As the country at large continues to experience political and economic uncertainty in the absence of any firmly established will in Parliament for a particular Brexit settlement, it is timely that the theme of our Lenten and Holy Week reflections this year is ‘reconciliation’.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it is certain that the after-shocks will ripple through our subsequent history with the risk that we become more and more divided from and antagonistic towards those with whom we disagree.
But what does reconciliation actually look like in a democratic system which depends upon disagreement and opposition for its proper functioning? How do we ‘disagree well’ with others?
Part of our problem is that we do not know what all of the future consequences of our choices will be. Great passions are aroused because some people fear that change will be negative, with serious and detrimental impacts on a way of life. Others believe that change will bring about new opportunities or an increased sense of control over their own affairs.
The mechanism we have developed over the course of centuries to negotiate, contain and reconcile these differences is of course our parliamentary system, which seeks to give everyone (over the age of eighteen) a say in who should govern us, but vests power in those who are able to command a majority. When no majority can be found in favour of a particular proposal, a crisis occurs which is usually resolved by a General Election.
However it is not certain that an election would resolve the particular issue at stake for our country at the present moment.
This tells us that our human institutions are not perfect as ways of ensuring the reconciling of differences! When we come to consider what the Anglican Church has to say about the matter, we recognize that we too have developed institutional ways of negotiating and reconciling differences – synods at local, regional and national levels which all depend on democratic processes for their functioning. Of course, the Church is attempting to recognize and give expression to the ‘will of God’ rather than the ‘will of the people’, although we have also come to believe that these two things are related.
The word ‘reconcile’ means ‘to bring back into friendly relations. It does not mean that when faced with two opposing choices, no outcome is decided. It refers to the relations between people. It refers to the ways of ensuring that two opposing parties are able to persist in peace with each other. As Christians, we are called towards peace. We are called, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, to be builders of ‘the peaceable kingdom’.
Fundamentally that means we are committed to the good of others before we are committed to the good of ourselves. This perception derives from the experience of God as absolutely loving, as one utterly committed to the good of the other, a commitment expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we have this perspective, it changes how we are positioned in relation to our world and its institutions. We do not participate in them as a means of achieving our own ends, our own good, but as a way of committing to the good of others; as a way of ensuring we remain at peace with others. When we adopt this perspective, we find that we do not need to be fearful, because “perfect love casts out fear”, as the writer of 1 John puts it.