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Can atonement offer a way forward in the impasse of reconciliation?

Archbishop’s Sermon at British Irish Association Conference

Can atonement offer a way forward in the impasse of reconciliation?

The annual conference of the British–Irish Association (BIA) met in Oxford last weekend (September 1 to 3 2023). The BIA annual conference brings together a wide range of people – senior politicians and government officials, businessmen and women, academics, faith leaders, writers, former paramilitaries and community workers – to discuss matters of mutual concern. Archbishop Michael Jackson gave the sermon during Sunday morning’s service at the conference. The text of his address is below.

Can atonement offer a way forward in the impasse of reconciliation?

County Fermanagh is where I come from. Enniskillen is its main town. Although, in one sense, The Enniskillen Bomb is ancient history, in another sense it seems only yesterday since it happened. How do I know this? It is because I was there when the bomb went up. It was an atrocity of devastating human proportions. Justice has never been served. The people of Enniskillen and of County Fermanagh chose reconciliation over retaliation. Retaliation was never even considered by the people of Enniskillen, nor will it ever be. Yet there remains something inconclusive in the air for the quiet type of person who is the Fermanagh person. This is not bitterness, but it is bitter experience and silent grief.

One of the good outcomes of the period of rebuilding and restructuring the local community following this atrocity was an organization called The Spirit of Enniskillen Trust. It emanated from Enniskillen and from the pragmatic genius of Gordon Wilson a local businessman who lost his daughter in The Enniskillen Bomb. The Spirit of Enniskillen spread across Northern Ireland and was hugely successful for a period of time. Successful at what, you may ask, particularly if you have never heard of it until now? I suggest it was successful at bringing together children and young people, and their parents, with warmth, generosity and strict rules of engagement who had never met one another before, who were never likely to meet one another in ordinary circumstances and who in many instances did not want to meet one another in the first place. It was not a top–down initiative; it garnered the energy of young people themselves to prepare the groundwork and to deliver the goods and in that highly polished cliché: to make a difference. There were opportunities to go abroad and experience the lives and limitations of divided communities elsewhere than in Northern Ireland. A shared A–level curricular framework was introduced in Northern Ireland cutting across sectarian divisions in secondary schools in order to enable pupils from differing backgrounds and traditions to learn together, each wearing what we might call ‘the wrong uniform.’ This was a godsend as a range of academic subjects in different schools could immediately be shared and enjoyed by pupils from a range of schools learning together, thereby enabling them to carve out together fresh pathways. In a very tangible sense, it was the seedbed of a shared future. Through the programme ‘Future Voices’ – that is young people to whom a different future mattered, with no party–political dividend for them on the horizon – new and different people were raised up to offer principled leadership for the emerging character of Northern Ireland. And it is, after all, character that builds social capacity and creates social cohesion. It was a courageous and a youthful programme that covered the whole of The Province for as long as it lasted.

Reconciliation is very positive but one has to ask: Is it enough? Is it the end–game/target or is it an enabler of the journey towards peace between tribes–at–odds?

Reconciliation of opposites, bringing warring factions together, is as sophisticated and as nuanced as is the political experiment that seeks to serve and to develop it and the encrusted, widely tolerated and seemingly acceptable divisions that cause the need for it in the first instance. It is hard going. It is for the realist even more than it is for the romantic. However secular our societies now are, one of the important backdrops and derivations of reconciliation as a work in progress is in The Christian Scriptures. Just listen, if you will, to a few verses from The Letter to The Ephesians chapter 2.14–16 which argues, admittedly in very Christ–focused terms, but I think generously and comprehensively, what reconciliation is: For Christ Jesus is our peace … He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … This was his purpose, to reconcile the two in a single body to God through the cross, by which he killed the enmity. We have here all the ingredients with which we are familiar in Northern Ireland: peace and reconciliation, dividing walls of enmity needing to be dismantled for good measure. We also have a wider dilemma where radical fresh engagement beyond pacifying distorted tribal identities and loyalties is concerned and urgently needed if we are to move far beyond the societal psychology of an uneasy truce. I speak, of course, of inherited religion that is now, in both parts of Ireland, in serious difficulty regarding holding the ring of its own credibility. This is not least because it has promised so much and has found itself, not least to its own consternation, delivering so little; it finds itself substantially outside of the tent of meeting of the societies to which it belongs.

