catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 16 :: 2004.10.08 — 2004.10.21


Repentance and peace in Ireland

A challenge to the churches

As I write in February 1998, a fragile peace process, along with the many threats to it, dominates public interest in Northern Ireland. These are potentially momentous developments, but they may offer some false comfort and exaggerated hope. When the debate about peace revolves around the negotiations of politicians and governments, it is comfortably removed from the responsibility of ordinary citizens and consideration of what peace may require of us. This is a crucial moment, therefore, to remember that while the best possible outcome of the current talks, an agreed political settlement and a true end to violence, is fundamental, it is only fundamental, a foundation, not the completed structure of peace. At the social level, the perennial issues of sectarianism and reconciliation will remain as before, as will at least some justice issues. If the current talks achieve all that they aspire to, we will have a dramatically improved setting in which to work on these issues; if they fall apart, the same issues will require our attention with the same urgency.

Dealing with the legacy of sectarianism will be crucial to any full and lasting peace. If Christians and their churches have been prominent in the origin and perpetuation of sectarianism, as has been forcefully argued by the inter-church Working Party on Sectarianism, then they must take the lead in repenting for sectarianism. This essay offers some reflections on what that process might look like: how repentance works, what it requires of us, and what it offers.

Repentance is both personal and corporate

The Christian approach to repentance is typically personal. Yet if each of us were to repent scrupulously for our own sectarian attitudes and actions, the problem of sectarianism would be diminished but not eliminated, because sectarianism is not only personal, it involves institutions and social structures. Therefore our repentance must also be corporate as well as personal.

The idea of corporate repentance derives from the fact that we are social beings who find our identity in historically rooted communities. We do not feel joy, grief, hurt, and anger solely over things that have involved us directly and personally, but also over the experiences of our communities. We can feel elation at the success of the national football team, hurt at a slight to a family member, anger at a historic injustice against our church. The emotions register the strength of the bond between us and our various communities. To the extent that we identify with a particular community, we must be involved in repentance for its sins.

If corporate repentance is a necessary idea, it is also complicated. Individual repentance is already a complex operation, and as the number of individuals and groups and the span of time grow, complications increase exponentially. Who repents? For what? In what terms? The issues are too difficult to resolve here, but a few guidelines may help.
First, if a sin has been communal, as in the case of sectarianism, then ideally the community as a whole should repent, perhaps through its leaders or representative structures. But the initiative can also be taken by smaller groups of community members, even by individuals. The 1945 Stuttgart Confession of Guilt, made by the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany for their participation in the evils perpetrated by Nazi Germany, was only possible as a result of the longstanding, steadfastly prophetic and repentant witness of the minority Confessing Church.

Second, while all corporate sins need to be repented of, I am particularly interested in repentance as a way of dealing with protracted conflicts, as in the case of sectarianism. The impulse behind corporate repentance is not primarily moral scrupulousness, but the desire for a new beginning and the restoration of broken relationships.

Third, authentic repentance for corporate sins requires finding terms of reference that accurately reflect our degree of complicity. Thus a group of ordinary Northern Protestants disgusted by random killings of Catholics by Protestant paramilitaries cannot say, "We repent on behalf of the Protestant paramilitaries," but they can say, "We are part of the community paramilitaries claim to represent, and we utterly reject their actions." Learning of some rankling injustice committed by my ancestors, I cannot in any way repent on their behalf, but I can say, "I stand in the tradition formed by my ancestors, and I deeply regret this action of theirs." In general, moral maturity is likely to involve increasing awareness of our complicity in sins that we could plausibly deny or hold at a distance. In the case of the Stuttgart Confession, the people who took the lead in it were those consistent opponents of Hitler who probably had least to confess.

Repentance + forgiveness = reconciliation

Repentance and forgiveness can hardly be considered separately. They have a mirror-image relationship, repenting is a way of dealing with my sin, forgiving is a way of dealing with sins against me, so that what is true of one is likely to have a complementary application to the other. Each is necessary and good in its own right as a way of helping an individual or a community come to terms with past wrongdoing. They fulfill their final purpose, however, as the dynamic components of reconciliation, and then they operate not separately, but reciprocally, not for an individual or a single community, but for relationships. In this process either repentance or forgiveness can take the initiative and inspire the other, but the process is only complete when the two together have produced reconciliation. In a conflict of any duration, all parties will likely to need to repent and forgive, although there is often an imbalance, depending on which party has had more power.

