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A Spirituality of Reconciliation

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“It’s not enough to talk about peace.
You must believe in it.
And it’s not enough to believe in it:
You have to work for it”.

(Eleanor Roosevelt)

very year, on the 21st September, the United Nations calls for an International Vigil for Peace. Each year, in his New Year’s message, the Pope prays for peace and calls upon the whole of humanity to commit itself to peace. The Ecumenical Commission of The World Council of Churches declared the years 2001-2010 to be “A decade to overcome violence. The Churches in search of reconciliation and peace”.

The (female) Lutheran bishop, Margot Kässmann says in a message, that the churches, along with their intellectual efforts and other concrete labours in pursuit of peace, ought to celebrate religious services that are a living out of our communion with the Supper of the Lord. It is vital to create liturgies in which the victims of violence can express their suffering and tears; liturgies which, at the same time, celebrate with hope God’s future, whilst not forgetting that Non-violence, in spite of everything, has always been a reality in the Bible and in human history.

The main theme of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation for this year will be PEACE and RECONCILIATION.

Peace, “SHALOM” is not just the absence of violence, though in a world with 30 ongoing armed conflicts, this would be already a great achievement!

“SHALOM”, the word expresses the well being of the whole person as well as the way to live and live with others: to have life, to have it in abundance, as St. John tells us in his Gospel (Jn. 10, 10).

In this line I recommend you the attached article about reconciliation.

The summer months are giving us always a little bit more time to read and reflect.

May this article give you some input to strengthen you capacity of reconciliation.

I wish you a nice holiday and a good rest

Michael Heinz

Visit our homepage for updating JPIC information: http://www.svdcuria.org/public/jpic/index.htm

A Spirituality of Reconciliation

The Biblical Basis for a Spirituality of Reconciliation

he biblical basis for the understanding of reconciliation is found especially in stories, such as those of Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, or of the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel. St. Paul is the person who talks about reconciliation most directly. I would like to begin by suggesting five principles that derive from his reflections, based especially on 2 Cor 5:17-20.

Reconciliation is first and foremost the work of God.

We believe that salvation comes from God, and not from our efforts. What becomes apparent in the work of reconciliation, especially social reconciliation, is that the magnitude of the damage is such that it is beyond any human effort at correction. Only God has the perspective that can sort everything out. We are but agents of God’s activity—”ambassadors for Christ’s sake.” It is only by living in communion with God that we can recognize how God is healing the world. For that reason, reconciliation is more a spirituality than a strategy. To think otherwise will lead to physical and psychological burnout when efforts at reconciliation fail (as they often do).

God’s reconciling work begins with the victim

Ordinarily we think of reconciliation in this way: the wrongdoer repents and seeks forgiveness of the victim. The victim forgives the wrongdoer and then there is reconciliation. This is a wonderful idea, but in reality the wrongdoer often does not repent. Sometimes wrongdoers believe that they have done nothing wrong (authoritarian rulers often assert this). At other times the wrongdoer is not even present or identifiable (the wrongdoer may be dead or not even known). Where does this leave the victim? Is healing for the victim dependent upon the wrongdoer’s capacity to come to repentance? Is the victim held hostage to a moment that may never come? That is why, in this understanding of reconciliation, we believe that God begins with the victim. God heals the victim by restoring the humanity that the wrongdoer has wrested from the victim—by declaring them a mere object (in cases of rape or sex trafficking) or a non-person (in cases of abduction or populations driven from their homeland). That God begins with the victim is consonant with our understanding of a God who cares for the widow and the orphan, the foreigner and the prisoner. Not every victim is able to accept this offer of healing; but that an offer of healing is there reveals the very heart of the Christian understanding of reconciliation.

God makes of both victim and wrongdoer a “new creation”.

To be healed of the trauma of the past, or to be forgiven for what one has done, does not mean that we go back to how things were before the conflict or trauma occurred. That would be to trivialize the damage that evil does. In both instances—healing and forgiveness— the victim and the wrongdoer find themselves in a new place, a place they could not have anticipated. Healing comes as a surprise. Reconciliation for the victim is more than having the burden of the past lifted. It is about coming into a new place and being granted a vision of a different kind of world. For this reason, processes of social reconciliation are best led by people who have had this experience of healing, because they can see what the rest of us cannot.

