Last October, when speaking in the Seanad in Dublin, Norman Hamilton bemoaned how none of the governments in Dublin, London, Belfast, or Washington, had a clear policy setting out what reconciliation is, or the steps needed to make it happen. Norman concluded, “That in practice means that every time a political leader speaks of reconciliation there’s no clarity at all as to what he or she is actually describing or advocating”. “Reconciliation” is a word that political sources have pilfered from the vocabulary of scripture. However, without definition, it can easily degenerate into a term synonymous with peaceful apartheid or superficial agreement. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement the need for some definition of reconciliation becomes more urgent.

My thoughts have returned to a conference in Corrymeela in the 1990s. The keynote speaker was John Paul Lederach, the American Mennonite theologian and peace practitioner. He used Psalm 85v10-11Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” The old metrical Psalm translated those verses as “Mercy now and justice meet peace and truth for aye embrace”.

Lederach conducted a role-play involving four people, who represented Brother or Sister “mercy”, “justice”, “peace”, and “truth”. He probed sisters “justice” and “peace” about what they thought of brother “mercy” or sister “truth”. It soon became apparent that these virtues were not natural soulmates. Then, as the four virtues held hands and formed a circle, Lederach pointed to the empty space in the middle, and suggested that the space is called “reconciliation”. Lederach went on to demonstrate how globally some peace processes started with peace, initially neglecting truth and justice, but how all four virtues were required to sustain an intergenerational peace process that involved reconciliation. Fleming Rutledge – in her masterful book on the Crucifixion points out how, “Peace without justice is an illusionary peace that sets the stage for vengeful behaviour later on.

Lederach’s role-play returned to my mind as I read two books recently. The first was Justin Welby’s latest book, “The Power of Reconciliation.” Welby is not just a writer on reconciliation, but a practitioner, who has worked for decades mediating in Nigeria and in the global Anglican Church. Like Norman, he wonders about how the word, “Reconciliation” is used in a secular context, being regarded as an event and then everyone moves on. Instead, Welby stresses how in his experience reconciliation is complex and complicated.

Secondly, Tim Keller in his latest book, “Forgive, why should I, and How can I,” also reflects on the complexity of forgiveness or the desire to show mercy. He draws out the tension between justice and mercy. “God is both a God of wrath and love – and both are fulfilled on the cross. How wonderful that justice and love are perfectly integrated in the being of God, yet in our society and in our hearts, the two seems to be locked in a deadly conflict.” Keller quotes from Shakespeare’s play, “Merchant of Venice”, “Though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and the same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, it should not surprise us that reconciliation is difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve. Reconciliation involves not only resolving external tensions between combatants, but also internal tensions between virtues. Our peace process on this island has certainly been long, arduous, and complex. However, may I suggest that Lederach’s space between the virtues might be a workable definition in the Christian world, because it is biblical, and in the secular world, where it is understandable, realistic, and perhaps eventually achievable.

Of course, as Christians we would argue that there is only one person, Jesus Christ who was completely truthful, just, compassionate, and peaceful. He was truthful in all his relationships. He was just, treating all equally and fairly. He was compassionate showing mercy to sinners, and he was a man of peace, reaching out to people from different backgrounds, whether they be female Samaritans, or butch Roman soldiers. Jesus is the true reconciler.

Tony Davidson recently retired as Minister in First Presbyterian Church, Armagh.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.