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.