We place our suffering inside the story of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Suffering is not of itself ennobling; left to itself, it is destructive of persons and of societies. Only when it is brought into a new social space. and reconnected within a network of relationships does it become ennobling and even redemptive. As Christians, we place the story of our suffering in the story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is well captured in Phil 3:10, where Paul says that he wishes to know Christ and be conformed into the power of his death, so that he too might come to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. The story of Jesus is the framework that gives meaning and hope to those seeking release from their own pain.

Full reconciliation will happen only when God will be all in all.

The hymns that open Ephesians and Colossians remind us that the reconciliation we are now experiencing is not complete. It will only be completed when Christ has reconciled all things. In the work of reconciliation, it reminds us of the difference between optimism and hope: optimism arises out of the confidence we have in what we can do. Hope is confidence in what God will do. Hope gives us a much broader horizon and vision of the future.

Individual and Social Reconciliation

A word should be said about the difference between working with individuals who have experienced trauma, and working for social healing. As already noted, the Christian understanding of reconciliation is about the restoration of the victim’s humanity, of our being restored to being images of God (Gen 1:27). Social reconciliation looks to the rebuilding of society after conflict. It focuses upon the moral and symbolic reconstruction of society, since these are the basis for making sure that conflict does not happen again. Social reconciliation understood in this sense looks for truth-telling, the pursuit of justice, the healing of memories, and social forgiveness.

A Christian Spirituality of Reconciliation

I would like to turn now to a spirituality that can sustain those who engage in the work of reconciliation. As already noted, without a sense of spirituality the strategies of reconciliation (conflict transformation, peacemaking) will be hard to sustain. The spirituality proposed here is important for both individual and social reconciliation.

Like other forms of spirituality, images play an important role in centering our spirituality and guiding it along. Images embody concepts, but have a richer resonance. Likewise, stories provide us a way of threading together the events which have so changed our lives. In reconciliation, stories are doubly important—either stories about what has happened to victims and how they came to healing, or stories of what has happened to us as a people and how we came to where we are now.

In this section, I would like to explore an image that is at the center of a spirituality of reconciliation, and illustrate it with a few stories, both from contemporary experience and from the Bible. Then I will turn to the practices of spirituality that grow out of this image.

Wounds as a Source for a Spirituality of Reconciliation

When we think of the consequences of events that have forever altered our lives in a negative way, the image of wounds comes readily to mind. A wound is not only a testimony to the fact that something wrong has happened. A festering wound or a scar from having been wounded witnesses to the role of memory in our lives. In the case of profound wounds to our bodies and our souls, wounds never leave us. They are signs of the permanent change that has come about in our lives. Wounds, if still open, bind us to the past in ways we cannot easily escape. Wounds, if transformed into scars, serve as portals of memory to the past, reminding us that we are now in a different place.

Wounds play both negative and positive roles in reconciliation. Let us look first at the wounds of victims. If wounds of victims remain open, they fester and plague the victim who carries them. They can constantly be pulling the victim back to the moment in which they were inflicted. They can become a point of reference that requires everything to be interpreted in terms of their continuing pain. A dramatic example of that happened in 1989. In a speech, Slobodan Milosevic recalled to the Serbian people the Battle of the Field of the Blackbirds six hundred years previously, in which the Orthodox Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. That memory was still toxic enough to plunge the Balkans into war for the next six years.

Wounds left unattended can continue to poison future events. We know people who carry anger from wrongdoing done to them years ago, and never heal. Their lives keep them hostage to that past event. One of the great dangers of not attending to wounds is that victims can go from being victims to becoming themselves perpetrators of wrongdoing to others. In civil conflicts, it is sometimes nearly impossible to sort out who is the victim and who is the perpetrator since, over time; the parties involved have been both. Likewise, it is not uncommon for people who have suffered in authoritarian regimes to turn to lawlessness, anarchy, or hedonism after the oppression has been lifted. This is behavior that they would not tolerate in their best moments. It happens because the power of wounds is ignored or repressed.

Thus, in a ministry of reconciliation, one must attend especially to the state of the wounds of the victims.

But what if the wounds have been allowed to heal? Those who have attended to their wounds are the best candidates for the work of reconciliation. The wounds of those who have experienced healing can develop an unusual empathy with others who suffer. They have a perspective on being wounded that is much harder for other persons of good will to develop. These wounded healers can enter the universe of pain and suffering of victims in a unique way. They can accompany victims in ways unknown to the rest of us. Indeed, these wounded healers often develop a sense of vocation in helping others as part of their healing process.

