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"When we know what we are, and can go on,
I wish for you what you wish for me"

Risking Embrace: Living the Theology of Reconciliation

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

2002 ANZATS Conference
Luther Seminary
9 July 2002

Let's throw ourselves in at the deep end at the outset. Allow me a Jesuit to quote the Pope in my opening paragraph at a truly ecumenical theological conference here at the Luther Seminary - simply as a means of highlighting what unites us and what still constitutes each of us as other to each other. Pope John Paul II in his Address to Representatives of World Religions gathered in Assisi on 24 January 2002 said:

We wish to do our part in fending off the dark clouds of terrorism, hatred, armed conflict, which in these last few months have grown particularly ominous on humanity's horizon. For this reason we wish to listen to one other: we believe that this itself is already a sign of peace. In listening to one another there is already a reply to the disturbing questions that worry us. This already serves to scatter the shadows of suspicion and misunderstanding. The shadows will not be dissipated with weapons; darkness is dispelled by sending out bright beams of light.

To pray is not to escape from history and the problems which it presents. On the contrary, it is to choose to face reality not on our own, but with the strength that comes from on high, the strength of truth and love which have their ultimate source in God. Faced with the treachery of evil, religious people can count on God, who absolutely wills what is good. They can pray to him to have the courage to face even the greatest difficulties with a sense of personal responsibility, never yielding to fatalism or impulsive reactions.

Until a few weeks before these remarks, I was working in East Timor. In fact I was there last year when I received the request to speak at your conference with the theme, Risking Embrace: Living the Theology of Reconciliation. This evening is a time for listening and sending out bright beams of light, scattering the shadows of suspicion and misunderstanding. And yet I am going to talk for much of this next hour, hopefully expressing some of your listenings and yearnings for reconciliation. Let's accept at the beginning of this conference that praying for reconciliation or pondering its intellectual complexity is no substitute for performing our personal responsibilities, without yielding to fatalism or impulsive reactions.

Returning home in January to this vast land of abundance where freedom is so available that it is flabbily wasted, I was distressed to be called almost immediately to Woomera to meet with asylum seekers on hunger strike. I was then asked by the Sydney Morning Herald on Australia Day 2002 to answer what was the best quality about Australians and what disturbs me most about us. I told the Sydney Morning Herald:

The best quality about Australians is our desire to share freedom with those in need. In the remotest villages of East Timor, farmers express their appreciation that Australians came to their rescue so quickly, so generously, and so openly in September 1999. They are grateful that we have stood by them these last two years, patrolling the difficult spots down on the Indonesian border and helping in so many practical ways on the ground. The practical, no nonsense willingness to chip in and lend a helping hand to the other who is genuinely in need is a fine Australian quality - exhibited daily in East Timor, and practised to the point of exhaustion during bushfires.

What disturbs me most is our fear that freedom for those identified as "other" will deprive us the luxury of our way of life. We have a mob mentality when it comes to assessing who is genuinely in need and deciding what is in the national interest. As a nation, we were easily convinced by our political leaders that nothing more could be done to assist the people of East Timor from 1975 until 1999. Those who argued otherwise were labelled stirrers and troublemakers. People in the bush were easily misled in thinking that Mabo and Wik would end the peaceful use and occupancy of the land. Those who argued otherwise were labelled do-gooders and middle class city slickers. A boatload of refugees on the eve of an election can drive the nation into insular fear and irrational expenditure on flawed pacific solutions. Those who raise their hands in protest are elitist members of the chattering classes.

No doubt some of you would have chosen other qualities and deficiencies to highlight were the journalist knocking on your door or accessing your email. But even those of you who find my views jaundiced or esoteric will know where I am coming from as I reflect on your theme - Risking embrace: living the theology of reconciliation. I was helped some weeks later when I heard Paul Keating's Manning Clark lecture:

We are at risk of becoming, as Manning once said, subjects in the kingdom of nothingness. Subjects of a post-Christian, post-Enlightenment world where there is no inspiration, no higher endeavour, little compassion and no belief beyond narrow self-interest. Like members of a gated community we pretend, in our comfortable urban solace, that all is well including all around us.

