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Is Reconciliation Possible after Violent Conflict? Analysing Christian Peacebuilders and their Promotion of Reconciliation

Date:23 October 2015
Author:Religion Factor

Last week, Dr Gladys Ganiel delivered a lecture at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, University of Groningen as part of the seminar series. The lecture explored possibilities for reconciliation, the weaknesses of approaches to reconciliation as well as its strengths. This blog is a summary of the key points from her lecture, a full version of which is available at:

There is perhaps no figure on the world stage more prominently associated with Christian reconciliation than Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop from South Africa. Tutu was the Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, when under his leadership victims and perpetrators were often encouraged to forgive and be reconciled, at a commission hearing, there and then. Tutu’s published account of the TRC is titled No Future Without Forgiveness (2000).

In 2005, the BBC invited Tutu to travel to Northern Ireland to facilitate staged encounters between victims and perpetrators in the Northern Ireland conflict – one hopes for the benefit of those involved, but also for the viewing public. There were three episodes in the ‘Facing the Truth’ series (aired 2006), and with Tutu’s presence, they could not help but have Christian overtones. A BBC report about the series concludes with a quote from Sylvia Hackett, whose brother was murdered by a loyalist paramilitary: ‘It’s been like a life sentence for me and the girls. This was something I just had to do. To show him I’m not just this bitter woman who everybody thinks I’m going to be. I do feel sorry for him. But it was my way of showing I’m a Christian.’[1]

Despite assurances from the BBC that those involved had found it ‘a worthwhile, even helpful experience,’ the programmes were not welcomed by many in Northern Ireland, including groups like Healing Through Remembering whose remit was assisting victims or working on aspects of dealing with the past. They thought that the programmes presented reconciliation as forced, staged, too easy, too glib – and wondered whether away from the charismatic personality of Tutu and the glare of the video camera’s lights, was there really any forgiveness, healing or reconciliation at all? Had so-called Christians put other people under pressure to forgive, reconcile, and move on?

Three years later the Tutu series was fictionalized in a film starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Herschbiegel 2009), which is based loosely on the biography of former loyalist paramilitary Alistair Little and the brother, Joe Griffen, of the man he murdered. Although in reality Little and Griffen have still not actually met, the film re-enacts an encounter between Little and Griffen in a setting similar to where the Tutu meetings were held: a grand old country house in rural Northern Ireland. But rather than facilitating reconciliation, Griffen brings a knife to the meeting with the intention of murdering Little – what he calls his own ‘five minutes of heaven.’

See 5 Minutes of Heaven trailer on youtube:

The film de-sanitizes the ‘Facing the Truth’ series and casts grave doubts on the possibilities for reconciliation. Little, who is now a relatively prominent ‘ex-combatant’ in Northern Ireland’s peacebuilding world, personally dislikes the term and prefers to talk about ‘re-humanization’ rather than reconciliation.[2]

Yet in places around the world where there are significant Christian populations, and where religion has been perceived to be a part of conflict, Christian peacebuilders continue to advocate reconciliation. But is reconciliation possible after violent conflict?

Like Little, and the makers of Five Minutes of Heaven, I am acutely aware of the argument that promoting reconciliation does more harm than good, potentially re-victimising those who have been hurt the most and placing unrealistic expectations on those who have been traumatised.

In the three contexts where I have done the most research – Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and South Africa – Christian organisations and individuals have used the language of reconciliation in their efforts to transform violence and conflict. And this term reconciliation has been prominent in public discourse in those contexts as well. We have already mentioned South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Zimbabwe has proposed a National Peace, Healing and Reconciliation Commission. Though Northern Ireland has not had an ‘official’ state-led process for dealing with the past, the language of reconciliation was prominent in the important ‘Shared Future’ document of 2003 and in the 2014 recommendations of the Stormont House Agreement (which, like Zimbabwe’s NPHR, has yet to be implemented).

But what do peacebuilders – Christian, from other religions, or those who do not consider themselves religious – mean when they advocate reconciliation? In their book Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney argue that the language of reconciliation has been unhelpful because people mean different things when they talk about reconciliation.[3] In 2009, when conducting island-wide surveys of clergy and Christian laity on the island of Ireland, I provided a space where people could write in their own definitions of reconciliation.[4] The surveys yielded hundreds of variations, which were not always compatible. So on top of the risk of re-victimising, re-traumatising and placing unrealistic expectations on people, there is this danger of misunderstanding.