But the wounded ness of the healer can have negative consequences as well. If would-be healers do not recognize the presence of their wounds (either through not paying attention or through denial), their wounds can get in the way of helping others. This can happen in a number of different ways. First of all, unacknowledged wounds can precipitate healers into compulsive altruistic behavior as a way of atoning for the wounds of the past. This can manifest itself in “needing to be needed” as a way for atoning for the wounds of the past. At other times, healers will not allow victims to move on, lest victims no longer need them.

Second, unacknowledged wounds can become so neuralgic that if memories of the wounds are ignited by events in the present, the healing process is diverted toward the healer away from the victim. And finally, unacknowledged wounds may cause the healer to take undue risks, endangering both the healer and the victim. This is especially the case for people who carry these wounds, and then find themselves in conflict situations.

I have dwelt here on unacknowledged wounds because we often encounter them among members of religious institutes. These wounded people may be drawn to religious life itself, or to dangerous work, or to the work of reconciliation to prove to themselves and to God that they really are not wounded at all, or that they can make reparation for the wounds they carry. This is especially evident in people who engage in frenetic activity, or put themselves at undue physical risk to their safety and the safety of others.

One other potential negative consequence of unacknowledged wounds for those working in reconciliation should be mentioned. Even wounds that have been healed can be subject to new assault when working in situations of trauma. When one is confronted with mass killings, the deliberate maiming of individuals, the use of rape as a military strategy, one is—so to speak—staring evil directly in the face. Working for prolonged periods of time in such situations can best be construed as wrestling with evil incarnate. Evil does not cede ground easily, and will strike in every way possible to maintain its grip. However we understand evil in these circumstances, it will require all our powers, including our own sense of personhood. If we do not attend to ourselves, we run the risk of our own humanity being diminished. I have seen individuals who have not attended to their own wounds from the past who, in the midst of working for reconciliation, begin to engage in questionable or even wrong behavior that they themselves would normally not tolerate. (This is called in the psychological literature “secondary trauma”—where experiencing too much the trauma of others traumatize the person trying to help.) Put simply: if you don’t attend to your own wounds—even if they have healed—evil will attack you especially at that point.

This presentation on wounds in the work of reconciliation - both the wounds of victims and of those who would help them - might seem primarily psychological or sociological. But it sets the stage for addressing the spirituality of reconciliation. Following the theological principles underlying reconciliation outlined above, we put the story of our wounds in the story of Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection. The biblical story here is in John 20:19-29. When Jesus appears to his disciples even though the doors were locked, the first thing he does is show them his wounds. A profound paradox is opened up here. Jesus, in his resurrected and glorified body—a body that can walk through locked doors—still bears the wounds of his torture and death. When the disciples do not recognize him, it is the wounds that he offers to them as proof of who he is.

I think his doing this has two meanings for us. First of all, as has already been said, even wounds that have healed remain forever part of who we are. Even in the transformed body of the risen Lord, they are still there. Perhaps Jesus used them to identify himself to teach us that truth. Memory, and our relation to the past, helps constitute who we are today and who we might become.

They teach us a second thing. When Jesus uses them to identify himself to his disciples, we realize that they are not accidental or peripheral to how Jesus thinks of himself. They become part of his signature, so to speak. The disciples are then sent out to offer God’s forgiveness. The wounds we have are meant to become a source of healing for others. This is amply illustrated in the next scene in the story. Thomas, who was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples, refuses to believe what he hears. Perhaps he simply could not imagine it. Perhaps he was resentful that he had been left out of the experience. When Jesus appears the next time, the first thing Jesus does is go to Thomas.

He invites not just to look at his wounds, but to touch them, indeed enter them. Jesus uses his wounds from his torture—meant to isolate him from other human beings—to reconnect Thomas with Jesus, with the other disciples, and with his own inner self. Perhaps here we can come to understand better the phrase in Scripture “by his wounds were healed” (Is 53:4; 1 Peter 2:24).

By knowing our wounds, by placing our wounds within the wounds of Jesus, by connecting our story with the story of Jesus, we can allow our wounds to become redemptive for others. We can show others that they are not alone and unconnected in the weaving of human life. By being patterned into Christ’s death, we can come to know the resurrection (Phil 3:10). A spirituality of reconciliation finds its salience in attending to wounds: the wounds of victims, the wounds of those working for healing, and the wounds of Christ.

I would like to conclude this section on spirituality of reconciliation based upon wounds by another Pauline text, drawn from Second Corinthians (4:7-11):

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in us.