Manning used to say that Australian public life broke into two groups: the enlargers, and the punishers and straiteners. As the incarcerated asylum-seekers at Woomera can attest, this government is well and truly into the punishing and straitening game.

To keep the best notions of Australia bubbling within itself, to keep us from that gated refuge of nothingness, the more we remain members of the great project of humanity the better off we will be, and the happier we will be. The more we resist arbitrary and parochial distinctions between peoples, the more our security in this great part of the world will be guaranteed and the more our participation in it will be rewarded.

Ours is an age of distraction. The background to our lives is the white noise of inconsequential television programs, pompous pundits, shrill talkback callers, ten-second news grabs, and the cult of celebrity. In this environment, the need for contemplation and some introspection becomes compelling; a time to stop and think; to make our way, guided by a moral compass, a bearing that divines our best instincts.

Returning from poor and Catholic East Timor to materialistic and secular Australia, I was impressed by the starkness of Keating's comparison of enlargers and straiteners though I would not draw the line quite according to party lines as he would. I was heartened because here in the Australian public forum was a national leader who could speak of inspiration, compassion, the great project of humanity, contemplation and the need for "a moral compass, a bearing that divines our best instincts" - religious language and sentiment for the most secular of projects. Here is an ex-Prime Minister calling us to risk embrace of the other rather than exclusion of the other, calling us to be reconciled with the other and with our world reality rather than securely bordered against the other, deluding ourselves that our world is separate from the world of most of those who are other.

Kathleen Norris, the American poet and chronicler of monasteries and small towns says that monasteries are like small towns with their internal conflicts and tensions. But she draws a sharp contrast between Benedictine monasteries and the small towns of South Dakota she knows so well: "I soon discovered that while the Benedictines are like a tribe, they do not suffer from tribalism, that evil and ultimately self-destructive mythology that identifies others as less than human. Hospitality is a core Benedictine value and it provides one of the central paradoxes of monastic life: that the monastery stands apart from the world, yet is radically open to it."

Standing apart and being radically open to the world and to the other encapsulates the risk of embrace in living the theology of reconciliation. For me, the space and intimacy, the uncertainty and grace of the first step inviting that embrace is conveyed in Norris's poem Goodness:

Despite our good deeds,
The chatter of our best intentions,
our many kindnesses,
God is at work
in us, close
to the bone,
past the sinews
of our virtues, to the marrow
we cannot feel,
the sudden, helpless tears
when we know what we are,
and can go on.

When we know what we are, and can go - risking embrace: living the theology of reconciliation.

East Timor is both a fertile and barren place for contemplating the mystery of reconciliation and for daring to risk embracing the other after all that has happened rather than simply contemplating the possibility or praying for the grace to take the first step of embrace, or even to receive the first overture of embrace. People there on both sides of the intractable conflict know what they are and this is the moment of grace and risk when they can go on. While working with refugees returning from West Timor and with a church working group wrestling with the detail of a new Constitution and proposals for amnesty and a Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I responded to your invitation to speak this evening with the rhetorical question: "Reconciliation - the sacred meeting place of justice, truth, mercy and peace; or the marketplace of politics, political correctness, conflict and avoidance?" The starkness of this choice became more poignant for me on my return to my home country, learning of the increasing alienation and distance of indigenous Australians and asylum seekers from those elected to govern for well being of the Commonwealth. Of course the fundamental lack of reconciliation in our environs then reflects those personal relationships of our own and those parts of the self which are unreconciled. It is then those relationships and the psychological and spiritual disorder of the self which provide the graced and fertile ground for reflecting on how reconciliation might be effected in our world, especially in those domains which we influence and inhabit.