Much human behavior is reactive, marked by ascending or descending spirals, as good begets good and evil begets evil. In conflicts of any kind the spiral of descent can quickly seem all but inexorable. Repenting and forgiving, however, offer the possibility of injecting a fresh impulse that can reverse the spiral. The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, "Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever." The complementary action of repentance offers a similar opportunity for real change in seemingly intractable conflicts.

Repentance is a way of seeking justice

Not only do repenting and forgiving work together as components of reconciliation, they are part of a larger web of virtue, in which the immediate connecting strands include at least love, humility, hope, and justice. These are equally important, but perhaps justice requires particular stress, because the language of reconciliation can too easily be used in a way that obscures justice claims, and many people disdain reconciliation for that reason. Once reconciliation is identified as the consequence of repenting and forgiving, however, the connection with justice becomes apparent. Acknowledging wrongdoing and making amends are essential to repentance, and wrongdoing will often take the form of an injustice, so that making amends will mean seeking justice.

Repenting and forgiving imply a particular kind of justice. My experience working with groups in Northern Ireland on these issues is that raising the justice theme turns many Catholics reflexively to "what the Brits have done to us," while many Protestants turn immediately to "how do we deal with the terrorists." These are important issues, but the implicit definition of justice is too often backward-looking, retributive, and sometimes even vengeful. The kind of justice tied to repenting and forgiving must also look backward, of course, but its fundamental orientation is toward restored community relationships in the future. Some form of retribution may be involved (vengeance never is), but the future orientation brings flexibility about retribution, it is never mistaken for justice, it is only a possible means toward the final end of justice, which is restored relationships.

Repentance is a form of power

If repentance is connected to justice and holds the possibility of initiating change, then repentance can be defined as a form of power. Repentance is often associated with weakness, humiliation, surrender?anything but power, a misunderstanding derived from two sources.

First, we often think of power as power-over, power-to-coerce, and these forms of power have nothing to do with authentic repentance. Alan Falconer defines forgiveness as "integrative power" or "power with the other person," power that reconciles and frees from the destructive effects of conflict. The sister virtue of repentance is also well described as integrative power, power-with rather than power-over.

Second, we confuse repentance with weakness because we equate vulnerability and weakness, and repentance does operate from a stance of vulnerability. Power seems an unlikely fruit of vulnerability, and yet any change that is not coerced but freely chosen will almost certainly require vulnerability, risk-taking. The relationship of power and vulnerability inherent in repentance (and forgiveness) may be paradoxical, but it is a fundamental biblical paradox, entirely in keeping with the character of Jesus, whom God granted "the name that is above every name" because Jesus "humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2.8, 9, NRSV). In my experience, groups reflecting on the character required of a repentant person often point to this paradox by stressing the importance of both self-esteem and humility. The vulnerable power of repentance is a practical and common demonstration that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor. 1.25, NRSV).

Repentance is a process

Repentance is ordinarily not a single action, but a process. The process can be described in various ways, but these five stages are basic: acknowledging a wrong done, accepting responsibility, expressing sorrow, changing attitudes and behavior, and making restitution. The stages as listed are like a ladder on which every rung gets harder to climb. It is one thing to acknowledge wrongdoing, but another to take responsibility, and so on up the ladder. Change is the crux and culmination of the repenting process, so that any repentance that does not reach the stage of changing attitudes and behavior is not genuine repentance. In fact, change is so crucial that it sometimes initiates repentance, because it may be only after our attitudes have changed that we realize the need to repent?a hint of change is present already when we are able to acknowledge wrongdoing.

Of the five stages, acknowledging wrongdoing, accepting responsibility, and changing are essential, while expressing sorrow and making restitution may not always be required. If the wrongdoing has been behavior that damaged a relationship, changed behavior may itself function as expression of sorrow and restitution, so that formal expressions are unnecessary or even unhelpful. However, an expression of sorrow is sometimes a necessary declaration and interpretation of changed behavior, while restitution can be the sign and seal of sincere repentance. Certainly we would not think much of the thief who fully acknowledged wrongdoing, accepted unqualified responsibility, expressed the most abject sorrow, and vowed never to steal again, but failed to return the stolen goods.

