Memorandum submitted by the Centre for
Contemporary Christianity in Ireland
The Centre for Contemporary Christianity in
Ireland is a ministry of ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern
Ireland), an organisation that has for 15 years called on Christians
to demonstrate what difference our faith makes to our political
priorities in a divided community. We continue to promote the
application of biblical values to living as followers of Jesus
in a still divided, yet changing, society. Christians cannot avoid
the task of addressing sectarian prejudice built up over generations.
In our community and in our churches we are challenged to love
both enemy and neighbour.
We aim to equip Christians, particularly Evangelicals,
to biblically address community division and conflict and to play
their part in the long-term task of peace-building and reconciliation.
We seek to develop understanding, nurture skills and support creative
and relevant engagement with the profound challenges that face
divided and changing communities.
We fully support the aim of finding "ways
of dealing with the past which recognises the pain, grief and
anger associated with it" and which enables Northern Ireland
"to build a better future for the next generation".
We appreciate the opportunity to contribute
to this consultation and feel that our research and experience
can add value and insight as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee,
the Government, and indeed the people of Northern Ireland seek
to deal with Northern Ireland's past.
A significant issue facing any jurisdiction
that seeks to deal with its past is developing a clear understanding
of what reconciliation is, what it involves and the implications
for those who participate. This word is used in different spheres
and conjures up in people's minds different meanings and expectations.
If reconciliation is to be promoted, it is vital that the people
of Northern Ireland know exactly what is involved and what can
be expected as an outcome. Great damage can be done by "mis-selling"
reconciliation and creating high hopes that are not realised.
It is clear from South Africa that even when some kind of national
reconciliation has been achieved, many individuals do not feel
As we consider ways to reckon with our past, the limitations and
complexity of potential outcomes must be made clear.
Therefore, our intentions are to define what
we understand full and true reconciliation to involve; to convey
our perception of the current reality in Northern Ireland and
how this limits such reconciliation; and to consider the implications
this has for both the Government and Churches in the ways in which
we deal with the past.
Christian tradition understands reconciliation
to be both a process and an outcome, first and foremost between
God and humans, but also between human persons and groups.
The outcome of reconciliation
As an outcome reconciliation is the place where
"Truth and mercy will meet; justice and peace will kiss each
other" (Psalm 85:10).
True reconciliation gives account of truth and
shows mercy to those who are sorry for the wrong they have done.
At the same time it demonstrates justice and leads to peace between
the reconciled parties. For the Christian these are all elements
that Jesus brought together when he died on the cross, and which
will be fully realised at the end of time.
This all lends itself to a very high view of
reconciliation. We believe such an outcome is an honourable goal
in human relationships, and yet at the same time we are convinced
that true and full reconciliation is beyond human ability and
made possible only by the grace of God. This is no blind theological
commitment, but is consistent with the history and experience
of human relationships and attempts at reconciliation. We hope
to highlight this as we consider the reality of Northern Ireland.
The process of reconciliation
The outcome of reconciliation cannot be separated
from the process by which it is achieved. Reflection on the person
and work of Jesus Christ provides a rich and nuanced insight into
reconciliation and its costs.
We understand the incarnation (God becoming
man) to be profoundly humbling, self-giving experience where one
with power made himself wholly vulnerable to the group with which
he wished to be reconciled. We see someone looking to convey his
trustworthiness to a group unwilling to trust him; giving up his
rightful identity with the "other side". Reconciliation
cannot happen unless reconciled parties are voluntarily willing
to make bold moves that are trusting, self-denying and other-embracing.
The sacrifice of Jesus is central to reconciliation
between God and man. Sacrifice is the giving up of something held
dear to achieve a desired end. For all those who wish to achieve
reconciliation, some sort of sacrifice will have to be made. Reconciliation
is not painless or easy.
Redemption combines the concepts of buying back
and freedom from captivity. In terms of the first, redemption
underscores the value of the other party in reconciliation. We
buy something back, we redeem it because of the value we place
on it. If reconciliation is going to go ahead, those involved
must be convinced of the value of what they are redeeming. People
must be convinced that the sacrifices they are going to make are
worth the reconciliation that will be achieved.
