Peace and Reconciliation: A Theological Reflection

by J. Jayakiran Sebastian

The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

This essay appeared as “Peace and Reconciliation: A Theological Reflection,” in Asia Journal of Theology, Vol. 17, No. 1 (April 2003), pp. 197 – 208.  Used by permission of the author.


Peace and reconciliation are examined from the perspective of an Indian theologian. The author concludes with ten points useful in guiding thinking and discussion about the topic.

I was entranced the first time I looked down a gun-sight with a finger on the trigger. It seemed to me the most private, the most intense moment of conversation with oneself, so to speak, with all that split-second of right decision coming and going all the time, almost answering the movements of one’s mind. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I feel that the religious excitement that is supposed to come to people who meditate on the flame of a single dark candle in an otherwise dark room was no greater than the pleasure I felt when I looked down a gun-sight and become very close to my own mind and consciousness. In a second the scale of things could alter and I would be lost in something like a private universe.

The fashion of peace

Peace is in danger of becoming fashionable. Is there anything wrong with something that ought to be at the forefront of all our thinking, consciousness and action becoming fashionable? Isn’t fashion a way of making a statement, a way of indicating the trends, concerns and attitudes of society? However – isn’t it true that fashion is somehow elitist? Isn’t it a fact that it offers to us ways of thinking, behaving and acting that are played out on a vast arena by a privileged few, while the teeming others can only look on, wonder, stare, or pass by with incomprehension or contempt? Are we in danger of embracing issues and themes that, for better or worse, become part of the global agenda and hence become a fixed idea or an indispensable part of the agenda, indispensable at least for now? Fashions come, fashions go – today’s newspapers are used to make paper bags tomorrow (before the advent of plastic, to be twirled into a cone to hold the rice grains, or to wrap up vegetables, meat and fish!). Is our present concentration on peace destined to go in the same direction?

I am not trying to be cynical or to undermine the relevance and importance of our meeting. It is when we recognize that the issue and practice of peace is an enduring, lasting, acute theme, and that it is the seemingly permanent persistence of the absence of peace and reconciliation that impels us to seek to understand, analyse and debate about the facets of peace, that this conference takes on an urgency that is necessary and compelling. Certain things ought to be put in perspective right away. We are engaged in a human discourse, a discourse that tries to make sense of things, a discourse that evokes the concept of God in order to inject sense into the situation. Which situation? A situation in which human beings are comparatively very, very young new-comers to the arena of the existence of the world, but a very small time-frame where much has been done, which is capable of erasing the gigantic time frame in a hail of nuclear madness and violent self-destruction. Let us try to place things in perspective:

Remarkable and significant as is the emergence of self-conscious persons by natural processes from the original ‘hot big bang’ from which the universe has expanded over the last 10-20 thousand million years, this must not be allowed to obscure another fact about humanity, namely its relatively recent arrival in the universe, even on a time-scale of the history of the Earth. Although modern homo sapiens had humanoid, tool-making ancestors …, our species only appeared in its present form 30,000 years ago. How recent our arrival is can be realized if one takes the age of the Earth as two days of 48 ‘hours’ (1 such ‘hour’ = 100 million years): then homo sapiens appears only at the last stroke of midnight of the second day. However, living organisms had existed for some 2000 million of more years (= over 20 ‘hours’ on the above scale) before this, our relatively late arrival. The evidence is that biological evolution has proceeded continuously since that distant time by evolution of populations of living organisms through natural selection of best procreators. Great as is the significance of the emergence of self-conscious persons within the very fabric of the universe for any reflection on its possible meaning and purpose, this must not lead us to underplay the significance also of the rest of the universe and of all other living organisms to God as Creator – even though we are able to depict only in imagination the kind of delight that God may be conceived to have in the fecund multiplicity and variety or created forms.

This quotation raises several issues:

  • Has peace, or the lack of it, been a particularly human problem? Are we attempting to relativize peace and reconciliation by placing it within an extremely broad canvas of cosmic history?
  • Within the extremely narrow sliver of time when human beings have occupied centre-stage on world history, why is it that this issue has come to dominate our thoughts and actions? Is it that we are biologically pre-disposed toward the ‘survival of the fittest’, which implies that some have to win at the cost of the extermination of others?
  • If God is brought into the equation, in the way testified to in the quotation, then what are the theological implications of assuming that peace is necessarily what God has in mind for the future of humankind?
  • Is the desire for peace a manifestation of psychological longing and wish-projection which human beings put forth in their infantile desire to return to the pristine purity of an imaginary garden of Eden, serpents and all?

