Reconciliation is one of the loveliest words in the English language, speaking of an experience that is profoundly enriching. Where once there was hostility and perhaps violence, now there is peace, fellowship, understanding, even love.
Its fruit can take root and multiply in the most unlikely soil. In a world where reconciliation is so urgently needed on so many sides, the Christian understanding that begins with Christmas and God’s intervention into human history may have much to recommend it.
It has been said that reconciliation is the virtue of the courageous, the response of the forgiven, the mercy of the just. From reconciliation more reconciliation can flow.
But sometimes it seems too much to ask. The saddest aspect is that genuine reconciliation is so rare, sometimes because the attempt is tokenistic and sometimes because the side that has suffered is just too bruised.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was stolen from her parents at nine, and the pain and anger have never left her. Her father innocently brought her 250 kilometres into Alice Springs to “get some white education”, and she was immediately made a ward of state.
“We put our heads in the noose, and it tightened very fast,” she recalls. “I don’t want any reconciliation as long as it’s an assimilation process to take away one of the oldest living cultures in the world.”
Kunoth-Monks, a month shy of 78 and the 2015 Northern Territory Australian of the Year, is a once-devout Christian who spent 10 years as an Anglican nun in Melbourne, and later became an activist. She says: “It really hurts that Christians are not following in the footsteps of Jesus. They should stop taking babies from their mothers’ breasts. The continued silence of so-called Christians in Australia condones the policy of the [Abbott] government.”
Reconciliation in modern Australia is generally seen as a political term, but its religious use dates back centuries. As theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “in the cross of Christ God is taking man dead seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter. God takes upon himself the pain of negation and the God forsakenness of judgment to reconcile himself with his enemies and to give the godless fellowship with himself”.
That, to believers, is the most important form of reconciliation, between Creator and created. From this flow two further realms – between people or groups, and within ourselves as individuals. That is, the arenas are theological, social and psychological.
Kunoth-Monks rejects reconciliation in the social arena, and has her struggles in the theological arena – “I never quite feel I am a part of the joy of the imitation of Christ,” she says. “I am black, you see” – yet she has no doubt that all humanity needs to be reconciled with God.
She feels Aboriginal Christians may be closer to the Jesus of the New Testament, as opposed to the figure created by two millennia of church teaching. “Jesus was a tribal man. He had obligations, he had to go through initiation, he had to adhere to the rules and regulations of his tribal group. What white people and their interpretation have done, they’ve almost anglicised this wonderful person,” she says.
“I can easily let go the hand of men who purport to be Christian but divide the church. So far, I have not let go the hand of Jesus.”
Of course, the idea of reconciliation with God presupposes that there is a separation between God and humanity, but that is at the core of traditional Christian belief. If there were no separation, there would have been no need for Christmas (Jesus’ birth) or Easter (his death).
The late great Melbourne Anglican theologian Leon Morris put it like this: “Reconciliation properly applies not to good relations in general but the doing away of an enmity, the bridging over a quarrel. The Bible tells us bluntly that sinners are the ‘enemies’ of God’.” Restitution is not enough, Morris argues. Reconciliation requires really tackling the root cause.
Too often, talk of reconciliation is a device for the powerful to smooth over the wrongs done without really grappling with them.
People who are not religious probably find the theological reconciliation irrelevant. But if we replace God with the idea of spiritual harmony with the universe or with nature, it might be surprising in how many ways this is accepted.
What lesson can the secular world learn from this religious story? Surely it is what Kunoth-Monks has highlighted: the need to take the harm we do seriously, to be open to those we have harmed, to listen deeply and honestly and to do whatever is needed. Too often, talk of reconciliation is a device for the powerful to smooth over the wrongs done without really grappling with them.
Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier agrees that the churches have often failed Aboriginal Australians. “We do well in parts, but some of these issues are sustained ones. It’s a principle of engagement on a journey.”
Western culture tends to think such human fractures can be dealt with by a single event, such as a prime ministerial apology, after which everyone moves on, he says. But other cultures are about sustained relationships.
In defence of Christians, he points out that they were sometimes the only people in Australia’s early years who recognised that Aborigines too were God’s people, equipped with the same gifts and needs, and owed the same dignity at a time when the general cultural view was to treat them like agricultural vermin.
Freier himself was considerably shaped by Aboriginal Christians. He taught in indigenous communities in north Queensland before becoming a priest, then Bishop of the Northern Territory.
“They were Christians in a way that did not make them feel any less Aboriginal. They were unselfconscious, confident in their heritage and identity, and they embraced Christianity as a revelation from God. It was an integrated and holistic Christianity that was very powerful to me – unlike people from my own cultural background, to whom Christianity was an alien, improving, disapproving thing.”
