Reconciliation–Thanks to Heidi Burgess

As Doug Irvin-Erickson and I get deeper into writing our textbook, we find that reconciliation is a term we keep coming back to—and for good reason.

We are also finding that it is one of the most loosely used terms in the field.

To see why both of those statements are true, I returned to a short article on reconciliation that I wrote for the Beyond Intractability web site fifteen years ago. When I opened it, I discovered that the site’s co-director, Heidi Burgess, had called it one of its most outdated articles.

I was surprise, but when I read her comments, I realized that she’s right. I had called it a “hot topic” in 2093. She makes the case that it isn’t so “hot” today but it should be. In her terms, we need to re-learn it.

So, let me do just that in our steps here in which I make a slightly different case in four steps. I think it’s one that Heidi would agree with even though I think most of what I wrote back then still.

Reconciliation Matters

I have no doubt that reconciliation still matters. We can never approach anything remotely like a permanent end to a dispute unless and until we address the four characteristics of reconciliation John Paul Lederach includes in his classic definition—truth, justice, mercy, peace.

In that sense, reconciliation involves more than parties to a dispute sitting down with each other, talking things out, and somehow magically finding ways to get along.

That is part of it.

But only part.

In Lederach’s terms, reconciliation also requires achieving justice which includes addressing the issues that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.

I’m currently writing about Northern Ireland and South Africa. Progress has been made toward reconciliation in both places.

However, it will always be limited as long as the social and economic injustices that have limited the options of Catholics in the former and Blacks in the latter continue. Indeed, the peace in those two countries is still fragile to the degree that they haven’t made good on the policy implications of reconciliation desite all the progress they have made on the interpersonal and communal levels.

It Isn’t Cozy—Or Easy

Next, I have to reinforce one of the key points I made in that article in which I used a phrase that Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently used to describe the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he co-chaired. On dozens of occasions, he said “reconciliation isn’t cosy.” To see why, all you have to do is to watch the film on his role in the process.

And that’s before you get to the substantive inequalities that persist both in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Leaders in both countries have yet to summon the political will needed to address those inequalities, especially in South Africa where the economic gap between black and white may be larger than it was the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

It Isn’t Always Appropriate—Yet

I’ve been sitting in on Doug’s classes on genocide prevention and human rights for the last couple of years. In that time, he has begun convincing me that reconciliation and many of the other tools my kind of peacebuilding relies in may not always be appropriate.

In one respect, Doug is right.

Reconciliation is not a panacea that will heal every wound.

Two questions he poses are worth

How can survivors reconcile with the perpetrators of mass atrocities while they are still going on? Why should they?

On the other hand, we eventually have to get to reconciliation because we do eventually have to heal those wounds.

But, doing so often requires dealing with the substantive injustices (to use a Lederach term) first. That may mean using retributive rather than restorative justice in dealing with the perpetrators of mass atrocity. It may also involve pushing harder on the kinds of redistributive policies Tutu and his colleagues downplayed in the short term in South Africa.

Reconciliation USA

That leads to the final point that—I think—underlies Heidi’s comment about being out of date. Among other things, she says:

For example, living in the United States in 2017, there is a crying need for reconciliation between the various political, religious, and cultural groups. If we keep growing the divides between these groups further, the future is very dark for everyone.

On one level, I couldn’t agree with her more. We do have to talk with each other and understand the raw emotions that have led us to the political impasse we find ourselves in today. In that respect, I absolutely love the work of Living Room Conversations and other members of the Bridge Alliance.

On another level, I keep coming back to Doug’s concerns which I know my friends in the Bridge Alliance share. We can’t get to reconciliation unless we commit ourselves to the policy changes Lederach had in mind when he used the term justice. That goes way beyond equality before the law and extends to the structural inequalities along racial, economic, social, environmental, and other lines that we all worry about today.

The hard part in doing so is remaining in relationship with those we disagree with so that we don’t drive each other farther apart in the process and deepen the mutual antagonisms. I wrote about that a few weeks ago by talking about the value of improv, but I know I’ve just scratched the surface.

Thanks, Heidi

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.