The present volatile situation, worrying because of the deliberate lack of ideological depth and clarity, and annoying because of the language of messianic self-righteousness from both sides, continues to throw up the issues of peace and reconciliation in an even more urgent manner. Listen to two verses on weaponization from the 1988 Sahitya Akademie Award winning ‘novel in verse’ The Golden Gate [1986] by Vikram Seth:

Those who devise these weapons – decent,

Adjusted, family-minded folk –

Don’t think they plan death. Their most recent

Bomb (which, as an engaging joke,

They dubbed ‘the cookie cutter’) batters

Live cells and yet – this is what matters –

Leaves building and machines intact –

This butchering brainspawn is in fact

Soothingly styled a ‘radiation

Enhancement device’ by these same men.

Blind in their antiseptic den

To the obscene abomination

Of the refined ampoules of hate

Their ingenuity helps create,

They go to work, attend a meeting,

Write an equation, have a beer,

Hail colleagues with a cheerful greeting,

Are conscientious, sane, sincere,

Rational, able, and fastidious.

Through hardened casings no invidious

Tapeworm of doubt, no guilt, no qualm

Pierces to sabotage their calm.

When something’s technically attractive,

You follow the conception through,

That’s all. What if you leave a slew

Of living dead, of radioactive

‘Collateral damage’ in its wake?

It’s just a job, for heaven’s sake.

Just a job? - The job of fashioning peace? Where do we go from here? - A humanly ordained and initiated ‘big bang’? What does one do when the possibility of peace and reconciliation are ruled out at the very moment of birth itself - a situation where some people are driven to such despair that they can only poignantly and evocatively cry out:

Mother, you used to tell me

when I was born

your labour was very long.

The reason, mother,

the reason for your long labour:

I, still in your womb, was wondering

Do I want to be born –

Do I want to be born at all

in this land?

Where all paths raced horizonwards

but to me were barred

All of you lay, eyes fixed on the sky

then shut them, saying

calmly, yes,

the sky has a prop, a prop!

Your body covered

with generations of dire poverty

Your head pillowed

on constant need

You slept at night

and in the day you writhed

with empty fists tied to your breast!

Here you are not supposed to say

that every human being comes

from the union of man and woman

Here, nobody dare

broaden the beaten track.

You ran round and round yourself

exclaiming YES, of course

the earth is round, is round.

Mother, this is your land

flowing with water

Rivers break their banks

Lakes brim over

And you, one of the human race

must shed blood

struggle and strike

for a palmful of water.

I spit on this great civilization

Is this land yours, mother,

because you were born here?

Is it mine

because I was born to you?

Must I call this great land mine

love it

sing its glory?

Sorry, mother, but truth to tell

I must confess I wondered

Should I be born

Should I be born into this land?

Is it possible to speak of peace when choices are simply not available or cruelly denied? Is it possible to speak of reconciliation when there is neither motivation, nor desire for reconciliation, on the part of those who have fostered a climate of suspicion and hate? No, in spite of the compulsions that make of the desire for peace a fashion statement, the issue is too important to be allowed to deteriorate thus. This is a persistent, permeating and permanent concern that has pervaded and continues to pervade human consciousness in an intense manner.

A Piece of the [P]ashion

The section above concluded with an almost mystical statement as to the reality of the intensity of the passion for peace that drives human beings. However, there is a contradiction in such an affirmation. While it may be possible to argue about something that binds all humans together in an essential oneness, one must not lose sight of the reality that it is precisely in the in-betweenness of human beings that the issue regarding the lack of peace and the necessity for reconciliation ought to be located. At this point it may be necessary to enter a caveat – do we really know what we mean when we talk about "peace" and do we mean what we say when we talk about "reconciliation." Kwame Anthony Appiah tells us the charming and instructive story of a friend of his, who, confined to a hospital bed, created a subject index to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where she identified at least twenty-one, if not more, senses in which the word "paradigm" was used by Kuhn. This is instructive for a large number of theologians in India, especially those who so easily and so superficially use the word "paradigm" in their writings. Similarly, one can be illumined in many different ways by tracing the word "peace" in a variety of its manifestations – biblical, economic, sociological and theological – among other senses. But one needs to know what we are talking about and not take refuge in slogans like "Peace is more than the absence of war," and hibernate there. Is there some kind of theological paradigm (!!) which helps us understand the ramifications of peace-talk and the actualisation of the reconciliation processes? Is there something concrete that can be said? Concrete? Can the concept of peace be so easily concretised? In an article on feminism, sexual violence and the law, Nivedita Menon argues that

the possibility of realizing the emancipatory impulse of feminism lies not in concretising and more fully defining the boundaries of ‘our bodies’ through law, but in accepting ‘the self’ as something that is negotiable and contestable. The indeterminacy of identity need not lead to political paralysis – on the contrary, it could dislocate feminist practice productively, from sterile engagement with legal discourse and hegemonic cultural productions of selfhood to a realm of radical doubt and constant negotiation of what constitutes ‘me’ as a ‘woman’ in some contexts. Emancipation itself must be recognized as disaggregated, split along different axes, just as identity is not merely a positive conglomerate of different subject positions, but an ever-temporary construction, forming anew at the intersections of shifting subject positions.