For much of the last two years, I have been living and working in the two worlds of West Timor and East Timor. I think these two worlds are stark mud maps of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual terrain traversed by those on both sides of unreconciled borders. The people in the refugee camps in the west are in a closed world dominated by fear. While some of the people are ex-militia carrying a heavy past, others are innocent bystanders who have been absorbed into the intrigue and evil of the situation. Many of them are illiterate. They are dependent on their village leaders. They cannot decide to return individually. They must go as a group. They receive little reliable information. They are bombarded with propaganda. They are afraid and they are lost. They do not belong where they are but they have no power of self-determination to bring themselves home. When you look into their eyes, you see people who are trapped, scared, and abandoned.

The east is a place full of possibilities, especially for those who were able to score a job with the UN or with one of the big NGOs. For the last two years, there have been idealistic young UN workers from every nation on earth. They came to make their contribution and to make a difference. There was much talk about infrastructure, economic potential, reconciliation, democratisation and constitutional development. But so much of it was rhetoric flooding a landscape inhabited by people who were simply trying to put their lives back together. Much of the public carry on was a foil for the power elite of Timorese society making its accommodation with the international agencies while ordinary people continued to miss out. The UN could talk all it liked about constitutional empowerment of people but it did not get us far in one of the most illiterate societies in Asia. They can design and resource theoretically wonderful machinery for reconciliation but it cannot get you far when the major alienated faction is still across the border, their leaders not having been at the table to negotiate the procedure. The east is a whole new world which could easily collapse once the outside supports are taken away. It is also the place where people are taking hold of their freedom and constituting themselves as actors for peace and reconciliation.

I give one example. One of our JRS staff was a 20 year old man from Maliana on the border. His name is Fidelis. His father was the CNRT leader in the area and was killed by police and militia in September 1999. Fidelis worked with our returnees team assisting refugees when they return from West Timor. We sent him to Geneva for the hearing of the UN Human Rights Committee. For him, it was a fantastic experience - and a long way from the border. He had told me early in the year that he was in no hurry to go to university because for the moment, the border was his university. On his return from Geneva, we had a two-day meeting of our 30 staff discussing the meaning of reconciliation. He said, "Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite when I help the returnees because my father was killed by the militia. But I am lucky and blessed because I have a mother with a big heart and she is a great inspiration for me." As you can appreciate, despite his age, he was more like a teacher than a student down there at the university of the border. Reconciliation is a communal activity. It requires a few influential persons with hearts big enough to hold the story, to endure the pain and to wait for the graced moment of transformation.

Recently I attended the Australian War Memorial with Isabel Gutteres, one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners from East Timor. Our guide first took us to the tomb of the unknown soldier. My immediate reaction was one of impatience, thinking that we should spend our time examining the special exhibits on East Timor and Indonesia. But when we reached the tomb and noted the impact of this place on all who entered, Isabel observed that there was a need for such moments and places of silence in East Timor - moments and places that bridge the gap of difference by placing borders anonymously around the gaps of difference without spelling out the points of difference within the borders.

After 24 years of political conflict, the Democratic Republic of East Timor is now "a democratic, sovereign, independent and unitary State based on the rule of law, the will of the people and the respect for the dignity of the human person." During the conflict many wrongs were committed. Most of those wrongs cannot be put right. There are still thousands of East Timorese waiting to return home. East Timor now has a National Parliament, a Government and a President who together may be able to lead them to a reconciled future together in their land.

As a new nation, East Timor has limited resources for the investigation, prosecution and defence of those charged with past criminal behaviour. The authorities must be fair in deciding who to prosecute and for what. Now is the appropriate time for the President, the Government and the National Parliament to close the chapter of past criminal behaviour which plagued both sides of the political conflict between 1975 and 1999. There is no need to use up precious resources prosecuting people for less serious offences which they committed in the past. If these offences related to the political conflict and if the offenders are still causing problems in local communities, people could now approach the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation for assistance.

However, persons who committed the most serious crimes such as mass murder, even for political reasons, should not be eligible for an automatic amnesty. They should be prosecuted unless the victims' families and the local community request the grant of a special amnesty to the accused person. The Church and its members should encourage such acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, while understanding that some victims' families may justifiably want an accused to face trial and conviction according to law.

