Muriel Mirak-Weissbach in her new book Through the Wall of Fire uses a sequence from Dante's Divine Comedy to stress the need within the wider Middle East for a fundamental revolution in thinking and a far-reaching shift in moral outlook leading from wrath to reconciliation. (1) At the end of the Purgatory section, the poet-pilgrim comes up to a wall of fire. He is told by his guide Virgil that he must pass through this wall to enter Paradise. Having seen the fire of Hell, he is fearful to take the step, but Virgil urges "Put fear aside, turn this way, enter unafraid"
As Mirak-Weissbach notes "Once the pilgrim Dante has moved through the scorching flames and reached the other side, he realizes that Paradise does not mean the end of his journey, but rather the beginning. It is here that he begins to discover the laws governing the universe and society
"This is the challenge posed by Dante to the parties in conflict in the Middle East and beyond; are they capable of casting off the wrath, bitterness, enmity and vengeance which have imprisoned them for so long, and of reaching out to their former adversaries as human beings with equal rights? Can they proudly maintain their sense of national identity, but at the same time transcend the narrow self-conception of Arab, Israeli, Persian, Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurd - or, one should add Armenian, Azeri, or Turk- to become universal moral human beings?"
Reconciliation is a process which requires spiritual understanding as it goes beyond the type of pragmatism that rests in the careful calculation of causes and consequences. Reconciliation needs to be seen not only as reconciliation between two persons or groups, but as reconciliation for something. It is not merely the repair of the past, but reconciliation is a bridge to the future. Reconciliation has to do with how antagonists construct a new future together.
Reconciliation is a process, not a state to be achieved. It is a key element in consolidating peace, breaking a cycle of violence, restoring justice at personal and social levels, bringing about personal healing and building non-violent relations between individuals. Reconciliation holds the prospect of breaking the cycle of enmity by creating constructive political and societal relationships and thus making it possible to move forward. However, it is crucial to realize that reconciliation is a voluntary and gradual process that in many cases requires many small steps first before long strides can be taken.
Thus we need to look at the type of small steps which can help to deal with suffering and alienation, steps to create the ground for the longer strides of erecting an order of justice where so much injustice has been perpetrated. As W.H. Auden has written "Those to whom evil is done do evil in return." So it is often at the stage of youth when attitudes are being formed that reconciliation efforts need to be taken.
Gene Sharp has written usefully on the wide variety of non-violent actions that have been taken by groups, usually in opposition to injustice and abuses of power. Combinations of these techniques can be made to create a non-violent action plan of opposition much like the study of historic battle plans can help in planning a new military strategy. (2) What we need is a Gene Sharp-type of listing and analysis of reconciliation actions.
Such actions need to have symbolic meanings which point beyond themselves to a deeper and broader unity. Yet symbols and rituals can also be an element of exclusion. To give one example: In the French Protestant church in the city where my son teaches and where we participate in the Christmas service, all in the service are invited to take communion, Christian or not, baptized or not, Protestant or not. In practice, most of the people are Christians, but the minister sees no theological or other reason to exclude someone from a ceremony which symbolizes unity. On the other hand, in the town where I live, once a year there is a week of prayer for the unity of Christians with a joint Catholic-Protestant service but with no communion ritual since in some circles there are differences of views as to what communion signifies.
Thus even in a country such as France where the last serious Catholic-Protestant wars were in the early 1700s and the later Enlightenment has largely shaped the philosophical outlook of many, it is difficult to find symbols or rituals that bridge past divisions.
For the wider Middle East the divisions and tensions are more recent and ongoing. Thus there is the need for imagination, creativity and leadership. The recent Mussalaha International Peace Delegation to Lebanon and Syria is an example of reconciliation efforts in a time of armed conflict by Mussalaha, a Syrian NGO whose name means reconciliation. Such efforts point to the fact that reconciliation is both an aim and a method necessary for peace-building.
As Muriel Mirak-Weissbach warns " The crisis in the Middle East has reached such a critical point that either a revolutionary approach will be adopted to reverse the dynamic towards perpetual conflict, or the region will blow up in the worst imaginable enactment of the Battle of Armageddon. Contrary to the fundamentalists' prophecy, in that event, not even the saved will go to Heaven; all will descend to Hell."