This passage captures many of the dimensions of a spirituality of wounds. Reconciliation is a treasure, a gift from God. But it is carried in clay jars, that is, within ourselves as frail human agents of God’s work. Exploring the wounds that mark us and returning to the memories of which they are emblematic pull us through a welter of emotions: the experiences of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. But even in the midst of such experiences, certain strength carries us through: we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. Those who work in the ministry of reconciliation will recognize these emotions in victims, and oftentimes in themselves as well.

What is clear here is that, despite these adversities, we are not brought low, because of the great treasure that is within us. Paul notes the paradox that makes this possible: we carry the death of the Lord in our bodies. The language here is significant. Many of the afflictions which cry out for reconciliation are inscribed on our bodies - either on our individual bodies, as in the case of rape and torture; or on the body politic, in terms of political memory. Memories are not only intellectual or emotional; they are often profoundly somatic. The death of Jesus we carry is such a somatic memory: the burden of his death inscribed on our bodies. In this way it is something that cannot be forgotten. The death of Jesus is a wound of memory that has many dimensions. It is a wound that lies at the heart of our being, and so changes our orientation to those things we have suffered. We cannot turn away from that wound, nor avert our hearts and minds so as to forget it. The wound draws our suffering to itself, but is itself not the center of attention. Rather, it points beyond itself to the resurrection of Jesus, when wounds will be transfigured and become a means of healing.

Johannes Baptist Metz has spoken of the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ—dangerous because it is liberating, dangerous because the attempt to end the story of Jesus by blotting out his life only led to its explosion in another dimension. The healing grace of reconciliation, the life of Christ made visible in our bodies, has that same dangerous and liberating potential. It is the difference between being struck down, but not destroyed. God’s capacity to reconcile all things in Christ, to make peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:20) unveils for us the connection between our wounds, the wounds of Christ, and the wounded heart of God who so loves the world.

Practices of a Spirituality of Reconciliation

What are the practices that embody this spirituality of reconciliation? I would like to present two practices:

  1. the practice of contemplative prayer, and
  2. the creation of spaces of safety and hospitality.

Contemplative prayer might seem an odd spiritual practice for something as active as the work of reconciliation. But there are at least three good reasons for making this suggestion.

First of all, if reconciliation is first and foremost the work of God, and we are but God’s agents, then in order to be faithful and effective agents we must be in constant contact and communion with God. Contemplative prayer is especially suited to that. In contemplative prayer we do not initiate the activity—as we might in intercessory prayer or prayers of praise. Rather, we learn to wait in silence and patience for God to speak. This waiting on God creates within us the stillness that makes us capable of hearing God when God’s word comes to us. Such silent, patient waiting has the corollary effect of teaching us how to wait and watch with those who are seeking healing. Victims often need to tell their stories over and over again before a healing word appears.

Second, the practice of contemplative prayer prepares for the moments when no word comes to us from God. Returning to contemplative prayer even when we have had no word from God is often the condition for our spiritual transformation. Likewise, reconciliation and healing often do not happen, no matter how patient we are or careful we have been.

In such waiting on God, our gaze is turned back to our own wounds: is there something in ourselves that blocks this communion with God? We are called again to attend to our own wounds—not out of some sort of masochism or narcissism, but in order to learn something new from those wounds. As we encounter new situations, different places in our wounds are touched. We may discover parts that have not healed. Or we may discover strengths we did not know we had.

This waiting on God can also prepare us for one of the most difficult moments in the ministry of reconciliation: those terrifying moments when God is not just silent, but does not even seem to be there at all. Survivors of torture sometimes recount this profound experience of absence. No matter how deep their faith has been, at the moment of deepest pain they were completely alone—God was not there. Jesus’ plaintive crying out on the cross in a moment when God seemed absent (Matt 27:26) may be the only place to take that suffocating anguish.

Third, contemplation can increase our capacity to imagine peace, the “new creation” of which Paul speaks (2 Cor 5:17). In working to overcome violence, peace is more than the cessation of conflict. It is, as we have seen, a new place quite different from what we had expected it to be. The waiting and watching can make us sensitive to the smallest movements of grace. Contemplation, then, provides us a way into the future.

The second practice of a spirituality of reconciliation is the creating of safe and hospitable spaces. These are spaces where victims can come to dwell in order to explore their wounds and begin to imagine a different future. These spaces are both physical and social. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was intended as that kind of space, where victims could come to speak the truth without reprisal.