In terms of freedom, true reconciliation is
total liberation from the constraints of past evil. Reconciliation
can only be said to have happened when none are compelled to return
to old ways, nor have lives which are still controlled by past
Full reconciliation must involve repentance.
Repentance is more than words. It is more than full disclosure.
It is more than regret or remorse. It is saying sorry for past
wrongs, an action that has full power to transform post-conflict
But it is even more than that. It is turning from those old ways
of acting to new and agreeable ways. Repentance involves a clear
admission of guilt and a turnaround of behaviour. Reconciliation
is not whole without repentance.
For people to be truly reconciled, there must
be forgiveness. Forgiveness is not conditional on repentance,
but full reconciliation cannot occur without both repentance and
forgiveness. Forgiveness means ceasing to feel resentment against
the offender, opening the potential of establishing a new, trusting
Hopefully this brief overview gives some indication
of the understanding and definition we have of reconciliation,
and begins to root it into what we would expect true reconciliation
to demonstrate and achieve.
Such reconciliation is only made real by God
in his relationship with humans. We do not view humans as bereft
of all good and unable to make any headway towards full reconciliation.
However, we are realistic in our view of humanity and of our situation
here in Northern Ireland, as is evidenced in the following section.
We are not optimistic that human initiatives alone can achieve
such a full reconciliation In Northern Ireland or anywhere else.
We believe only God can bring about full reconciliation through
Jesus Christ. Human attempts will at best approximate true reconciliation,
inevitably falling short.
Nevertheless, we still believe that even piecemeal
reconciliation is worth pursuing and brings real benefits to broken
communities. Our comments and reservations are not given because
we reject any notion of human reconciliation or because we are
angry that processes are not more "Christian". Rather,
as stated earlier, we are concerned only to avoid people being
mis-sold a reconciliation process which promises far more that
it can achieve and leaves the citizens of Northern Ireland suffering
greater hurt and disappointed hopes.
The following sections are intended to convey
our perception of the current reality in terms of understanding
and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. They highlight
the difficulty we see in the people of Northern Ireland following
a process of full reconciliation, as outlined above. Although
this seeks to stem over optimism about what can be achieved, we
do also wish to acknowledge the progress which might be made by
a political reconciliation process.
A word on forgetting
One way that people have tried to deal with
the past is by forgetting it. This reflects the approach taken
in Mozambique, where no formal mechanism for reconciliation has
been brought about, and instead people seem to be of the conviction
that the price to pay for peace is to forget. The appropriateness
of this in Mozambique may be due to a strong sense of community
and shared history, something we will shortly discuss.
However, the people of Northern Ireland seem
far from willing to forget their past. Instead their desire is
to "keep faith with the dead". It is their histories
that form their identities and culture. It seems impossible to
forget events that some see as atrocities demanding redress and
others see as defining moments in which they are as a people.
How can identity be maintained when the past is forgotten? Instead
it seems that Northern Ireland must deal with the past rather
than forget it.
The reality is that the people of Northern Ireland
do not consider themselves to share a single past. There is no
one, united history that could be supported by all citizens. Instead
there are different understandings of history, different interpretations
of what happened. It will be a long time, if ever, before there
could ever be a shared understanding of the past, and a subject
of much debate as to who defines it.
This in itself makes reconciliation a tenuous
word and concept at the moment. For reconciliation implies the
bringing back together of what was once united and then separated.
Currently there seems to be little or nothing that the people
of Northern Ireland believe unites them in the past. And so the
reconciliation that brings a shared future is hamstrung by the
current lack of a shared past.
Nevertheless, this does not negate a process
which shares truth and enables people to tell their stories. It
just sets some realistic limits on what will be achieved by such
a process at this stage, in terms of the past. Truth-telling can
at least start to construct a "highest common denominator"
approach to shared history, and factual truth can, as Ignatieff
says, serve "to narrow the range of permissible lies"
Even at this stage, communities can begin to respect the integrity
of those who hold a different view of history from their own,
and refrain from rewriting history in a way that flatters them.
In talking about truth-telling, however, we
must be careful to understand that there are different understandings
of truth. Truth is not neutral or abstract, but is interpreted
and presented through the convictions and values of those telling
it. Like history, the people of Northern Ireland have little common
understanding of "truth", and indeed its religious connotations
means it plays an even more contentious role in society here.