Through studying the American Civil Rights Movement, Donald Shriver has developed the idea of public, corporate forgiveness. He identifies four dimensions which characterize this process, and these are easily transposed into terms of corporate repentance: confession of a wrong perpetrated, empathy for the humanity of the victims, willingness to pay a penalty or make restitution, and the ultimate aim of restoring the community relationship of all parties to this transaction. Of the four, says Shriver, "the single overarching theme, which binds the whole transaction together in a purpose, is the renewal of fractured social bonds."
Shriver's scheme is a powerful tool for thinking about conflict situations, and its application to Northern Ireland is sobering. In the political culture of victimhood, accusation is more likely than confession, empathy for the humanity of opponents is often markedly lacking, there can be no willingness to pay a penalty where no wrongdoing is acknowledged, and the ultimate aim too often seems to be victory rather than restoring the community relationship. Such a culture desperately requires the leaven of repentant, confessing churches.

Whether the repenting process is personal or corporate, it is not a mechanical process, but a grace-ful process. Certainly there are dynamics to be studied and skills to be learned, but at the heart of repenting lie mysterious impulses that Christians will recognize as the hand of God. Many people, when describing how they came to repent or forgive, point to impulses that nudged or pushed them along, moments of illumination, moments of release when what had seemed impossible became possible. Conflict invariably has a spiritual dimension. Ron Kraybill started Mennonite Conciliation Services in the U. S. in the late 1970s. Fresh from graduate school, he was eager to use his hard-earned skills. He found, however, that the intense satisfaction he felt when he had completed a successful mediation was not primarily the satisfaction of skills applied or a job well done, but of worship, of being in the presence of God. God is present in the suffering of those enduring destructive conflict, and God will be present when peace is made.

Repentance is both religious and secular

On the one hand, repentance is fundamental to the biblical tradition, preached by Jesus, and essential to the church. But repentance is also fundamental to all human relationships and to a healthy, peaceful society. Any social grouping would collapse in a hurry without some functional equivalents of repenting and forgiving. In fact, everyone assumes the operation of repenting and forgiving, they just want others to do it. Those who use the concepts of repenting and forgiving in relation to social conflict are sometimes accused of naivete, but the charge is more properly made against those who think they can do without repenting and forgiving. Repentance will operate similarly in religious and secular spheres and whether Christians are involved or not. The basic difference will be between those who interpret repentance in purely social terms and those who believe that a wrong done to the neighbor is also a wrong done to God, and so repent before both neighbor and God. Beyond this, Christians will be more likely to use the explicit language of repentance, to acknowledge its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and to recognize the essential element of grace as God at work in the world.

Pitfalls along the road to repentance

Ways of getting repentance wrong are as varied as the human capacity for ingenuity in the cause of self-deception. In a survey of the repentance theme in the Bible, Mennonite biblical scholar Dennis Byler comes to the sobering conclusion that no single biblical story of repentance can stand as an unflawed model, each is marred by some element of manipulation, insincerity, incompleteness, or reversion.

Because we are prone to see the speck in our neighbor's eye rather than the log in our own, we may forgive when we should repent. We may settle for tinkering with peripheral matters rather than cutting to the core, although the Bible links repentance to radical change, fundamental conversion. We may treat repentance as a once-off action rather than as the habit of being it must become. We may use repentance manipulatively, "I said I'm sorry, so now you have to forgive me." The list goes on.

Again, the complications increase dramatically for corporate repentance. German theologians Werner Krusche and J'rgen Moltmann cite many examples of German Christians repudiating the Stuttgart Confession: denying its implications, failing to act on it, contradicting it. And yet for all these acknowledged failures, the repenting impulse represented by the Confession has at times effectively called the church to account.

Repentance and renewal

The only reason to repent for sectarianism is to make right the damage done by sectarianism?ulterior motives are a main pitfall. The connection of repentance with conversion and change does mean, however, that repenting holds out the possibility of a wider renewal, and any thoughtful observer of the churches in Ireland today cannot fail to see that the challenges facing the churches can hardly be met without profound renewal. David Hempton and Myrtle Hill, in their outstanding study of Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740-1890, illustrate the relationship between repentance and renewal in the Ulster Revival of 1859 through the words of a young woman: "I felt that they were my sins that had nailed the Saviour to the cross that he was wounded for my transgressions and bruised for mine iniquities, it was for this I grieved, and not from any fear of punishment."

Although the 1859 revival has not, to say the least, been an event equally accessible to all Christian traditions in Ireland, the basic logic of repentance and renewal should be. Perhaps one path to renewal lies along this way: grieving that it is our sectarianism that nails the Savior to the cross, and repenting before our neighbor and our God.

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