Yet I still think that advocating reconciliation can be productive in post-violence contexts, particularly those where there is a critical mass of Christian peacebuilders and where Christianity retains some cultural resonance. Contexts like Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and South Africa. I have spoken with enough people in my fieldwork for which reconciliation remains a compelling and worthwhile pursuit.

From my research in these three contexts, I have identified some lessons about ‘what works’ for reconciliation.[5] While these lessons may be enacted by Christians, to varying degrees, they need not be confined to Christian peacebuilders. At the same time, I think the faith of those who I have studied as they have advocated reconciliation, at the very least, provides ‘added value’ to their work to transform conflict – particularly if the religious resources they use to advocate reconciliation resonate with wider cultures in which religious ideas and traditions continue to play a role.

One way to understand what works is to identify what doesn’t work for those Christian peacebuilders who advocate reconciliation. I have identified four examples of what doesn’t work, which I explored in greater depth in my full lecture:

1) making an example of an exceptional individual as an ideal Christian;

2) promoting individual reconciliation while ignoring wider structural issues;

3) making reconciliation conditional on repentance; and

4) expecting the institutional churches to do it.

What is Reconciliation?

So where does that leave the Christian peacebuilders who still advocate reconciliation and want to work for it? The most effective of them have learned that reconciliation is a long game. As David Bloomfield has argued, reconciliation is both a process and a goal.[6] Indeed, I think it is more process than goal, for the minute that someone thinks that they have been reconciled, something happens that makes them question that. I think that is why Jesus told the disciples that they must forgive 70 times 7 times.[7]

The Christian peacebuilders of Northern Ireland have developed some relatively sophisticated definitions of reconciliation, which could be usefully applied elsewhere. Indeed – they could be usefully applied in Northern Ireland, as we all know that practical application is more difficult than theory!

In a recent publication, I’ve analysed the definitions of reconciliation developed by three prominent Christian organisations in Northern Ireland – Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI).[8] I identify two main themes in their approaches to reconciliation: reconciliation is relationship-centred, and includes addressing socio-structural aspects of sectarianism. ECONI, in particular, adds a valuable emphasis on critical self-reflection, repentance, and forgiveness. In recent years, discourses of reconciliation have slipped somewhat from Northern Ireland’s public agenda, and the emphasis on relationship-building has been lost. Other aspects of their conceptions of reconciliation, such as its socio-structural aspects, have been even more neglected. Joram Tarusarira and I also have identified this tendency in Zimbabwe, where Christian activists have emphasised relationships at the expense of structures.[9] Accordingly, we ‘advocate incorporating the term reconstruction as a companion to reconciliation, seeing this as an effective way to encourage the intentional reform of social structures.’

In my full lecture, I examined these groups’ definitions of reconciliation in greater depth. Corrymeela, ISE and ECONI produced well-developed definitions of reconciliation, grounded in Christian reflection and commitment, which include both individual, relational and structural aspects, as well as an emphasis on self-critique and self-repentance. In these ways, these definitions address my examples of what doesn’t work for reconciliation, mentioned briefly above. But as I have also intimated, theory doesn’t always work out in practice; a reconciliatory theology doesn’t guarantee reconciliatory practice.

In all the contexts I have studied, Christian peacebuilders have been more effective when they work with small groups to address the individual, relational aspects of reconciliation.

They have been most effective when they have apologised for their own sins or actions, setting an example for others and avoiding the impression that they are preaching at people rather than working with them.

Their efforts to achieve structural reforms, if they have even seen the need to address structural aspects of the conflicts in which they are embedded, have been much more limited. In many cases, the cumbersome structures of institutional churches prevent earnest Christians from effective peacebuilding – at the individual or the structural levels. In other cases, the churches don’t see themselves as part of the structural problem of division and conflict, and this inhibits their work for reconciliation.

My forthcoming book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, does not focus solely on religion, conflict and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. In that book I develop a concept of extra-institutional religion, which I define as religious practice that takes place outside or in addition to traditional religious structures such as denominations, or especially on the island of Ireland, the Catholic Church.

