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11 July, 2008

This reflection was given by Gerald Henderson at a Christian, Muslim, Jewish - Three Faiths Forum in Liverpool

Gerald Henderson
I believe that ‘Reconciliation’ is a journey. Depending on the people or the circumstance, the journey can be short or long. Some years ago Liverpool sculptor, Stephen Broadbent, had a serious breakdown in his relationship with a colleague. While he was wrestling with this in his studio, he had an inner sense in his heart that he needed to do something about it to help put it right. He started working with clay to create a small sculpture of a figure walking away from someone, but then having made a choice, the figure is seen beginning to turn around to walk back the other way. He then worked on a second sculpture of two figures embracing. He knew he had to take the first step to rebuild the relationship. He did go back, apologised for his part and they got reconciled. That second sculpture became for him a ‘symbol of reconciliation’ no more, no less. A few years later midst the conflict in Northern Ireland, he took the initiative to create a larger version of that very sculpture which was then erected in Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool as symbols of reconciliation between England, Ireland and Scotland. He had young people from the three cities working and learning together in its creation at each of the three sites. You can see the sculpture on Bold Street.


Reconciliation Sculpture in Benin
Representatives from Liverpool and Richmond, Virginia, and Benin government members at unveiling of the Reconciliation Sculpture in Benin, 2005.

In the last two years this same symbol of reconciliation, already in Liverpool, was erected, in the Republic of Benin, West Africa, at the request of the then President, and in Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, in relation to the Atlantic Slave Trade and its abolition, as part of an initiative called The Reconciliation Triangle. Liverpool City Council had apologised as its last act of the Millennium for the cities’ part in that horrific trade in which the city had played a leading role. In Benin the President apologised to the African Diaspora for its role in selling slaves to the slave traders, which has remained a cause of division in his country till this day, and in Richmond earlier this year I was present, when 5000 people gathered in the heart of that city for the unveiling of this same sculpture marking the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Just prior to that, totally unexpectedly, a white City Councillor had apologised publicly for the part his family had played buying and owning slaves on the plantations, and at the unveiling itself the Vice-President of the City Council, an African-American, spoke and said that she, as a black descendant of slaves, would forgive what had happened for the sake of future generations. As with Stephen Broadbent, for the two councillors, the act of apology and the decision to forgive were personal choices. Especially for the latter two, the apologies were made to help to heal the legacy for the sake of the future. No one can demand it of another. Yet as we see in South Africa, courageous people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu gave a lead with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They among others created space for recognition and acknowledgement of the Truth, also for the sake of future generations. It has not solved all the problems, but think of the added horror of an extended violent racial conflict in South Africa that might have developed if it had not happened.

In the context of world events, we are aware how much injustice, conflict and revenge have been and are being inflicted as a result of the unhealed wounds of history. There is no quick fix.

John Paul Lederach, author of a book called The Journey Toward Reconciliation, has been a mediator and peace builder in some of the toughest situations, especially in Latin America. He says, ‘Reconciliation is a journey towards a place where Truth, Mercy, Justice and Peace meet’. He writes an imaginary dialogue between all those four as if they were people, who find it very difficult to agree, from each of their perspectives, on what needs to happen, but who finally come to the conclusion that they are all essential elements in this ‘Reconciliation’ process.

Castle Street, Liverpool
Castle Street, Liverpool

In my work with Initiatives of Change, we are engaged, among other things, in a work of reconciliation with a headline theme ‘building trust across the world’s divides.’ It is faith based. It focuses very much on the fact that if you want to play a part in putting right what is wrong in the world, you need to start with change in yourself first. It challenges all to live and work on the basis of seeking ‘what is right, not who is right’. In one of its outreach programmes, Hope in the Cities, we use this as a basis for facilitating ‘honest conversation’ dialogues, bringing people together, in a safe environment, where there has been a breakdown of trust, to listen and learn from one another and seek to find a way forward together. We help people move from ’you are the problem’ and ‘the blame game’ to ‘we have a problem, what do we do about it’. We are facilitating such a dialogue at the moment, at the request of Liverpool City Council, bringing together senior executives in business and representatives of the black and racial minority communities on the issue of racial diversity in employment, to grapple with the minimal representation of the Liverpool black community at any level in the city despite the fact that there are 5000 jobs coming on stream in the retail developments. The dialogue is seeking to deal with the ‘why?’ and what to do about it. The reasons are many, not least covert racism and exclusion. That too is a legacy of our history as a city. It is inadequate to play up the Bicentenary Celebration of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, however significant, unless at the same time we deal with the legacy that is still with us. It has been very encouraging that out of the first of these dialogues very positive action points are developing how to overcome the obstacles. This initiative, undertaken by the Chamber of Commerce and the Merseyside Coalition of Employers on the one side and the Black and Racial Minority network on the other, is an example of a journey, because it is quite clear that if we do not move forward towards trust-based outcomes, a spirit of common purpose and reconciliation, the frustration that is within the community will take us back to the anger and conflict of the past. Such dialogues are only one aspect of our work. We are engaged internationally in such trust building, and I would add, ‘life-changing’, initiatives, especially in conflict areas around the world. In the light of events in the world now spilling over into our country, and other concerns within our city or communities that are on our hearts, are there other areas where we need to enter into such honest conversations to proceed along that road towards reconciliation?

I said earlier that forgiveness is one of the steps towards reconciliation. I want to end by quoting what Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sachs wrote just a few years ago. ‘Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean abandoning the claims of justice. It does mean, however, an acknowledgement that the past is past and must not be allowed to cast its shadow over the future. Forgiveness heals moral wounds the way the body heals physical wounds.’ He speaks of the pain and suffering of his own family and ancestors in their past and goes on to say, ‘How can I let go of that when it is written into my very soul. And yet I must, for the sake of my children and theirs, not yet born. I cannot build their future on the hatreds of the past, not can I teach them to love God more by loving people less. Asking God to forgive me, I hear, in the very process of making that request, His demand that I forgive others. I honour the past not by repeating it, but by learning from it – by refusing to add pain to pain, grief to grief. That is why we must answer hatred with love, violence with peace, resentment with generosity of spirit and conflict with reconciliation.’ What validity has this for us today? Are these sign post towards reconciliation?

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