The Possibility of Reconciliation

April 28, 2019
John 20:19-31
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley

When Padraig O Tuama worked as a school chaplain in Belfast, Ireland, one day a young girl asked him, “God loves us, right?”  He could tell she was leading somewhere, “Ok,” he said, “I’m with you.”

And she continued, “And God made us, right?”

“Ok.”

“Then answer me this: Why did God make Protestants?”

“Tell me more about your question.” He replied.

“Well, they hate us.”

And because Paraig knew she was brilliant at soccer, he said, “I know a lot of Protestants that would want you on their soccer team.”

“Really?” [i]

This little girl was born after the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, and yet still she grew up hearing the stories. She knew who hated, and even killed, her people.  She could not imagine being included in their games.

Padraig O Tuama went on to be the leader of The Corrymeela Community, a Christian community committed to reconciliation and peace-building through the healing of social, religious, and political sectarianism in Northern Ireland.     Padraig shares a continuum scale for sectarianism with about 15 points.  The first part of the scale is, “You’re different.  I’m different.  Fine.”   And at the opposite end, the 15th point is, “You’re demonic.”[ii]  If someone or a group is understood to be the evil, well then, the impulse is to dehumanize and dispose.  And as the scale goes in this direction the potential for harm and violence increases and is even ‘justified.’

The Corrymeela community brings together people of difference, not necessarily to agree, but to move towards tolerance, to begin to see the humanity and sacredness within the other.  One of the buildings at Corrymeela, is called the ‘Croi,’ which is the Irish word for ‘heart,’ and it is built in that shape.  The ‘Croi’ is a holy place of prayer, discussion, and rest.   Their process has been fragile, and limited, and transformative.  They have brought together victims and perpetrators, politicians, peace makers of all ages.  People of courage and goodwill who have dared to say, “We have been caught up in something.”  And, “We can find a way to live well together.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus appeared to the disciples who were huddled in fear, with the doors bolted shut.  Jesus had been arrested and crucified—not only were they also feeling battered and betrayed, but they too were wanted men.  Now what?  Those walls and door kept them separated from everyone else ‘out there.’  They saw no way forward, no way out.

And then through those barriers, Jesus somehow appeared, and showed them his hands and his side.  He was both wounded and resurrected.  Jesus breathed on them, as in the beginning.  He filled them with the Holy Spirit, and with peace.  He reminded them of the power to forgive and retain sins.   And then, just as the Father sent him, Jesus sent them into the world he loved.  And when Thomas, who had missed this, said he needed Jesus to do it again for him, of course.  And we who come since are blessed as well.  There is a connection here with real wounds, peace and forgiveness, and resurrection and going forward.

One summer Sunday, Hannah Garrity’s church planned a ritual with water.  When the time came, people began to line up at her station.  One by one she looked them in the eye and said, “You are a new creation.”  A child came, and she knelt saying, “The old life is gone, a new life has begun.”  An adult was next, “You are a new creation.”  Tears began to stream down Hannah’s.  Though she didn’t know them personally, the space between them was bridged.  Their eye contact, this ritual, these words made each of them a sacred person before her eyes.[iii]

Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[c] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[iv]

“Reconcile,” other biblical translations use the phrases make peace[v], or put square, make things right, become friends[vi].  ‘To bridge the space’ is to reconcile, as Hannah did when she looked each person in the eye and saw their sacred humanity. And that is the gaze they try to teach at Corrymeela.  And often at Corrymeela, they are trying to bridge not just a neutral space, but a historically divisive and deadly space.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are hardest when there has been harm.    Reconciliation does not involve pretending something did not happen, or not talking about it, or just forgetting and wishing it would be ok. The restorative justice model is helpful in moving towards reconciliation. This process involves telling the truth, even when painful.  It requires a neutral and trained mediator and an additional witness.  Each person tells what happened in their own words, what harm was done, and what it would take to make things right.  Sometimes moving towards forgiveness and reconciliation is not safe or possible with the perpetrator in this lifetime but can be done to some degree in their absence.  Otherwise a wound can fester like an infection and take over—separating us from ourselves, others, and God.

25 years ago– up to 800,000 people in Rwanda were killed in just over a hundred days.  Most who died were members of the minority Tutsi community.  People were killed by neighbors they knew.  And afterwards those who were left, still lived among each other.  Even the Rwandans born since have had their lives shaped by what happened, such as growing up as orphans or with parents in jail.  In order to navigate the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan government set up an extensive nationwide reconciliation process.  They set up community courts for open, communal, town hall format trials.  The idea was to hold people accountable and have a system of punishment. And this system banked very heavily on encouraging confession and rewarding it. The confessions were supposed to be then verified by the community.  The stories were hard to hear, but to not have done it would have been worse.  The motto of the courts was, ‘truth heals.’

The victims or their surviving family would then respond with something about forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness, not in the sense of restored trust, but forgiveness meaning letting go of the cycle of revenge, or getting even, and accepting coexistence.  The truth and reconciliation process helped them begin to move forward.   It’s a starting point.[vii]

This week I was moved by students from Sri Lanka at a prayer vigil they held on campus.  They were careful not to say the Easter attack was done by one religious group targeting another.  Instead, they proclaimed, this was done by a few misaligned people who attacked Sri Lankans.  As one leader said with both tears and strength, “We must not respond with such hatred and violence in our heart towards them or anyone.  We must reach across the divisions of race, religion and class.”  With the memories of civil war still in their minds, they know too well the cost of demonizing and dehumanizing a group of people.  In a time when sectarianism seems to be on the rise in our own country and churches and around the world, let their words lead us.  We don’t have to agree, but we need to see the sacred worth of all people.

In that room, with no way out, the wounded and resurrected Jesus came.  Jesus breathed his own Spirit, peace and forgiveness.  And then he sent the disciples out into the world.  So filled, we too our sent to continue the ministry of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of making new.   Reconciliation work is hard, fragile and transformative.  We engage in the ministry of reconciliation as we see all humanity as sacred, listen with prayerful hearts, speak courageous truth, hold accountable, and work towards healthier ways of relating.  The possibility of reconciliation is a precious gift to which we have been called; and we are part of families, communities, and a world that need it now.


[i] Krista Tippet, On Being, Padraig O Tuama, “Belonging Creates and Undoes Us,” originally aired March 2, 2017,  https://onbeing.org/programs/padraig-o-tuama-belonging-creates-and-undoes-us/

[ii]Scale of sectarianism developed by Cecelia Clegg and Joe Liechty, Krista Tippet, On Being, Padraig O Tuama, “Belonging Creates and Undoes Us,” originally aired March 2, 2017,  https://onbeing.org/programs/padraig-o-tuama-belonging-creates-and-undoes-us/

[iii] 25, Hannah Garrity, “4th Week of Lent,” 2019 Lenten Devotional: Cultivating and Letting Go, sanctifiedart.org, Sanctified Art LLC.

[iv] 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

[v] Contemporary English Version

[vi] The Message

[vii] NPR: Morning Edition, April 9, 2019, host Rachel Martin with author Philip Gourevitch, “After the Genocide, Author Witnessed How Rwandans Defined Forgiveness,” https://www.npr.org/2019/04/09/711314421/after-the-genocide-author-witnessed-how-rwandans-defined-forgiveness