repentance – especially insisting that someone else should repent – seems to have received more ‘air time’ than forgiveness in Northern Ireland.

For example, Graham Spencer’s study of Protestant Identity and Peace in Northern Ireland confirms that a long-standing idea within some strains of Protestantism remains important: That there can be no forgiveness until perpetrators repent. That’s not the position that either Liechty or Stevens advocated, but it is easy to see how ‘reconciliation’ could get hung up on waiting for the ‘Other’ to repent.

Embodied Peacebuilding comes into its own when Robinson moves to her analysis of Corrymeela and Cornerstone. The stories of both communities have been told previously, featuring in the research of Ronald Wells and Maria Power, among others. So some of the ground she covers would be very familiar to those who have studied religion and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

Corrymeela remains Northern Ireland’s most well-known reconciliation community, continuing to run a number of programmes from its base near Ballycastle on the north coast. It has paid staff and a substantial ‘dispersed’ membership of supporters. Cornerstone was established on the Falls/Shankill peace line in 1982, initially primarily as an ecumenical, residential praying community. It later collaborated with the Forthspring Community Group in cross-community projects.

Robinson’s analysis is based on documentary research and interviews. The interviews were all conducted in 2009. With the publication of the book six years after the interviews, this dates the analysis somewhat. Crucially, the book does not mention that Cornerstone no longer exists; and references Corrymeela’s strategic plan only up until 2013. So recent, significant changes in leadership and programming at Corrymeela are not taken into account; nor are the implications of the end of Cornerstone’s active witness.

Earlier studies of Corrymeela and Cornerstone were based at least in part on interviews with key people, but what sets Robinson’s apart is that she presents some of the interview material in the form of personal, life story analysis. Life story analysis allows readers to understand how upbringing and key life events inspired people to become involved in reconciliation work.

From these personal analyses she identifies key themes that were important to their ideas about reconciliation. This allows us to see how individuals embody practical theologies of reconciliation.

For Corrymeela (p. 164ff), themes included reconciliation as service and volunteering, reconciliation as safe and neutral space, and reconciliation as creating a place for telling one’s story and asking hard questions. It is easy to see how individuals in Corrymeela emphasised practical action towards reconciliation more so than theological ideals.

For Cornerstone (p. 216ff), themes included reconciliation as Christian duty, reconciliation as presence, reconciliation as mutual understanding, reconciliation as unity found in God alone, and reconciliation as the Kingdom of God on earth. These themes underline how individuals saw their presence on the Falls-Shankill as a model of hope (albeit imperfect) for divided communities.

Throughout, Robinson recognises that reconciliation has been a contested term; indeed, when used and abused by government and certain political figures, it has been toxic. But she identifies an opportunity for Christian groups like Corrymeela and Cornerstone, arguing that through a counter-cultural witness they could demonstrate how to build better relationships (p. 256):

Now, Cornerstone and Corrymeela have a chance to reclaim their counter-cultural status … For while they continue to pursue a vision of a reconciled Northern Ireland, the government has backed away from the use of the word, which could potentially free it from negative associations. This disassociation by the government signals an important opportunity for the reconciliation communities. This time instead of trying to introduce reconciliation into a divided society, as was the vision of [Corrymeela founder] Ray Davey in the 1960s, Corrymeela and Cornerstone have begun a process of reclaiming the concept and trying to define their theology of reconciliation through the actions of their respective communities.

In this way, Embodied Peacebuilding demonstrates that in the end, reconciliation is possible only through action. A theology of reconciliation that is not practical is not reconciliation at all.


  • Abucs

    I think from a Christian perspective in Northern Ireland, reconciliation means getting to a place where there is a good faith commitment to, as well as a trusted shared understanding of the need for relationships based on respectful mutual care which supercede narrow identity politics.

    As part of that, I would like to see nationalists leave the issue of a united Ireland to a future generation so as to concentrate on building the above mentioned relationships.

  • Roger

    So a place of “good faith…trust…shared understanding…mutual care…respect…and an end to identity politics” requires the Irish community to drop things like the desirability of a united Ireland. Interesting.

  • Abucs

    Hi Roger.

    I don’t think it is a matter of anyone dropping the desirability of a United Ireland but more allowing a space for a much needed coming together of the people of Northern Ireland. I also don’t think good faith etc requires the postponement of the pursuit of a United Ireland, but that would be my personal preference.

    It is the question of what are the most important issues facing us. The question of whether there should be a United Ireland will still be around in 30 years. The question for me is how do we want to spend the next 30 years and do we want to let that political disagreement keep us divided in so many other ways?