I want to offer to members of The British Irish Association another and different paradigm as the next stage on from reconciliation and one towards which the young people directly associated with The Spirit of Enniskillen Trust pointed us all those years ago before their sun set. It is the concept of atonement and, once again, it has a good and a relevant religious pedigree: You are to count off seven sabbaths of years, that is seven times seven years, forty–nine years … Hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberation in the land for all its inhabitants. It is to be a jubilee year for you … (Leviticus 28.8–10).

Atonement has been skewed for us by the Western doctrine of The Atonement which is an entirely internal Christian debate relating to a mechanistic transaction about salvation where only God can satisfy God’s wrath by a sacrifice that is both unrepeatable and devoid of any dividend for the whole of humanity because God alone is good enough to settle the invoice. The circularity of such satisfaction is self–evident. Its irrelevance in a world of climate change and natural disasters, where guilt does not answer the questions, is as porous as it is patent. I want us to look at atonement differently, more simply. The most straightforward of meanings for atonement is at–one–ment: the proactive consolidation of those formerly disparate in such a way that looking back to the good old days of entitled division simply does not appeal to anyone, however good or bad they think each other to be in the cold light of history. It is a big ask. It begins with reintegration of disparate people as people rather than with reconciliation of tribal alienation. People, one by one, feel the dividend. It starts with an outcome of solidarity, it begins with an end–result of cohesion, it presupposes something already in existence beyond the on–going trench–warfare of concession without gift, of two steps forwards and two steps backwards which is what reconciliation has long ago begun to look like in the eyes of far too many. A positive view of atonement in this way connects us with a generous view of society in which risk is not suffocated by regulation, in which altruism is not quenched by A4 sheets, in which personal positivity is not trampled on by political panic.

The societal makeup of both parts of Ireland – and let us remember that all parts of Ireland participated in The Referendum that resulted in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – is changing all the time. This manifests itself differently in Northern Ireland and in The Republic of Ireland but in both it has cultural, ethical and religious repercussions. It also poses a positive challenge to the inherited and road–weary reconciliation model. I take you back a long way, to a wintry December 2002 gathering in Stormont Castle, Belfast when Monica McWilliams was in the chair. I happened to be present on that occasion. Each of the speakers was given five minutes. One speaker hardly strayed into her second minute because this is what she said: ‘I am a French Algerian atheist and a woman. I know nothing of your Two Communities. I belong to neither, nor do I want to.’ Then she promptly sat down again. Her point was well made because, almost twenty–one years later, I remember her words. She had put her finger on something which within her frame of reference was a scandal, namely automated, self–perpetuating segregation on historically–religious, if no longer functionally–religious, grounds of societal definition and rejection all in one.

Everyone now knows, and many always knew, that the basic issues of housing, healthcare, opportunity, education, employment have ever been issues common to all who live at a particular socio–economic point in the carousel of society; that such needs have been cynically exploited by those who saw fear induced through the sectarianization of disadvantage as a way to power and money; that, for a number of reasons, it suited all too many who were not affected by its granular day–to–day activities to live with such discrepancies as a norm. We were not all in this together.

The greatest gift that the concept of atonement in Leviticus and beyond offers us is the Year of Jubilee. Multiply seven by seven (Sabbatarian arithmetic) and the fiftieth year that follows this is a bonus, a free gift of time itself. What would any of us do with the free gift of a year? What would we do together with the free gift of a year? Jubilee and jubilation offer to us a generous amnesty on self–interest, whether such self–interest be driven by the quest for personal status or the thirst for political power. Those of you who are policy makers for the future well–being of Northern Ireland and of Ireland, those of you who are practitioners and entrepreneurs of peace – I suggest that you start thinking and budgeting now for this. We are at the half–way point of The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Why not work towards a Year of Jubilee in the year 2048, the fiftieth year of The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, for the whole of Ireland and surprize ourselves and those to whom we leave a legacy? What would it look like? Who is at the margin of what we have convinced ourselves is the centre only because it is the space which we inhabit? Many of us have probably never thought of ourselves as: Other. What would it be to travel as light as we can – politically, structurally, socially – for the sake of others to whom we are Other and indeed alien? I offer you three components of a Year of Jubilee and I suggest they will offend no religious or secular system: courage, commitment, compassion. They add up to a fresh generosity in a shared island – because none of us is going anywhere any time soon, so it needs somehow to be shared. It is our gift not our possession, after all. I invite you to talk these three components through with one another and to see where they take you in your commitment to the future of Northern Ireland as of now.

I leave you to think of moving from the language of reconciliation to the language of atonement. I leave you to contemplate the voice of jubilee in Isaiah 55.1:

Come for water, all who are thirsty: though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price … Atonement might just look like this for everyone.

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