As stated earlier, even the recounting of factual
truth, should it be accepted as such, is not repentance, nor does
it qualify as regret or remorse. It might even be questioned as
to whether the stipulation for full disclosure only in South Africa,
with no admission of guilt, qualifies as true restorative justice.
Certainly, without the long sought for apologies that few seem
willing to give, there will be no full reconciliation in Northern
While we believe that truth-telling can be redemptive
and that truth sets people free, we are also concerned that the
exposure and potential mishandling of facts could also be explosive,
destabilizing, create deeper wounds, and lead to revenge. This
risk remains because there is little shared commitment to the
disclosure of truth.
We highlighted earlier that for full reconciliation
to take place all must prize its value and find it liberating.
But It Is not clear that the people of Northern Ireland currently
prize the value of truth-telling, or share a common understanding
as to why truth should be aired. Will It bring healing? Will there
be amnesty? Is it to bring about justice? Or vindication? Will
It set some free whilst condemning others to live on with the
constraints of the past? Is there a greater purpose to hearing
the truth, or will it merely be for the truth's sake alone? Is
it to create an official history, and if so, which office is in
charge of bringing that together?
We noted earlier that the outcome of reconciliation
involves both justice and mercy. This means that injustice must
be dealt with, and yet grace must be shown. Both must be held
together. When justice alone is propounded, the chances of full
disclosure are minimised and the burden on the judicial system
becomes great as evidenced In Rwanda.
When amnesty is the sole strategy. people are more willing to
tell the truth, but victims are unable to see justice for the
crimes committed against them. And in a context where political
prisoners have already been set free without a condition of disclosure,
the offer of amnesty provides little enticement towards telling
the truth. The resolution must also deal with the fact that while
some, comparing themselves to the violent perpetrators, hold that
"not all are guilty", others will maintain that "no
one has clean hands". In other words, how do we keep a genuine
sense of communal complicity without glossing over substantive
differences with regard to severity and wilful participation?
We believe the unwillingness to commit to such
a vulnerable process stems from a lack of shared trust. The people
of Northern Ireland maintain too great a level of suspicion as
to the motivation of the organiser of and participators in a truth-telling
exercise for it to be sufficiently credible. The communities are
not willing to make themselves vulnerable to the other side. They
are uncertain of how truth will be used and handled. There is
currently no willing party involved in Northern Ireland, and insufficient
relational stability, to provide a substantial identification
with the "other" and a trustworthy context in which
people feel tree to disclose. In reality, the popular contrasts
with South Africa actually highlight the dissimilarity; there
is not yet the political resolution here that there was there,
nor is there an established authority under whom people are willing
to be humble and open.
All of this serves to demonstrate both the limits
and cautions concerning quick establishment of a reconciliation
However, we again stress that this does not
mean that nothing should be done for fear of not meeting the ideal.
The fate of the former Yugoslavia is testimony to the fact that
time does not heal all wounds. But there should also be right
timing for dealing with the past and recognition that it is slow,
painstaking and, ultimately, not a completely satisfactory process.
Shriver underscores the importance of timing in his recounting
of the movements to bring greater reconciliation between Japan
and the US, which demonstrates that healing cannot be rushed when
fresh wounds abound.
Truth-telling and memorial events can have some
worth and value, but there is no reason to believe there will
be full disclosure. And without repentance there is no reason
to believe there will be forgiveness. Taking inspiration from
Brandon Hamber, the most we can hope for are "patchwork quilts"
of truth, repentance and forgiveness.
While this remains a limited good that falls short of full reconciliation,
it can ease some broken relationships and foster a greater sense
of unity and peace.
Implications for Government
We appreciate the desire for political stability
and economic prosperity. To a great extent, we share these aspirations.
We also are concerned that government and all parties do their
utmost to establish a political settlement that engenders trust
amongst the people, which, in turn, will lead to greater potential
for a process of reconciliation.
However, quick solutions motivated by these
concerns, that are without widespread support and trust, while
potentially bringing partial reconcilation, will not stop others
who remain aggrieved from burdening the judicial system to obtain
justice. Such measures will not bring about anything amounting
to full reconcilation and must not in any way be advertised as
We appreciate certain benefits in suggested
ventures, such as the telling and collecting of stories, a day
of reflection, a living memorial museum and public acknowledgement
of responsibility by various organisations and institutions.