It is time for the National Parliament of East Timor to commence a proper national inquiry into the terms and conditions for the grant of a general amnesty to persons who committed serious crimes (not the most serious crimes) during the course of the political conflict. After appropriate consultation with the public, with civil society and with the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, the National Parliament could then present the President with an amnesty law for his approval.

An automatic amnesty for all past offenders would be unjust on those victims and their families who have suffered most. It would also risk the new nation of East Timor falling into denial and forgetting its past. On the other hand, a ruthless prosecution of all past offenders with no amnesty would condemn a poor country with limited resources to an endless and wasteful search for justice and reconciliation in the courts which would be a frustrating failure. The East Timorese now have the appropriate State bodies with the constitutional authority to act on behalf of all the citizens. Now is the right time for their elected national representatives to strike the right balance between the past and the future, between victims and offenders, between justice and mercy according to law, and between remembrance and new life. The role of the Church in East Timor is to commit itself in prayer and action to the development of an amnesty law which realises the people's hopes of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation for all who have emerged from bloody and criminal conflict "with a view to building a just and prosperous nation and developing a society of solidarity and fraternity".

It is very clear from last year's report of the Judicial Services Monitoring Program that it is impossible for the Timorese courts to deal with any increased caseload of serious crimes at this time, let alone with any extensive list of less serious crimes committed in 1999. The Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Commission on Human Rights on 1 March 2002 expressed serious concerns about the fairness of the Los Palos trial which was the first real test of the special panels for the trial of serious crimes committed in 1999. The Commissioner was particularly concerned "at the apparent lack of parity between the prosecution and the defence, resulting primarily from the lack and quality of human resources for the defence." The Commissioner has noted:

Capability for trying suspects accused of serious crimes remains low because of the restricted number of experienced judges and public defenders, and support services for the courts remains limited. Courts and investigators are also hampered by the difficulty in obtaining translations into and from English, Portuguese, Tetum, Bahasa Indonesia and many local dialects.

The jails are full and there are already long delays for the trial of the 83 persons previously indicted for serious crimes, 38 of whom are still at large in Indonesia. 24 of these are accused or murder or crimes against humanity. Any amnesty law in East Timor must be fair to those either side of the conflict. It must also ensure equal application of the law to those tried either side of the border. It must be based on a frank acknowledgment of the inadequacies of the East Timorese judicial and legal system and of the lack of material resources for building the new society. It must be equally respectful of the human rights and dignity of victims and offenders, and of those on either side of the past political conflict. To some, these considerations will wreak of the marketplace of politics, political correctness, conflict and avoidance. For others they may provide the only practical path to the sacred meeting place of justice, truth, mercy and peace. These considerations are the stuff of national reconciliation following upon wretched conflict.

The compromising complexities were driven home to me just last Tuesday in Jakarta. I started the day attending the Indonesian trial of those charged with complicity in the Suai church massacre. It is very clear that there is no credible court system on either side of the border at this time. The bupati from Suai was giving his testimony posited on the proposition that the Timorese were warring factions and the Indonesian authorities were powerless to arrest those guilty of the atrocities. The bupati unctuously claimed to have offered the slaughtered priests at the church armed security which they declined. He also claimed to be most concerned that the dead, especially the priests, be provided with coffins. Such evidence strains all credibility when you have read the Indonesian human rights commission report, when you have heard first hand testimony from Timorese who were there, and when you have seen the site over the border where the bodies of the deceased, including the priests, were hurriedly transported and buried in the sand. On the way to court last Tuesday morning, I had passed the Indonesian presidential palace where the guard were practising for the formal welcome of President Xanana Gusmao, complete with 21-gun salute. In the evening I passed the elongated black Mercedes with the numberplate "Tamu Negara" - "Guest of the Country" and the Timorese flag flying at the front. Truth, justice and reconciliation are fickle and mysterious commodities in the world of real politik. Timing is everything in getting the mix right.

