Is Reconciliation Possible after Violent Conflict? Analysing Christian Peacebuilders and their Promotion of Reconciliation

groningenLast week I presented a lecture at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain (CRCPD) at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands titled, ‘Is Reconciliation Possible after Violent Conflict? Analysing Christian Peacebuilders and their Promotion of Reconciliation.’ The lecture drew primarily on my research in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

An abridged version of my lecture will appear soon on the CRCPD blog, The Religion Factor, but today I am reproducing the introduction of my talk as well as providing the full text of the lecture.

Full text –  ‘Is Reconciliation Possible after Violent Conflict? Analysing Christian Peacebuilders and their Promotion of Reconciliation.’: Groningen Lecture


There is perhaps no figure on the world stage more prominently associated with Christian reconciliation than Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop from South Africa. Tutu was the Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, when under his leadership victims and perpetrators were often encouraged to forgive and be reconciled, at a commission hearing, there and then. Tutu’s published account of the TRC is titled No Future Without Forgiveness (2000).

In 2005, the BBC invited Tutu to travel to Northern Ireland to facilitate staged encounters between victims and perpetrators in the Northern Ireland conflict – one hopes for the benefit of those involved, but also for the viewing public. There were three episodes in the ‘Facing the Truth’ series (aired 2006), and with Tutu’s presence, they could not help but have Christian overtones. A BBC report about the series concludes with a quote from Sylvia Hackett, whose brother was murdered by a loyalist paramilitary: ‘It’s been like a life sentence for me and the girls. This was something I just had to do. To show him I’m not just this bitter woman who everybody thinks I’m going to be. I do feel sorry for him. But it was my way of showing I’m a Christian.’[1]

Despite assurances from the BBC that those involved had found it ‘a worthwhile, even helpful experience,’ the programmes were not welcomed by many in Northern Ireland, including groups like Healing Through Remembering whose remit was assisting victims or working on aspects of dealing with the past. They thought that the programmes presented reconciliation as forced, staged, too easy, too glib – and wondered whether away from the charismatic personality of Tutu and the glare of the video camera’s lights, was there really any forgiveness, healing or reconciliation at all? Had so-called Christians put other people under pressure to forgive, reconcile, and move on?

Three years later the Tutu series was fictionalized in a film starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Herschbiegel 2009), which is based loosely on the biography of former loyalist paramilitary Alistair Little and the brother, Joe Griffen, of the man he murdered. Although in reality Little and Griffen have still not actually met, the film re-enacts an encounter between Little and Griffen in a setting similar to where the Tutu meetings were held: a grand old country house in rural Northern Ireland. But rather than facilitating reconciliation, Griffen brings a knife to the meeting with the intention of murdering Little – what he calls his own ‘five minutes of heaven.’


I won’t spoil the end of the film for those who have not seen it.  But the film de-sanitizes the ‘Facing the Truth’ series and casts grave doubts on the possibilities for reconciliation. Little, who is now a relatively prominent ‘ex-combatant’ in Northern Ireland’s peacebuilding world, personally dislikes the term and prefers to talk about ‘re-humanization’ rather than reconciliation.[2]

Yet in places around the world where there are significant Christian populations, and where religion has been perceived to be a part of conflict, Christian peacebuilders continue to advocate reconciliation. Today, I want to ask: Is reconciliation possible after violent conflict?, and analyse the contributions of some Christian peacebuilders in the promotion of reconciliation.

But like Little, and the makers of Five Minutes of Heaven, I am acutely aware of the argument that promoting reconciliation does more harm than good, potentially re-victimising those who have been hurt the most and placing unrealistic expectations on those who have been traumatised.

In the three contexts where I have done the most research – Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and South Africa – Christian organisations and individuals have used the language of reconciliation in their efforts to transform violence and conflict. And this term reconciliation has been prominent in public discourse in those contexts as well. We have already mentioned South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Zimbabwe has proposed a National Peace, Healing and Reconciliation Commission. Though Northern Ireland has not had an ‘official’ state-led process for dealing with the past, the language of reconciliation was prominent in the important ‘Shared Future’ document of 2003 and in the 2014 recommendations of the Stormont House Agreement (which, like Zimbabwe’s NPHR, has yet to be implemented).