    I understand your point which is more than fair but why not concentrate on reconciliation and having agreed the GFA, let another generation decide on the national question at a time which hopefully will be less divisive.

  • ted hagan

    I think, post-Troubles, there was a genuine raprochement, that both sides recognised their failings. Possibly now, because of new generations coming through, that is being eroded and we are descending into the same old whataboutery.

  • Roger

    How can reconciliation require one side to drop its nationalism but not the other. How does that tally with all the laudable societal characteristics you mentioned. How is it reconciliation involving acceptance and indeed celebration of diversity no less.

    Anyway I don’t understand you, no doubt. You can’t drop identity for a generation and then pick it up. Whatever it is, it hardly works like that.

  • Abucs

    You can have an identity without the need for it to be recognised through a state or more topically in our discussion to fight a series of continuous zero sum political battles with fellow citizens that contribute to an atmosphere of rage and anger.

    One of the new religions these days is statism which wants control of the state to define identity on people. Being able to distinguish identity apart from the state is not just more healthy for individuals but for society also.

    Have you ever read War and Peace? One of the great lessons in that book is the realisation that these large things will happen naturally and are not based on individual force or rage.

    To stay in Russia for the last point. Marxists spent 3 generations creating structural government and orientating the people a certain way. It’s all gone now. How many tens of thousands of people passionately spent their whole lives arguing and trying to direct society a certain way? In the long run there is a greater power.

    Culture and identity is integral to people and efforts to see it created through the state will not affect the long time process but can cause short term divisiveness.

  • Roger

    We’d only be going around in circles if we continued with the original topic. Your attack on state identity seems rather odd given you’ve called on one side to drop the idea of one kind of state and happily live in another state. Either way, a state is involved.

    The 3 generations in what was the Soviet Union lifted those societies to a level of material prosperity that the masses of 1917 could only have dreamed of. They weren’t alone. Many societies did much the same. Those who argued did direct the society…and with great success. But things change.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m wondering what might be a fair exchange for nationalism setting aside its desire for a united Ireland’s for 30 years. What about the cessation of all orange order marches, parity for the Irish language with English and a two flag flying policy on public buildings? Do you think that these measures along with nationalists setting aside the desire for a United Ireland would help reconciliation here?

  • Stefan Gillies

    As we read yesterday that Orange Order have seeded labour and tory councillors all over Scotland!

  • Pang

    I think if we had had the truth and reconciliation commission people spoke about 20 years ago, legally exchanging accounts of historic acts of conflict along with commitments to live peacefully hereafter – swapping them for legal immunity for those acts, and also allowing others to tell their stories; had we done that we would have moved on much more than we have.
    Instead we have a secret history, all the hurt and division and no prosecutions anyway.

  • ted hagan

    And Stalin murdered millions in this era of ‘material prosperity’.

  • Roger

    As did Hitler and Mao etc

  • Roger

    Good point NJJ. Test the equality element of whatever argument this is.

  • Abucs

    Hi NNJ,

    my comment was prefaced with the phrase “from a Christian perspective”. From that perspective, one of the challenges of the Christian faith is to show a willingness to initiate the healing.

    The GFA enshrines the rights of both unionists and nationalists to veto law and each have their choice of departments as well as the acknowledgement of an automatic right to Irish citizenship. Yes I think there are always other moves that could help.

    You have suggested some although i think we need to be mindful that reconciliation demands actions that are freely given. I think we also have to acknowledge that there is a difference between reconciliation and inching politics towards one’s own political goals at the expense of the people we are supposed to be reconciling with.

    So for example I am all for the Irish language, but holding up government for the ILA looks to be partisan politics which works against reconciliation for no real benefit except sectarian power signalling, IMHO.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m not really sure what your point is here. You suggested that nationalists give up something in aid of reconciliation. I suggested that unionism also gives up something. You’re not suggesting that asking nationalists to give up something is ‘reconciliation’ while asking unionists to give up something is ‘inching politics towards ones own political goals’?

  • Abucs

    Well it’s not really giving up things. It is deciding that establishing friendly relations is more important than participating in divisive politics that will not only harm those relationships but not get anywhere politically. I would argue one could still advocate for a United Ireland in a friendly manner but the truth is that it will only happen when a majority of people in NI want it and there has been no poll on the issue which suggests it is even close. Still advocate, but be mindful that trust is a basis for any change in people’s mind in coming to see things your way.

    Also, my comment of reconciliation is all based ‘from a Christian perspective’. In the sacrament of .reconciliation I don’t say to God I promise to stop something if you give me something in return. I am quite critical of the secular moral of equality for many reasons including the fact that it is often self serving which does not lead to true reconciliation or social harmony.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m afraid you’ve completely lost me there.