Two years ago, while our Christian politicians in Australia were playing word games about sorrow and reconciliation, tinkering with the nation 's soul, leaving it to the Australian people to say "Sorry" in the splendid marches for reconciliation, Muslim President Wahid of Indonesia was able to come to Dili and lay wreaths and flowers at the Santa Cruz cemetery and the Indonesian soldiers cemetery over the road, apologising to the victims and families scarred by a history which in hindsight no one wanted but for which Wahid and any Indonesian exercising authority in the name of the people had to accept responsibility.

In all of this is there any theology of reconciliation emerging? For me the most compelling of the New Testament texts on reconciliation is the impossibly demanding procedure set down in the Sermon on the Mount: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge." (Mt 5:23-25)

Each of us needs to be able to view any conflict from all sides. As reconcilers, we seek justice, truth, mercy and love. Jesus' articulation of the new law in the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible prescription but an appealing ideal. Whichever side of a conflict we are on, or from whichever side we view the conflict of others, we have all been angry with one of our peers at some time, and we have definitely expleted, "You fool" if not in the public forum, then when we return to the privacy of our home or community. As Christians we are in the habit of bringing gifts to the altar, and like the Jews in the Matthean Christian community who still came to the temple to bring their gifts to the altar, we must pause and remember not those against whom we have a grievance, gripe or grudge but those who have a grievance, gripe or grudge against us. To commence the reconciling journey, risking embrace, with a pure heart and an open mind we should attempt to be reconciled to the one who feels wronged by us. This is a big ask. It is so much more than the old law and the established norms of social discourse and propriety. It is the new law of Jesus put before us so that we might truly bring reconciliation where there has been none and to make things new.

What is reconciliation? When do we speak of the need for reconciliation whether personal, communal, national or international? It is in circumstances where the history is so complex that the truth cannot be told and agreed by all parties, where the inequities have been so overwhelming that justice cannot be done completely, and where the wrongdoings have been so gross and the marginalising treatment of victims so sustained that there is no prospect of forgiveness being sought in good faith and forgiveness being granted with dignity. When in these circumstances, when the past weighs so heavily, is there some prospect of reconciliation in the present? There are times when the major parties to an historic grievance see benefit for themselves and the common good in drawing the line, committing themselves to a process in which they will obtain the maximal and sustainable outcome of truth, justice and forgiveness. This can occur only if there be a shared belief in a superior authority (human or divine) having the power and the grace to open hearts and minds, to call all parties to the table, to authorise the process and to endorse the outcome. If there be no such authority or belief in same, there is more limited prospect of reconciliation and only if all parties including the decreasingly (though once all-) powerful wrongdoers and the increasingly (though once not at all) powerful victims agree on a process with no side having an assured outcome. All parties have to be equally at risk, equally central and equally marginal in the process, otherwise it becomes formalistic and the outcome a matter of spin doctoring and political correctness.

Living the theology of reconciliation is living the theology of truth, justice and forgiveness ideally in relationship with God. If the relationship with God cannot be explicitated in the public forum, a faltering relationship with the State is sometimes substituted but more usually the parties need to risk embrace by committing themselves to the common good, no party having exclusive or dominant control of the process.

Reading Jacques Derrida's "Hostipitality" (without making any pretence to any comprehensive understanding of same), I was helped by J K Huysman's view on mystical substitution. Huysmans having been diagnosed with throat cancer was a late convert to Catholicism. Like Levinas, he had a developed notion of each person's responsibility for all. For him:

Humanity is governed by two laws that it ignores in its carelessness: the law of solidarity in evil, the law of reversibility in the good; solidarity in Adam, reversibility in Our Lord. Otherwise put, up to a point, each is responsible for the faults of the others, and must also, up to a point, expiate them &God first submitted to these laws when he applied them to himself in the person of the Son &He wanted for Jesus to give the first example of mystical substitution of him who owes nothing for him who owes everything

I am very challenged by Derrida's later assertion that "Whoever asks for hospitality, asks, in a way, for forgiveness and whoever offers hospitality, grants forgiveness - and forgiveness must be infinite or it is nothing: it is excuse or exchange." Derrida gives the example of two Jews, longtime enemies, meeting at the synagogue on the Day of Atonement. One says to the other: "I wish for you what you wish for me." The other immediately retorts, "Already you're starting again."