These provide designated places for truth to be expressed, history
to be shared and apologies to be offered and accepted. There is
"healing" potential for all those who participate and
commit to such schemes.
Nevertheless, the proper concern of the churches
is to help people know and experience full reconciliation through
Jesus Christ. The implication of this for the government is that
while churches can play a large part in encouraging political
methods of reconciliation, by and large they will not advocate
as true reconciliation anything that falls short of this high
biblical view, and will be honest in pointing out the limitations
of this worthwhile project of human reconciliation.
Implications for Churches
Churches should maintain their gospel witness
to the full and lasting reconciliation of Jesus Christ. The Church
does not exist to help run the world more smoothly or as a supportive
institution for the state government. It is there to show the
world what it should be through Jesus Christ.
This is not to say that the Church should not
contribute to societyquite the opposite. But the credibility
and mandate of the church does not rely on it being able to deliver
the unrealistic expectations of paradise on earth on the terms
set by society.
The Church's great vision is of the new creation that God will
So churches in Northern Ireland should not let
themselves be flattered about their social importance and significance
such that they are used for political ends. But as the conveyors
of the message of true reconciliation, the church needs to be
at the forefront of modelling it in society.
Churches could consider modelling a truth-telling
process so that if and when the time is right for a process to
begin in the community there is a local model already operating
on a micro scale which can be replicated in the macro setting.
"Truth" needs to be spoken publicly between the churches
about the nature of their relationships and ongoing contribution
to the divisions of Northern Ireland which in the telling would
model the kind of truth-telling to be encouraged in the community.
the hurt over mixed marriages, education, flags, emblems and many
other issues could be discussed and documented publicly in a repentant
forgiving spirit to model the vision for the wider community.
Churches must model the humility, sacrifice, repentance, forgiveness,
passion for justice and gracious mercy that they set as the ideal
Finally, the necessity of "keeping faith
with the dead" will shape much of the motivation, expectation
and co-operation in any future truth-telling exercise within this
community. This will be the case whether the dead is victim or
perpetrator, civilian or combatant. In a context of violent conflict
the pursuit of truth and justice and calls to remembrance are
inextricably linked with the need to keep faith with the dead.
The Church's overriding vocation is, however, to keep faith with
the living Christ who in death showed us the truth about love,
grace and redemptive power.
9 Examples of this are cited in ECONI publications.
See Hauerwas, Stanley, A Time to Heal, Pathways series
ECONI 1999, pp 30-31, and Thomson, Alwyn, Forgiveness, truth
and memory, Forgiveness Paper 8, Centre for Contemporary Christianity
in Ireland 2002, p.9. Back
Shriver Jr, Donald, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics,
OUP 1005. Back
ECONI and the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland
have produced several in-depth studies on the nature of foregiveness
and healing, including A Time to Heal, Forgiveness: Making
a World of Difference and Embodying Forgiveness, as
well as a series of Forgiveness papers. Details of all these are
in the bibliography. Back
Thomson, Alwyn, Forgiveness, truth and memory, Forgiveness
Paper 8, Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland 2002,
p. 7. Back
Michael Ignatieff, cited in Thomson, Alwyn, Forgiveness, truth
and memory, Forgiveness Paper 8, Centre for Contemporary Christianity
in Ireland 2002, p.4. Back
Eshtain, J "Politics and Forgiveness" in Burying
the Past (ed Biggar, N), Georgetown University Press, 2003
and McCaughey, T, "Northern Ireland: Burying the Hatchet,
not the Past" in Burying the Past (ed Biggar, N),
Georgetown University Press, 2003. Back
Hamber, Brandon, "Truth and Reconciliation-lessons from
abroad" in Corrymeela Connections October 2004 (Vol 5 No
cf Boraine, Alex, All Truth is Bitter, NIACRO & VSNI
1999 p 22. Back
Shriver Jr., Donald, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in
Politics, OUP 1995. Back
Brandon Hamber cited in Thomson, Alwyn, Forgiveness, truth
and memory, Forgiveness Paper 8, Centre for Contemporary Christianity
in Ireland 2002, p9. Back
cf The Report of the Healing through Remembering Project,
cf. Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William, Resident Aliens,
Abingdon Press 1989 p 43-48. Back