Peace Between People

Thursday 12 August

With Malcolm Duncan

The Door of Reconciliation

In 1492, two great Irish families, the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds were engaged in a bitter and bloody feud.  Seeking sanctuary, James Butler and his men fled into the Chapter House of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.  The Fitzgeralds followed in hot pursuit.

Their leader, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, realised that the fighting was out of control.  Through the closed door he pleaded with James to accept a truce.  Suspecting treachery, James refused to let Fitzgerald inside.  Fitzgerald hacked a hole in the door and thrust his arm through as a pledge of his good faith.

The daring gesture was enough.  Seeing that FitzGerald was willing to risk his own arm, the Butlers reasoned that he was serious in his desire for peace. The two leaders shook hands through the door and as the Butlers emerged from the Chapter house, the warring factions made their peace with one another.

Some believe that this event is the origin of the expression “to chance your arm” meaning to take the initiative. The door has become known as the “Door of Reconciliation”

On the 27 June 2012 at a charity event, Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness shook hands.  It was a poignant moment in the peace process.  A handshake, an outstretched hand has the power to transform a life, a community and a society.

What does the church of Jesus Christ on the island of Ireland have to contribute to peace building?  

On the one hand, we are grateful for an absence of killings and strife but we all know of the on-going tensions between Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities and Catholic/Nationalist communities. There is a deepening distrust and those issues can be replicated into the wider areas of multi-cultural Belfast and multi cultural Northern Ireland.

In Where politicians fail, storytellers address the Troubles, Cahal McLaughlin  points out “One of the reasons that an agreement has not been reached is the claim that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement failed to address the past.”

Add to this the frustrations around Brexit, issues around a sea border, calls for a border polls and the on-going voiceless-ness felt by working class people in both loyalist and nationalist communities and one thing is clear.  There can be no lasting peace in a family, in a community, in a church or in a society without what JP Lederach describes as “genuine reconciliation”.

Peace cannot be maintained by avoiding the hard questions or by pretending that the wrongs were not wrong.

Things happened that were profound, personal and generationally scarring. Reconciliation is part of the long term process of establishing peaceful relationships between two groups following any conflict.  What does that mean for the church?

How can a church community be a group of people who share peace?  You won’t be surprised to hear me say is that the first thing we need to recognise is that the peace the world needs is only possible through Christ’s ministry to His people and to the world.

We have a Saviour who is the Prince of Peace.

Peace and reconciliation are connected in the person of Jesus Christ and they are shared in the truth of the gospel.  It is deeply rooted in Christ’s ministry to us and His call on His people.  In Colossians 1: 19 -20 says, “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.”

Peace can only come through the blood of Christ shed on the cross.   We are one in Christ Jesus. That Gospel of hope and peace invites us into reconciliation through forgiveness.  Forgiveness is unilateral.  Reconciliation is between two parties.  Peace is the bridge that we walk over when we discover that we have been forgiven and reconciled with God.  I am first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ trying to make sense of the reality of the peace that I have in God and the reconciliation that brings to me.  

In six verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see how God is working out His purposes:

  • 1:10 God’s purpose in Christ is to gather up all things in Jesus – to reconcile them and bring them into wholeness.
  • 2:10 We are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works
  • 3:10 His church is the central vehicle through which He works out His purpose in the world
  • 4:10 The one whole enables us to share this peace is the one who descended and then ascended.
  • 5:10 We are to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord – a life of simple glorious obedience.
  • 6:10 And we are strong in His Power

All the power in the world will not bring lasting peace to communities; only Jesus can do that.  If Christ’s transformational power sits at the centre of our lives, our new identity transforms our understanding of ourselves and transplants us into a global family that transcends all cultures and ethnicities, all tribes and divisions.

He is our peace!  (Ephesians 2: 13 – 16)

Writing to the Philippians Paul made it clear that all his personal identity markers were secondary compared to his citizenship in heaven.

“The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification centre, where flawed people place their faith in Christ, gather to know and love Him better, and learn to love others as He designed.”

Paul David Tripp

This new identity, this peace, this reconciliation that is given to us, also draws us into a better hope, a better story. God through the prophet Isaiah says there would come a day when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11: 6 Could there be a more beautiful picture than that? The very creation finds peace.

In the week when we have heard of the profound dangers facing our planet, what hopefulness we find in scripture. If we become people who share peace, then the very created order in which we find ourselves can be transformed. This is the hope that lies at the beating heart of the gospel.  That God has made  peace with us through Christ, God has reconciled us to one another through Christ and God has enabled us to take His peace to the world around us.

There are three vital steps in reconciliation 

Naming the Past, Searching for the Future

To be reconciled we must have an encounter that names the painful past but searches for a long-term future together.  If we want to have genuine peace, we need to have conversations about why we don’t have peace now.  We need to name the wrong.

Truth and Mercy Meet

There is something powerful about hearing someone else’s story, having them hear your story and moving from there.

Space and Time for Justice and Peace

Addressing the wrong is held together with thinking about a common future.

But what role does the church have in all this?

In a church in Munich that Corrie Ten Boom first saw him. She wrote:

People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken.  It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.  It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.

It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent. Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze. He would not remember me but I remembered him.  I was face to face with one of my captors.  

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there – I whose sins had every day to be forgiven – and could not. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it – I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

I knew it not only as a commandment of God but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war, I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

Outstretched Hands

An outstretched hand has a power to transform a life. I said that on Monday night and I say that again to you tonight. God’s hand is outstretched to us and in receiving His hand, we are enabled to stretch out our hands to others.  

Hands across the divide is a sculpture in Londonderry and symbolises reconciliation between both sides of the community. Can we respond to God’s outstretched hand to us by reaching out to others? Could we be the hands of Christ to our communities?

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