But what do peacebuilders – Christian, from other religions, or those who do not consider themselves religious – mean when they advocate reconciliation?

In their book Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney argue that the language of reconciliation has been unhelpful because people mean different things when they talk about reconciliation.[3] In 2009, when conducting island-wide surveys of clergy and Christian laity on the island of Ireland, I provided a space where people could write in their own definitions of reconciliation.[4] The surveys yielded hundreds of variations, which were not always compatible. So on top of the risk of re-victimising, re-traumatising and placing unrealistic expectations on people, there is this danger of misunderstanding.

Yet I still think that advocating reconciliation can be productive in post-violence contexts, particularly those where there is a critical mass of Christian peacebuilders and where Christianity retains some cultural resonance. Contexts like Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and South Africa. I have spoken with enough people in my fieldwork for which reconciliation remains a compelling and worthwhile pursuit.

From my research in these three contexts, I have identified some lessons about ‘what works’ for reconciliation.[5] While these lessons may be enacted by Christians, to varying degrees, they need not be confined to Christian peacebuilders. At the same time, I think the faith of those who I have studied as they have advocated reconciliation, at the very least, provides ‘added value’ to their work to transform conflict – particularly if the religious resources they use to advocate reconciliation resonate with wider cultures in which religious ideas and traditions continue to play a role.

What doesn’t work for reconciliation

But I want to start with some examples of what doesn’t work for reconciliation. My opening description of the ‘Facing the Truth’ programme is one such example. While I won’t deny that some of the individuals involved may now still feel that they experienced some healing or reconciliation, there is no evidence that these programmes had a wider resonance or significant impact in Northern Ireland.

Simply put: working with a few individuals, on a one-time basis with no structured follow-up and support, doesn’t help transform violence in the long-term.

This may seem painfully obvious. But even if this obvious, this is what often happens. The lack of follow-up reparations, which were promised after the South African TRC, has exposed just how shallow this type of ‘reconciliation’ can be.

I want to focus four examples of what doesn’t work for those Christian peacebuilders who advocate reconciliation:

1) making an example of an exceptional individual as an ideal Christian;

2) promoting individual reconciliation while ignoring wider structural issues;

3) making reconciliation conditional on repentance; and

4) expecting the institutional churches to do it.

Finally, I will offer some definitions of reconciliation developed by Christian peacebuilders in Northern Ireland, before identifying five general lessons that faith-inspired activists seeking wider religious, social, and political transformations (including reconciliation) in any context would do well to consider.

You can continue to read the lecture by clicking below:

Full text –  ‘Is Reconciliation Possible after Violent Conflict? Analysing Christian Peacebuilders and their Promotion of Reconciliation.’: Groningen Lecture

[1] ‘Face to Face with the Past,’, published 3 March 2006; accessed 1 October 2015.

[2] Alistair Little and Wilhelm Verwoerd, 2013,  Journey Through Conflict Trail Guide, Trafford.

[3] John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney, 2011, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Gladys Ganiel, 2016, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, chapter 3. See also my reports on the surveys from 2009 at

[5] I borrow this terminology from Robin Wilson. Although our conclusions are somewhat different, there are also significant overlapping themes. See Wilson, 2006, ‘What Works for Reconciliation?’ Democratic Dialogue Report No. 19,, accessed 9 October 2015.

One thought on “Is Reconciliation Possible after Violent Conflict? Analysing Christian Peacebuilders and their Promotion of Reconciliation”

  1. What has religion, Christian or other, got to do with the aftermath of Violent Conflict?

    While the protagonists, perpetrators and victims may have had religious labels applied to them or assumed by them, violent conflict is the antithesis of religion. It is secular, political (in the NI context), selfish, anti-social and immoral.

    Reconciliation, in its religious sense, has no place in dealing with the aftermath of violent conflict. Dealing with the aftermath is a social matter and, in the Northern Ireland context, a political matter.

    Where religion can play a part is in ensuring that religious difference will never again be used as a reason for or cause of violent conflict. Churches and religions have a responsibility to work together to this end.

    Dennis Golden

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