Derrida observes:

An unfathomable story, a story that seems to stop on the verge of itself, a story whose development consist in interrupting itself, in paralysing itself in order to refuse itself all avenir; absolute story of the unsolvable, vertiginous depth of the bottomless, irresistible whirlpool that carries forgiveness, the gift and the re-giving, the re-dealing of forgiveness, to the abyss of impossibility.

How to acquit oneself of forgiveness? And does not forgiveness have to exclude all acquitting, all acquitting of oneself, all acquitting of the other?

Forgiving is surely not to call it quits, clear and discharged. Not oneself, not the other. This would be repeating evil, countersigning it, consecrating it, letting it be what it is, unalterable and identical to itself. No adequation is here acceptable or tolerable. What then?

He continues:

The impossibility of forgiveness offers itself to thought, in truth, as its sole possibility. Why is forgiveness impossible? Not merely difficult for a thousand psychological reasons, but absolutely impossible? Simply because what there is to forgive must be, and must remain, unforgivable. If forgiveness is possible, if there is forgiveness, it must forgive the unforgivable.

If one had to forgive only what is forgivable, even excusable, venial, as one says, or insignificant, then one would not forgive. One would excuse, forgive, erase, one would not be granting forgiveness. If, in the process of any given transformation, the fault, the evil, the crime are attenuated or extenuated to the point of veniality, if the effects of the wound were less hurting, were even accompanied by some surplus of jouissance, then that which itself becomes forgivable frees itself of all guilt and there is no need of forgiveness. The forgiveness of the forgivable does not forgive anything: it is not forgiveness &. (one must forgive) the unforgivable that resists any process of transformation of me or of the other, that resists any alteration, any historical reconciliation that would change the conditions or the circumstances of judgment.

Maybe this is why talk from our political leaders about "practical reconciliation" grates so much. Such phrases emanate from those who see no need for saying sorry and therefore have no way of saying sorry and meaning it, no need or desire to ask forgiveness or even to recognise it were it to be given gratuitously and without request. We are agreed with our political leaders that there is much about our past which is unforgivable. Their response is to say that it is not our personal responsibility. Anything which is only the personal responsibility of one of our political leaders is seen to be manageable and forgivable because it would be presumed to be so venial as to be explicable and excusable. The enormity of the wrongs of the past emanated not just from the personal actions of individual leaders but from the communal and institutional actions of generations of persons acting in the name of or with the authority of the State and the whole body politic. Those of us who are believers can come to the altar with the victims asking forgiveness. In the public forum we need to form an interdependent circle of vulnerability, creating the space to hold all the truth, justice and forgiveness we can bear. The present deadlock in our national consciousness on this issue may also be caused by many Aboriginal people not yet being ready to forgive the unforgivable. When we encounter the desire to offer this forgiveness, we experience even the desire as a grace for all of us, as is the desire to obtain that forgiveness. While the deadlock obtains and while the nation is plagued by unfinished business, the ongoing wrong is that the victims are left to carry the burden, daily living and encountering the effects of the past injustices and mistruths while those who have benefited from the injustices and mistruths can be blissfully unaware of the ongoing effects.

Even if reconciliation be the sacred meeting place of justice, truth, mercy and peace, that meeting place is often found inside the marketplace of politics, political correctness, conflict and avoidance. During 20 years of involvement in the politics of Aboriginal rights, I have found Aboriginal critiques of my own actions as a church person in the public forum a useful starting point for reflection. Of course, it is for others to judge whether I have transgressed the limits, having earned Paul Keating's description as the "meddling priest". In politics as it is played in Australia, there has been a presumption that it is only the stakeholders such as Aborigines, miners and pastoralists who should be heard in the fray of political debate. There is a place for the person who is not a stakeholder, who represents no constituency, who pushes no partisan barrow, who is professionally disinterested in which party is in power, and who is committed to finding a just resolution of conflicting claims holding in right balance the conflicting claims of the stakeholders and finessing the balance between individual rights and the common good or public interest. I am especially grateful to the pastoralist who urged me during the Wik debate to return to my church and say prayers. He clarified my thinking. An issue as complex as Wik could not be left only to the stakeholders. It could not be resolved by prayer alone. There is a place for honest brokers. Being neither a native titleholder, miner nor pastoralist, I was very privileged to participate in that debate. The presence of a third party can help to effect outcomes including reconciliation through justice, truth and forgiveness.