If this is so, what help does this offer to us as we attempt to pick up the pieces? Much has been said and much has been written about violence perpetuated against Christians. Much has been said and much has been written about violence perpetuated against others by Christians. Much still needs to be said and written about violence perpetuated by Christians against each other, because an analysis of such violence will help us to understand whether or not Christianity has contributed to the nurturing and fostering of peace. Talking about the fourth-century church Peter Brown writes

Christian controversies mobilized individual congregations of believers within each city, provoking, on occasion, major riots, and frequent processions and counterprocessions. All over the empire, Christian factionalism led to a perceptible increase in the climate of violence. Whether violence was widespread or not, accusations of violence were a standard feature of Christian polemics against rival Christian groups. Ammianus Marcellinus understandably concluded that Christian groups behaved to each other "like wild beasts."

Is then the understanding of peace linked to picking up the pieces? Is it just a task of recognizing, identifying and gathering up the pieces? Do we not need to ask about why there are so many pieces in the first place? How, where, when, with what intention and with what purpose did fragmentation emerge? Was there perhaps fragmentation all along? Is the task of "making peace" a futile activity? Theologically one needs to recognize that

The life that defines itself confidently in its ordered doing, and the life that steps aside from the painful question of meanings and continuities together form a pathology of the human world. They are the roots of violence and mutual rejection between people; they are both challenged and transformed in encounter with the crucified Jesus, and the ‘peace’ that we may hope for as a result of the act of God in the death of Jesus is something that stands against each of them alike.

Apart from this one needs to recognize how the "Constantinization" of the church has shaped the language of religious discourse. This is nowhere more evident than in the "Church History" of Eusebius, whose

theology changed dramatically from the time when he first began to draft his history of the church. After experiencing the events of his time and witnessing the political rise of Constantine and the defeat of the persecuting emperors, he no longer believed that persecution was merely the human consequence of the demon’s attempt to frustrate the divine message. God and emperors were active participants in a persecution, allowed, for a time, to be the vehicle of the chastening hand of God upon a church which needed to be corrected. God, however, would not permit the church to suffer for ever and raised up a Christ-like figure in the person of Constantine who, became not only the destroyer of God’s enemies (and his!) and the savior of the persecuted Christians but, as the first (truly) Christian emperor, brought together church and empire.

The coming together of church and empire has had enormous consequences for the ongoing life of the church. Biblical language, through which ran both imperial and protest trajectories, was now put to serve a particular imperial-triumphalistic framework. This was particularly evident in the dominant iconographic representations of Christ in the early church. "The Christ of Early Christian art is quite as elusive as the ‘historical’ Jesus. As in the written sources, so in the visual monuments Christ has many guises, depending on who is visualizing him. … If we remove the incubus of the imperial interpretation that has encumbered his image, the Christ who emerges is far more vigorous and more versatile than we had been led to believe. His rightful place is among the gods of the ancient world. It is with them that he engaged in deadly combat, and it is from them that he wrested his most potent attributes." The key words here are "deadly combat." Moving away from a narrow interpretation of seeing Christian iconography as developing the "emperor mystique" to seeing it as the "clash of gods" enables us to gain a better appreciation of the Christ in whom the interpretation of peace is located and who seems to reconcile by conquering.

At this point it is necessary to gain some clarity by problematizing what are normally taken to be simple binaries – clear and seemingly self-evident – like oppressor-oppressed and attempt to see if this almost taken-for-granted polarities are what have been responsible for the lack of progress in our quest for peace and reconciliation. That there is a "clash" is obvious. However, in seeing the big clash, in looking at the blurred larger picture, have we lost sight, deliberately or otherwise of the details. Does the devil indeed hide in the details? Listen to some disturbing words:

Those who have been traditionally empowered to speak feel relativized simply by having to compete with other voices. Made aware of their own complicity in the silencing of others, they worry about losing a long-taken-for-granted privilege. The disempowered or newly empowered, on the other hand, seek to affirm a precariously established right. ‘Disempowered’ and ‘empowered’, furthermore, are relational terms; people can occupy diverse positions, being empowered on one axis, say that of class, but not on another, say that of race and gender. Instead of a simple oppressor/oppressed dichotomy we find a wide spectrum of complex relationalities of domination, subdomination and collaboration. At the extreme ends of this continuum, certainly, are groups respectively empowered along all the axes, on the one hand, and groups empowered along none of them, on the other. But even here there are no guarantees, for one’s ancestral community does not necessarily dictate one’s identifications and affiliations. It is not only a question of what one is or where one is coming from, but also of what one desires to be, where one wants to go and with whom one wants to go there.

