Once again we are at the proverbial “cross-roads” in this place we call home. This constant stasis confirms the fact that, although we continue to address the legacy of the past – and I hope we will succeed in this endeavour – we are unable to change the past.
An equally important question, however, is – are we willing to give that same effort to building a shared future? If so, how would this work?
One way to do this, is to ensure we learn from our shared past so we do not perpetuate the fault-lines which have unfortunately shaped our co-existence to date. So, here’s a radical thought. What if we looked back with honesty and considered how we currently locate the story of “the other” in our past? In so doing, we need to accept we are formed by our own memory and also by the remembering of others, even our “enemies”. Memory is not a linear process and, as John Paul Lederach reminds us, we constantly move between the past and the present and, through this, create new memories which transcend the years.
Having done this, could we begin to imagine how things today might have been different if we had acted in another way – if we or our community had been more generous to “the other”? Could we re-imagine a shared future in which “our” future narrative has a space for “their story”. Could this thought take root and become incarnate in generous action towards “the other”? Could our unilateral act of generosity be the beginnings of building a united community?
For some time now, when I have been involved in trying to contribute towards building such a united community here in Northern Ireland, I have been troubled by the question – what exactly do we mean, when we say we are working towards “reconciliation”. As so often in our peace processes here, we have used vague words and terms when addressing peace building.
Such “creative ambiguity” is seen as presenting us with a space in which to have further discussion. The reason for this seems simple – if we began to tie down every word, it is argued, we simply could not move forward. This, after all, is a place that is internationally renowned for the expression “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
I think the time has come to describe the type of shared future we are trying to build. What will my future hold for you? In short, the time has come to move beyond uncomfortable conversations to take uncomfortable decisions evidenced in uncomfortable actions.
At a recent event I was reminded, by researcher Sophie Long, that we win arguments but we engage in discussions. As we try to move ahead in building this united community it is important that, in our discussions, we say what we mean clearly and, even more significantly, it is important that we choose our words generously and do not measure success in terms of winning arguments against “the other”.
We may feel we have done well for “our side” if we succeed in using our words to win an argument – perhaps to fly the Union flag for 365 days or have that flag removed from view, for example. But have you ever considered what it might look like if our political and civic engagement was laced with generosity rather than infected with the lack of charity which so often pervades public discourse?
Generosity is a radical, disarming trait – one which can often have the unintended consequence of gifting “the other” enough room to allow them to move into a new, more creative space where neither they – nor you – might have imagined you would ever find yourselves. It creates new opportunities by not perpetuating “the old ways” or skirting around old fault-lines.
It has been my experience that such unmerited generosity immediately humanises “the other”, by including “them” in your consideration – perhaps even providing a place for them in your future. Too often here we have built our futures alone, looking only to the interest of one community without recourse to any consideration of how the drive for only our rights, the maintenance of just our culture, plays out in building good relations.
Years after I first encountered the term, the core theological meaning of reconciliation still resounds in me when I engage in peace building, in that it is an act of unwarranted generosity. Of course that can sound overly liberal, lacking justice and seeking peace at all costs. It is my view that it is none of those things. It involves facing up to my past actions and my failings – and challenges me to make the uncomfortable choices and actions which will shape a better future for all.
Maybe it is time to create a new space for peace-building and engage in generous leadership which takes uncomfortable decisions about how we will build a community reconciled to its past and passionate about a shared future. This means re-imagining the future and reflecting – what would such a shared society offer my “other”?
Dr Michael Wardlow is the Chief Commissioner for the Equality Commission.