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Evangelicals Contribute to Reconciliation Around the World
Christians who have worked in trouble spots around the world reflect on what it’s like to try to encourage healing and to build bridges between enemies.

There’s not a person alive who hasn’t experienced some form of brokenness – from failed marriages to alienated siblings to political chaos. Trying to heal these rifts, especially when long-standing grievances held by sworn enemies get in the way, might seem impossible.

Missionary Laura Ward enjoys playing with children in Rwanda: Africa is not only difficult to understand but also difficult to address.

But for Christians, “reconciliation is an obligation within the Gospel,” declares Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprise. “It’s a ministry that God has uniquely committed to us His people, not to the military, government, academia or any other sector. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about reconciliation – vertically with God and horizontally with each other.”

Africa

After the genocide in Rwanda, Cassidy once preached in a Rwandan prison to “people who had killed upwards of 200 to 300.” When asked who wanted to respond to Christ, most said yes. He then invited several of his colleagues to the front – black, white, Chinese, Hutu, Tutsi – and told the crowd, “If you are willing to come to Jesus, you must be serious about coming to the world of relationships.”

It’s this restoring of relationships – and not retribution for past wrongs – that defines reconciliation, says Anne Brandner, a Canadian who directs the operations of Global Peace Initiative, a foundation that promotes religious freedom and assists those enduring persecution.

“Judicial processes, unless they have restorative elements, can often amplify divisions by defining individuals as either victims or perpetrators, making it harder for reconciliation to take place,” she says.

The best way forward for rebuilding lives after something like genocide “is to move away from a strict focus on punishment and toward a framework that values community, listening, truth telling and the personhood of everyone involved.”

The resulting openness allows for “expression of pain and anger, and the opportunity for true apology, forgiveness and healing.”

But it’s a slow process and listening to each other is the first step. In the year leading up to South Africa’s historic 1994 elections, Cassidy organized six dialogue weekends, inviting to each one 15 to 20 politicians “ranging from the farthest right to the farthest left – serious political enemies at a time of dreadful political tension.” After sitting them down together for a meal, he asked they do three things: share their autobiographies, share their vision for a new South Africa and share the steps they felt needed to be taken to reach that.

In all, 96 community leaders attended, and the results were startling. “As each person talked about themselves, in the eyes of their opponents they suddenly became humanized and understood,” Cassidy recounts. “They began to see each other not as enemies but as people facing a common problem.”

Cassidy still views that event as a miracle despite South Africa’s recent political turmoil. “Yes, there’s inverted racism with a lot of blacks who feel they’re scoring points against whites. But I keep reminding whites we must not throw away that miracle.”

Israel and the Palestinians

In the Middle East, too, concerted reconciliation efforts are making some inroads. Salim Munayer is director of Musalaha, a non-profit organization that aims to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians by empowering “community leaders to initiate reconciliation at a grassroots level.”

… the whole group is brought closer together on a level not possible in a hotel or meeting room …

How that’s achieved is by inviting people from a variety of congregations to the desert for four days of riding camels, driving jeeps and hiking. Faced with challenges of sun, heat, dust, thirst and primitive conditions, the whole group is brought closer together on a level not possible in a hotel or meeting room, Munayer says.

As Munayer explains it, for two different groups living “in such close proximity, co-operation, reconciliation and relationships are essential.” But the political process has failed to bring about the “change of heart” necessary for this, so it has been up to small groups of Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews to lead the way.

Though by no means “immune to the conflict” because of their ethnicity, these Christians are committed to reconciliation because of the Cross, Munayer says. The Cross “rejects the dehumanizing and demonizing” at the heart of breakdown and “forces us to see our own contribution. It also overturns thoughts of revenge because judgment is God’s. Freedom from focusing on hatred is the first step in breaking the cycle of retaliation.”

Freedom from focusing on hatred is the first step in breaking the cycle of retaliation.

But the steps getting there are hard and require patience. Meetings start with hesitation and a need for encouragement. Usually Israelis are caught by surprise at the depth of Palestinian grievances, resulting in two reactions: sometime hopelessness and withdrawal but, in other cases, a willingness to go forward by recognizing their role in the lead-up to the conflict and a desire to search for ways to restore right relationships.

Northern Ireland

Though Northern Ireland has been out of the media spotlight for many years – and most people never want to go back to the past – the potential for conflict is still there. The perception that Ireland was a religious struggle is not true, says David Porter, who was active in peace initiatives there in the late 1980s and early 1990. “The conflict has always been more about national identity than religion,” he says. “If you understand history – and the close ties of religion and politics – it’s not hard to see how the real issue of national identity got linked to religion.”