With whom, then, do we pick up the pieces? Why? With whom have we collaborated? Has the politics of naming and identification resulted in the movement to reconciliation, of peoples, memories, shared realities and contested spaces? Where do we really want to go and with whom do we really want to go? What do we want to go there for and what is it that we hope to achieve? Are we driven by a passion for peace, a passion that undergirds and overarches our thoughts, desires and actions, or is it done out of a spirit of "time-pass"?

Fashioning Peace

Let me, finally, offer ten points for consideration, which I hope, will guide and lead our deliberations. Some of the points may be self-evident, but are nonetheless to be stated; some may require unpacking and some may appear to be tentative mumblings. All the same I present these with the hope that we who have gathered to talk about peace initiatives for a just society may perhaps find these thoughts useful:

  1. The desire for peace is most acutely felt where peace as a "physical" and experienced reality exists in an emaciated form.
  2. Where such a reality (as spelt out in 1) does not exist, either practically or experienced as such by those living in an illusory construction of the present ("our inviolable shores" ideology) the talk of peace tends to take on impractical ("brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind") and essentialized ("the global village") colours.
  3. Where such a reality (as spelt out in 1) does exist, most often the blame for such a state of affairs is put on "outside" forces or on those minorities "inside" who do not conform to some kind of standardized understanding of a national norm.
  4. Ideologies of personal responsibility too easily overlook and tend to almost excuse the responsibility of the powerful few at the expense of an attributed, implicit or voluntarily borne guilt ("Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me").
  5. The valorization of the individual, nevertheless, is necessary, since it is the individual who experiences most intensely and who acts most explicitly in the mechanics of the reconciliation process.
  6. A theology of peace must take into consideration the reality that simple equations of peace=shanti=shalom serve more to obscure issues than to clarify them.
  7. Where this (6) is recognized, theology should serve to question inherited placid and self-contained analysis of "peace" and the easy reduction of reconciliation efforts to some kind of formula, which while seemingly easy to grasp and attractive ("JOY = Jesus, Others, Yourself") should be exposed for what it is – reducing faith to a formula, while ignoring the messiness of real life.
  8. In the run up to interposing a theological framework in a context where loud, brash, and strident voices seem increasingly determined to dictate not just terms, but theological justifications, the recovery of a theology of creation which does not shy away from addressing the reality of violence not just in the post-Fall narratives, but in the garden of Eden narratives, would go a long way in moving away from a romanticized vision of the wonders of a creation where goodness is the predominate theme, rather than confronting the realities lurking under the surface, hidden in the bushes, crouching at the door … .
  9. The prince of peace, whose birth spawned violence and whose violent death stands as an awe-producing sign and symbol of the brutality of death, through which, it is claimed, that we are incorporated into the mystery of salvation, deserves far better than he so often seems to receive. A recognition of the failures, rather than a projection of the "successes", an identification with the futility and frustration, rather than the smoothening over of the rough and jagged edges, a far greater emphasis in preaching and teaching on the physical reality of the incarnation, rather than on the almost supernatural divine being, would help us in the appropriation of the vision of the man who saw a different kind of tomorrow, not the tomorrow of Nostradamus, where we discover him after the event, but a tomorrow where the spirit of peace and reconciliation could triumph, despite … .
  10. The spirit of truth, leading us to new truth, into fresh creativity and transforming insight, a spirit that is prepared not only to blow where it wills, but blow from where it wills, a spirit that challenges the sterility of our thoughts and the indifferences of our actions, a spirit that reveals the finesse and polish with which we mask ourselves, a spirit groaning with desire and pain, the pain of despair or the pain of new birth, the birth of peace from the tragedies of the present, the tragedies of the past, the wreckages scattered through time, available as building material for the future – material that is not forgotten, nor wasted, nor ignored, nor overlooked, but available, to those who in the power of the spirit can discern, and through discernment, exemplify a new obedience to respond to the promptings of the spirit, gently prodding us to embody the spirit of peace and reconciliation … .