These spaces must be, first of all, safe. That is, they must be places where victims will not be injured again. Since these injuries are at base a fundamental breach of trust, the safety must be such that these breaches can be healed, trust restored, and people reconnected to the human family.

In creating safe spaces, ministers of reconciliation prepare victims anew for an experience of the steadfastness of God. It is the basis of covenant, of the sense of belonging, of believing in a world where one might dare to hope again. The steady presence of those who work in reconciliation (this steadiness nurtured by the discipline of contemplation) allows victims to tell their stories without being interrupted or corrected, to experience someone accompanying them and not abandoning them, to have someone who will not flee their anger or their tears.

The space must also be hospitable. That means first of all, the hospitality offered must be in an idiom the victim understands. It is hospitality on the victim’s terms, not on those of the person extending it. This has to be attended to in a special way when there are cultural differences between victims and those who would help them. Hospitality means, secondly, the victim is valued, that the victim’s humanity is reaffirmed even if it has been diminished by trauma or evil deed. Hospitality is not a means to another end, but something important in itself. Third, the experience of hospitality can prepare the way for the experience of divine hospitality—the gift we call grace. Grace is the moment when the healing of the wound takes place, when humanity is restored, when the divine image (Gen 1:27) in the victim regains its luster.

The great biblical story of creating a safe and hospitable space is that of Jesus and the disciples at breakfast on the seashore (John 21:1-19). In the story, Jesus prepares breakfast for the disciples. During the meal, which he has prepared from fish he has brought along and fish the disciples have brought, Jesus says nothing. This creates a safe and hospitable space. Only after breakfast does he turn to Simon and ask—three times—whether Simon loves Jesus. The trice-asked question unnerves Simon. It reminds him of another time, not long ago, when around another small fire he denied even knowing Jesus. But each time he reaffirms his love for Jesus, Jesus gives him a commission—to care for his lambs. Jesus shows his regained trust in Peter by committing to him those who are his most vulnerable followers. Just as Jesus reconnected Thomas to the disciples in an earlier story, so now he does the same with Simon.


Reconciliation is something our world cries out for today. And for it to happen, we must become deeply rooted in a spirituality that will sustain us in this arduous work. An important way to enter into that spirituality is through our own wounds, that we might come to the healing wounds of Christ. Two of the spiritual practices that will get us there are the disciplines of contemplative prayer and the creating of safe, hospitable spaces for others. There are, of course, many other dimensions. But here is where we must begin.

The author of this article Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., teaches theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (USA), and at the University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. His books and articles on reconciliation have appeared in many languages. He also serves on the General Council of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood.
Original in English

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O one God of all peoples and nations,
You created the earth and the cosmos,
in their beauty and also in their frailty.
All cultures and religions are on their way to you,
the origin of all that has been created..
You want all to be for one another not a threat,
but a blessing.

Our one world should be, by your will,
a peaceful home for all.
You chose the Orient to make known to all
your many names.
Abraham is a father in faith for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
He listened to your call in the region between
the Euphrates and the Tigris, the present-day Iraq.
In a special way, you promised life and future to the old and new People
of Israel.

As Christian men and women, we thank you
for our Lord and Brother Jesus Christ.
He is our Peace.
He came to knock down walls and to give to all,
without distinction, life and a future.

We know ourselves to be in communion
with the Churches of the Orient.
They witness to the Gospel of Jesus,
to the liberating power of his non-violence
and to his Resurrection.

We also pray to you
in unity with all our brothers and sisters of other religions,
especially those which have their origin in the Middle East.
In all of them you have instilled the hunger and thirst for justice
and a deep desire for peace.
All are in mourning for the victims of hatred and violence.
All are called to collaborate in the construction of a new world.

We, therefore, beseech you:
Have mercy on all the victims and on all the offenders.
Put an end to the spiral of violence and hatred.
Let all of us, especially those who bear responsibility,
be ever more convinced that the way to peace
is not that of war and violence,
but of building peace through non-violence and justice,.
Let your peace flow like a river through all our deserts.

Lord , give us strength and endurance
to pull down the mountains of misunderstanding,
to fill in the trenches of hatred
and to level the paths towards a more just
and a more peaceful world order.
Let the arms of destruction be laid down soon,
and let the melody of peace and reconciliation resound
throughout your entire creation.
O one God with many names,
make us all instruments of your peace.

Hermann Schalück ofm