Porter, who is now director of Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for Reconciliation, admits the church in Northern Ireland has some “responsibility for that aspect of history it helped stoke.” But he feels it now has a different, though no less responsible, role to fill: that of speaking in the public square against violence.

During The Troubles, as the Irish conflict is referred to, Porter says the churches were at the heart of every major peace initiative and contributed “some of the most innovative dialogue.” Roman Catholic priest Alec Reid, for example, pushed the constitution forward while Presbyterian minister Roy Magee brokered the loyalists’ ceasefire. Magee believed in “direct contact with the bombers and gunmen, believing it would lead to peace,” Porter says.

That faith – particularly Christian – should be at the forefront of reconciliation makes sense to Murray Cornelius, missions director for The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. The problem is sin – “Romans says we exchange the truth for a lie and we are given over to the tendencies of self that will always divide” – so the solution must be salvation.

“Reconciliation apart from the work of Jesus is always going to fail,” Cornelius says, “because reconciliation is primarily the work of God who reconciles all things to Himself … the church brings opportunities to forgive and lament that you don’t find in secular attempts.”

Light in the darkness

It’s certainly what veteran CBC journalist Brian Stewart saw in 40 years covering conflict zones. Addressing the 2004 graduating class at Knox College, Toronto, he said he was never able to “reach the front lines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it, mobilizing congregations that care and being a faithful witness to truth – the primary light in the darkness and, so often, the only light.”

It was such a common occurrence that Stewart’s veteran cameraman, Mike Sweeny, once “sighed in exasperation: ‘Do you think you could ever get us to a story, somewhere, anywhere where those Christians aren’t there first!’ ”

U.K. writer Matthew Parris, born and raised in what is now Malawi, observes: “Christians, black and white, working in Africa do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write. . . . Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you directly without looking down or away.”

Although an outspoken atheist – lamenting “that salvation is part of the package” – Parris admits that Africa needs God and that removing “Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.”

Cornelius, who also grew up in Africa – Kenya, then Zimbabwe and Zambia – says the Church had to provide the social net because “African governments have never been able to.”

Assuming the responsibility of “providing for widows and orphans” not only earned the Church the right to speak but also the expectation it would call governments to the carpet. “The Church in Africa is a very large organization, and the people know that its voice carries weight and is heard.”

But reconciliation work isn’t for the faint of heart. Porter, currently chair of the board of the Evangelical Alliance U.K., remembers “a lot of late night meetings in small rooms in not very comfortable parts of the city. Those who criticized us for reaching out to the paramilitary never realized how hard it was to sit in a room with people you knew had terrorized and killed in your neighbourhood. When Jesus said love your enemy – and that it’s hard to do – He knew what He was talking about.”

Or, as Cassidy puts it, “When you attempt to be a bridge between people, you must prepare to get walked on.”

After the talks

And the work isn’t over when peace talks are done. Striking at the roots of conflict – deprivation, poverty, lack of housing, high infant mortality rates, fractured communities – is the only long-term solution, says Laura Ward, strategic program officer for The Sharing Way, a relief and development department of Canadian Baptist Ministries.

… reconciliation isn’t only about peace but also about restoring people to wholeness…

“Africa,” she says, “is not only difficult to understand but also difficult to address. Where there is extreme poverty, hurts that haven’t healed, families that aren’t together and a lack of food, people act in desperation. Yes, you pray against it, but you must also actively aim to fix it.”

Cassidy attributes South Africa’s current troubles less to militant nationalism, and more to unemployment – “around 30 per cent to 40 percent by my calculations and, in some townships, as high as 90 percent.”

That’s why it’s not enough to “come to Africa and only preach John 3:16. You have to act as well,” he adds. In her work developing assistance programs for Rwandan orphans – especially those young children who head households – Ward finds that reconciliation isn’t only about peace but also about restoring people to wholeness, especially after something has destroyed them. “The new heavens and new Earth passage in Isaiah [65:17-25] is not some future event but here and now. That means alleviating the conditions by helping people to gain sustained access to food and clean water and to build a community’s ability to care for children.”

Hope lies in the children, she finds. “They want to move forward. They work together repairing homes, play soccer together and encourage each other. Although it can be overwhelming and discouraging to see how much more still needs to be done, Rwanda has some amazing stories of reconciliation.”

Cassidy echoes her sentiments: “The work is exhausting and wearying, and the path ahead is daunting, but the Gospel challenges remain. It requires people of goodwill not to give up but to carry on.”

Alex Newman is a freelance writer in Toronto.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2009.

 

 
 
 
 

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