Bishop of Coventry speaks on peacebuilding and reconciliation

On 14th December 2018 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd Justin Welby, led a debate in the House of Lords on the Motion: “that this House takes note of the role of reconciliation in British foreign, defence and international development policy”. The Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Chruistopher Cocksworth also spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I am grateful to follow the moving tribute from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to the Coptic Orthodox Church. I join him in that. I join others in thanking the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his ground-breaking speech. I pay tribute to his deep commitment to reconciliation on multiple levels.

Like the most reverend Primate, I have been shaped by the Coventry story, with its profound narrative of both the human propensity towards disruption of relationships, with the danger, destruction and death that ensues, and the power of hope to prevail over even the darkest forces—a hope built on the restorative capacity of reconciliation, a virtue that needs to be operative even during war, preparing the way for peace.

I have learned much about the way reconciliation applies to not only the interpersonal but the intercommunal and international realms. I have been moved by the story of the cathedral’s contribution to peacemaking through intervention structures and networks of reconciliation in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and beyond—work in which the most reverend Primate has played a distinguished part. I greatly welcome the most reverend Primate’s vision for reconciliation to be placed at the centre of government policy and wholeheartedly support the proposals for a joint reconciliation unit located in the heart of government.

The ministry of reconciliation that rose from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral thinks in three dimensions: across, towards other people, communities and nations who have become enemies to each other; downwards into the earth, the environment on which we depend but which we have damaged; and upwards towards God. In Christian terms, reconciliation with God is transformative. It establishes justice, reconstitutes human relationships, reforms the person to fulfil their responsibilities in the world and reorients people away from a preoccupation with their own interests towards the interests of others, with the result that the common interest is upheld and everyone flourishes.

Of course, as the most reverend Primate says, this theological framework is by no means universally shared, but it lends wisdom to policy-making none the less. The success of reconciliation depends on the quality of the values held by stakeholders—values so evident in this debate—and on the virtues, such as integrity, trustworthiness and due regard for the other, that allow human beings, individually and institutionally, to enact their best and deepest values in virtuous practices that heal the past, establish stability in the present and build a shared, peaceful, safer future.

We can begin to heal the wounds of history by acknowledging that, where we have been involved in a conflict in some way, we bear a level of responsibility for the suffering that it brings. Regardless of judgments about the justification for our involvement in coalitions of conflict, the sheer fact of our participation brings with it a moral responsibility to join long-term coalitions of reconstruction that restore and repair the damage of war. In Iraq, for instance, and at some point in Syria, it is imperative to invest in the long-term rebuilding of infrastructure and the wider social fabric to prevent the return of Daesh or its successors and to promote victims’ long-term prospects and welfare, for their interest is our interest. It serves the common interest of peace.

How do we help to establish stability in the present? For the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who is not in his seat, I single out one way that relates closely to the most reverend Primate’s emphasis on living peaceably with difference and proves that diversity is a friend of society and is to be celebrated: freedom of religion or belief. It is not difficult to evidence the virtuous cycles that develop out of a respect for religious difference, resulting in not only the everyday welfare of religious minorities, but greater political stability, community cohesion and economic opportunity. We can see the effects of its absence in Myanmar, Pakistan, Nigeria and so many other places where religious minorities become victims of the cycles of violence that tear countries apart. Syria and Iraq wrench at our hearts—they already have in this debate. The genocide of Yazidis and the displacement of Christians, as well as the destruction of monuments, threaten their survival throughout the region. Contrary to those who would eradicate their presence, the contribution of minorities to society in the Middle East is necessary for its cohesion. In the words of the Syrian Pastor Abdalla:

“The church’s role is to make the conversation”,

between different groups.

“When you solve the relationship you have a stable society and that’s what we are doing”.

Attention to past wounds and present relationships underpins commitment to creating cultures of peace. Again, foundational values and virtues are vital.

How can we promote peace between people if we give aid to fragile states with one hand but sell arms with the other, fuelling the fires of conflict that cause their suffering? For example, although it is to our nation’s credit that since 2015 we have led the world in providing more than £570 million in aid to Yemen, in that same period the UK sold an estimated £4.6 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia—some eight times as much. Regardless of whether the Saudi-led coalition is right to be at war in Yemen, the manner in which the Saudis have conducted themselves in the conflict, with the help of our weaponry, has been awful. Cholera is at epidemic levels. According to the UNHCR, the coalition has committed acts that,

“may amount to international crimes”,

under international humanitarian law. As we have heard, there is a value-laden legal, economic and institutional basis on which to build a foreign policy based on reconciliation and peacebuilding, but only if we have the courage to pursue it.

Building cultures of peace requires reconciliation with the earth on which we depend. Without a healthy planet, all our efforts to protect the most vulnerable and create the conditions for peace are undermined. Increased variability in rainfall and desertification are exacerbating existing tensions between farmers and herders in Nigeria, Christians and Muslims alike, allowing extremists to escalate them with violent effect. Rising sea levels, drought, extreme heat and the poverty that they cause are threatening the existence of already vulnerable communities. Sir David Attenborough was right to warn that climate change, without urgent remedial action, has the potential to cause,

“the collapse of our civilisations”.

The earth and all its peoples no longer has time for country-first policies and the values that drive them. As we move into the future, will the UK rise to the challenge of promoting peacebuilding and championing action on climate change through virtuous policies that are preoccupied not only with protecting and promoting our own interests but with the world’s interests, knowing that the one serves the other? Because, as the most reverend Primate says, a world at peace is in Britain’s interest.

In present conditions I take the liberty of ending with a personal story from Coventry, which has a shade of resemblance to the story told by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. In June this year, standing in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral before a combined German and British congregation, my son made solemn vows to a wonderful German woman. As they declared the power of love to overcome all ills, I looked at their grandmothers, who had lost their childhoods during the war. As I thought of their grandfathers, who had fought for each other’s deaths during that war, I knew then that finally the war was over. My family, at least, had walked that long road to lasting reconciliation and we were healed. After we danced the night away, I prayed for the peace of Europe and the peace of the world.


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