Back in 1985, I attended a meeting of Aborigines living in a fringe camp at Mantaka on the outskirts of Kuranda by the Barron River in North Queensland. The Aborigines had lived on a reserve which was run by a church and which had since closed. Some of the people moved to government housing in Cairns but they did not like it much and the neighbours liked it even less. Eventually they ended up as fringe dwellers on land they regarded as their traditional country. They were seeking land title and money for houses from governments in Brisbane and Canberra. At the end of the meeting, the convenor pointed across the river and said, "See that house: that is Mr X 's weekender. They don 't come very often but when they do they come by helicopter. See that helipad on the roof. It cost $3/4 million." That was almost twice the amount they were seeking for basic permanent housing.

I have often told this story in schools. I once told the story to the final Year 12 religion class in one of our Jesuit schools. The form master tried to reassure me with the observation that the boys asked the very same questions that all young Australians would ask about this situation. He thought the school had succeeded by providing the trusting space where the students could ask their questions. I was wondering what the effect of hours and hours of classes dedicated to social justice had been when the questions were the same at the end of the process, as you would have expected at the beginning. Especially in the better off schools, there are many questions: Why don 't the Aborigines build their own houses if they want them? What are they complaining about? If the white man didn 't come, they wouldn 't even have a water supply. If it weren 't for Mr. X paying his taxes, there would be no money to pay these people welfare. After many years, I gave up trying to answer these questions or to refute these comments. In response, I ask only one question: Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask your questions?

There is never any doubt about which side of the river people are standing on. Can you see that there are just as many questions that can be asked from the other side of the river? They are just as unanswerable. They are likely to make you just as upset and powerless and confused. Where you stand depends on where you sit. Being ready to risk the embrace of reconciliation is about being able to stand on either side of the river. It is also about being able to assist with the bridge building needed so that others can move more readily from one side of the river to the other. Moving on both sides of the river, the moral actor is able to understand the interdependence of those on either side of the river and then to take a stand in solidarity with those who are marginalised, disadvantaged or dispossessed in any situation of political conflict and historic injustice. The bridge analogy works very well for many social conflicts. It is simply an application of Jesus' invocation to the first disciples in John's gospel; "Come and see". When pacifist American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan was distressed by the activity of some of his Latin American Jesuit brothers who had identified with armed struggle and revolution, he found there was no substitute for responding to the invitation, "Come and see."

I well recall my first visit to Bourke in western New South Wales. I was asked to come because there were race problems even in the primary school playground. I arrived at the school, being asked, "Are you a blow in?" I was then introduced to the school staff, including the Aboriginal teacher aides. The person introducing me listed my qualifications and credentials but omitted the main one - that I was a blow in. I then introduced myself, admitting upfront that I was a blow in. I had never been to Bourke before. I might never come again. I knew little about life in Bourke except that it was difficult and it did not matter whether you were black or white, an adult walking down the main street at night or a child in the school playground by day. Race relations were poor. Everyone's quality of life was affected. We Australians are very good at passing the buck. We could blame Canberra or Sydney or history. But the buck has to stop here and now. The blow ins cannot solve the problems. We have to accept joint responsibility for our local situation.