Melbourne philosopher Tony Coady points out that reconciliation needs both parties to be genuine, and often requires justice as much as forgiveness. “Someone who seeks reconciliation benefits by getting control over their painfully negative feelings of resentment or grievance, which we know can eat up the personality and damage one’s character,” he says. But the other party must co-operate.
If the other party is obdurate and in the wrong, the prospects are not good. But even in the case of a group like Islamic State, who are committing very grave wrongs, if we don’t take the first steps to understanding their position, opportunities for peaceful outcomes become impossible, Coady says.
It’s unhelpful, he thinks, to describe Islamic State as “pure evil” or a “death cult” because such demonising paints us as the opposite, “as though we are entirely without fault, and that’s very dangerous – both spiritually, as Christians insist, and also politically”.
The reconciliation Louise Newman needed came as a shock to her. The noted psychiatrist, who has spent much of her career helping people reconcile themselves to catastrophic trauma in their lives, nearly died last month. Very ill in hospital, and told she was likely to die, there was a point where Newman embraced it.
She found her own mortality extremely confronting. But then, “I had an inner dialogue. I thought, ‘I don’t have to have treatment – I’m tired.’ It was important to have a sense of choice, that I could withdraw from the process. I wasn’t frightened,” she says from her hospital bed. But, reflecting on how upset her family would be, she decided to accept the treatment. In a way, she was reconciled again to life.
Newman says reconciliation in its various forms is highly relevant today, when the emphasis is on “moving forward”. What people need is acknowledgement of how significant and damaging their experiences have been, whether torture or discrimination.
“The challenge is to move beyond a mechanistic or simplistic way that focuses on process. We need to deepen our understanding of trauma and damage,” she says.
To die well is to die reconciled.
People need validation, a feeling they have a voice and can tell their story. The next level, she says, is to make that story meaningful, and that is much harder. How could this happen, how are humans capable of this awfulness?
“And then it’s about the self, of the process of thinking ‘if humans are capable of these atrocities, am I myself capable?’ These are existential questions people struggle with, and it’s incredibly confronting.”
Melbourne University philosopher Chris Cordner is not sure we can ever be reconciled within ourselves, or even that we should be. “Socrates, who said the unexamined life is not worthy of a human being, might have said it’s our distance from reconciliation that is the motive for improvement.” But the self is a little different, he says, because the state of perfect peace is a state of uncreativity.
He shares the concern that purported attempts at reconciliation are often not genuine, pointing to the Catholic Church’s sometimes half-hearted treatment of victims of clergy sex abuse. “The church said, ‘we tried to give them money, counselling, we tried to help them, and look at their attitude’. You have to respond without any attempt to measure whether the victim’s judgment is reasonable.”
He turns to literature to show there can be no psychological reconciliation without self-honesty. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, when the central character Raskolnikov confesses to his friend, Sonya, that he has murdered a moneylender, she replies, “what have you done to yourself?”
“Dostoyevsky invites us to think there is complete loss of himself to himself, first by what he has done and second by his inability to acknowledge it. It is only in the labour camp in Siberia, almost at the end of the book, that he gets a glimmering. That explores the possibility of his reconciliation to himself, and the relationship between that and the acknowledgment of what he did.”
Cordner’s second example is the Shakespearian tragedy of King Lear who banishes Cordelia, the only one of his three daughters who really loves him. “His falling out with her is an enactment of his own distance from himself, his inability to acknowledge his own vulnerability. So his reconciliation with her is realisable only through his acknowledgment of that vulnerability.”
Poet-illustrator Michael Leunig has never been one for grand narratives, looking for groundedness in the quotidian, small things of life. To him, reconciliation is one of the “mystery words, like love or God”, but he thinks Western culture works against a reconciled self.
“Our culture is very narrow. You’re a ‘good boy’ or ‘a proper Christian’ or ‘a proper American’. It tends to dispel often very lovely aspects of self. If you grow up in a tough-guy ethos – a macho, aggressive male – you have ruled out aspects of self that have a soft side, a spiritual side or a creative side,” he believes.
“To reclaim all these aspects of yourself that you have denied to yourself, that’s a lifetime’s work. To die well is to die reconciled. That’s both a humble and an elevated position. The degree to which you can accept your own failings and virtues and strengths is the degree to which you can accept them in others.”
It also means being reconciled with our own suffering and death, which requires courage and grace.
It’s a process, he insists – the work of every day. He also emphasises reconciliation with nature. “One is not separated from nature, one is part of it – it’s not out there, it’s in there. Some would say that’s enlightenment. The work is never done. The old cliché is a cliché because it’s true: love is like bread, it must be made fresh every day.”
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and was for 12 years religion editor of The Age.
This article originally appeared at The Age.