When writing that book, I came to see the examples of extra-institutional religion on the island of Ireland as best equipped for promoting reconciliation, at individual and structural levels. In the conclusion of the book, I identified a further five general lessons that faith-inspired activists seeking wider religious, social, and political transformations in any context would do well to consider. I think these five lessons are applicable to other contexts[10]:

  • Work outside traditional religious institutions. Extra-institutional religion is better equipped than traditional religious institutions (especially denominations) to contribute to personal, religious, social, and political transformations.
  • Do not give up on institutional religion. A key task of extra-institutional religion could be transforming traditional religious institutions themselves, inspiring them to become more flexible and creative in their approaches. So while you may get more done through the practice of extra-institutional religion, remain in contact with traditional religious institutions.
  • Do not focus solely on promoting reconciliation between individuals. Lead the way in promoting reconciliation between groups: Catholics and Protestants on the whole island, Irish-born and immigrant, people of different religions, and within the institutional churches themselves. Do not ignore the structural aspects of religious-based division and sectarianism, such as segregated housing and education, and socio-economic inequalities. These structures must also be transformed.
  • Make your case for reconciliation in both secular and religious terms. The ability to speak the language of the secular will boost your legitimacy in the public sphere and make secular partners more open to working with you. Yet your religious tradition may furnish you with a treasure trove of inspirational stories, language, models, and examples that could inspire people of all faiths and none. Better yet, if you can critique your own religious tradition, admitting that it has contributed to division and violence in the past, you will gain even more respect and legitimacy.
  • Create networks of groups and individuals, drawing on the skills and resources of both religious and secular citizens. No single expression of extra-institutional religion can sustain the activism necessary to effect large-scale religious, social, or political transformation.

But these lessons, which are grounded in my empirical observations and theories from the sociology of religion, cannot always capture the illusive quality of hope, which I have observed sustaining so many of the people who have participated in my research over the years, from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Zimbabwe. I conclude with a statement of hope from Denis Anderson, a former Education for Reconciliation staff member at the Irish School of Ecumenics, made when responding to earlier drafts of this book: 

“Ultimately, your findings are saying that the extra-institutional is better able to contribute to reconciliation. In one sense that is sad, as the institutional church is being left behind. Indeed, it is not even ‘at the races’. But it is also exciting for the future: the thrill of not knowing, of venturing into a new ‘God space’.”

Gladys Ganiel is Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author or co-author of four books and more than 30 articles and book chapters, including the forthcoming Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland (Oxford University Press 2016).

[1] ‘Face to Face with the Past,’, published 3 March 2006; accessed 1 October 2015.

[2] Alistair Little and Wilhelm Verwoerd, 2013, Journey Through Conflict Trail Guide, Trafford.

[3] John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney, 2011, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Gladys Ganiel, 2016, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, chapter 3. See also my reports on the surveys from 2009 at

[5] I borrow this terminology from Robin Wilson. Although our conclusions are somewhat different, there are also significant overlapping themes. See Wilson, 2006, ‘What Works for Reconciliation?’ Democratic Dialogue Report No. 19,, accessed 9 October 2015.

[6] Bloomfield, David (2006) ‘On Good Terms: Clarifying Reconciliation,’ Berlin: Berghof Report No. 14,, accessed 6 October 2015.

[7] Matthew 18:22

[8] Gladys Ganiel, 2014, ‘Can Churches Contribute to Post Violence Reconciliation and Reconstruction? Insights and Applications from Northern Ireland,’ in John Wolffe, ed., Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims: Irish “Religious” Conflict in Comparative Perspective, Basingstoke, Palgrave, pp. 59-75. The sections on Corrymeela, ISE and ECONI include excerpts from this chapter.

[9] Gladys Ganiel and Joram Tarusarira, 2014, ‘Reconciliation and Reconstruction among Churches and Faith-based Organisations in Zimbabwe, in Martin Leiner, Maria Palme, and Peggy Stockner, eds., Societies in Transition: Sub-Saharan Africa between Conflict and Reconciliation, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

[10] Ganiel, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, chapter 12.


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