That night at a community meeting, some local Aborigines told the story of their history in the area. A white cotton farmer was very moved, observing that his family had lived in the area for many generations but that he "had no idea" that these things went on. Telling and hearing the stories is often the beginning of persons making a commitment to social justice, risking embrace and living the theology of reconciliation. Those of us Australians (and especially those of us who are Christian) who are not Aboriginal might be drawn by way of apology to express our shame for seven sins identified by Norman Habel:

  • For the sin of dispossession
  • For the sin of genocide
  • For the sin of massacre
  • For the sin of destroying culture
  • For the sin of desecration
  • For the sin of assimilation.

To put Norman in the plural: "we are very ashamed of these sins from the past, and we are profoundly sorry for the injustices committed against Aboriginal Australians. Indigenous Australians, please accept our apology. Spirit of the Land, forgive us and our Australian brothers and sisters."

Let me now face squarely the predicament that has confronted me during this presentation on the theology of reconciliation. Those of us who are Christian accept that there can be no reconciliation between us and God, and therefore no ultimate reconciliation in the ground of our being, except in and through Christ. "It is all God's work; he reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone's faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." (2 Cor 5:18-19) The reconciliation of this vertical relationship is possible only through the mediation of Jesus who embodies, lives and dies the reality of this reconciliation. He puts us right with our God and thereby establishes the basis for right relationship with each other. In many countries such as Australia, East Timor and South Africa, the public rhetoric and programs for reconciliation have been informed and underpinned by this theological perspective. You only need to think back to the 1997 Reconciliation Convention presided over by Patrick Dodson. Some of my Protestant friends have observed that it had all the hallmarks of a Catholic liturgy. How does our theology of reconciliation assist the political process and outcomes in the public forum where there is no shared articulation of religious faith and no fount of truth, justice and forgiveness? Those of the most profoundly humanitarian and humanist bent might profess profound commitment to truth and justice. But if forgiveness be the possibility of forgiving the unforgivable, this cannot be reckoned or achieved in the secular public forum.

I have been troubled by this question since reading Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. The main character Briony as a child wrongly accuses her older sister's boyfriend of a dreadful wrongdoing while he is visiting the family estate in the English countryside. Years later after he has wrongly served a term in prison, he then goes to war, escapes from Dunkirk and meets up again with Briony and the older sister. In the novel, Briony herself is an accomplished novelist and the last chapter consists of her ruminations about how to recount the tale and how to have it end. Since publication, McEwan has confided that early in the writing project, he had read the initial chapters to his wife who then asked how it was all going to end. He started to improvise: "I told her the last chapter and to my amazement she burst into tears. Ah, well, I thought, this is correct. I hadn't seen it in quite so emotional terms." It was another two years before he wrote this final chapter but in terms almost identical with what he had described to his wife. In this closing chapter, Briony, the all-controlling novelist within the novel, writes what McEwan had in mind these last two years:

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

Originally McEwan had named his novel An Atonement but Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash on reading it had "suggested that he remove the 'an', because the novel was not just about Briony's search for atonement but a more generic sense of redemption, about guilt as something 'too great to expiate'."

Here we are affirming our belief that in Christ the unforgivable is forgiven and that even the guilt which can be too great to expiate can be the occasion for redemption when together we "know what we are, and can go on", immersed in the marketplace of politics, political correctness, conflict and avoidance, finding in ourselves and in our meeting of the other, the sacred meeting place of justice, truth, mercy and peace. To do this we need bridges across rivers and moments and places that bridge the gap of difference by placing borders anonymously around the gaps of difference without spelling out the points of difference within those borders. Neither the victor nor the victim can set the limits and the terms. Together equally at risk, we might embrace the possibility of being and encountering the reconciler, the reconciled and the member of the reconciling community. Justice relates to the actions of the past, forgiveness to the present disposition of the wrongdoer, and reconciliation relates to the commitment of the parties agreeing to work together in the future.

Having listened and spoken together as we now have, I now assert that this is no longer your conference but our conference. Let us hope and pray that our conference may be a time and place for living the theology of reconciliation, embracing the other in us and in our midst in whom we see reflected more of ourselves and of God. Committed to the interdependence of reconciliation rather than the independence of self-righteousness, I wish for you what you wish for me. This could be a graced moment in our journey when "we know what we are, and can go on".