A policy of cups of tea with 'the other'
Our meal with Jo Berry and hearing her speak was the highlight of our week.
In October 1984, Patrick Magee planted the IRA bomb that killed Jo Berry’s father, the British politician Sir Antony Berry. That event created a relationship between Jo Berry and Patrick Magee which could have led to a lifelong hatred. Instead, the two have been on a journey together which has led them to sharing over 300 platforms around the world and promoting the idea that forgiving bridges between perpetrators and victims can be built.
In the ‘lecture’, Jo shared the story of her journey from being a young pacifist who, until the night of her father’s murder had ‘felt like a free spirit’. These days she has a global career facilitating and teaching peace-making, reconciliation and restorative justice. Her talk and Q&A session were peppered with references to various acts of terror and atrocity – not just in Ireland but in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, in Norway with Anders Behring Breivik, in the UK with the murder of Jo Cox and most recently in New Zealand. All these conflicts left behind human lives full of pain soon forgotten by most of the population.
Jo began her journey of reconciliation with Pat Magee entirely alone. All she felt was curiosity about ‘why the IRA used violence’ and ‘trusting that somehow, life would give me experiences.’ And it did. First she met an Irish taxi-driver whose brother had been killed by ‘her side’ - a British soldier. The conversation gave her the belief that people who should have been enemies could communicate. She began to believe ‘I can build a bridge across the divide’.
Subsequently she travelled to Northern Ireland meeting others from ‘victim’ families on both sides and constantly trying to understand terrorists – what do they think or feel as they murder others? Slowly the idea of meeting her father’s murderer grew in her mind and eventually the invitation was sent and rejected – three times. Eventually, 16 years after the bombing, came the chance to meet Patrick Magee. Jo was busy when the offer came and, after her long struggle, her very human response was ‘I’m not sure I’m in the mood!’
But she went. An account like mine here cannot do justice to Jo’s story of the meeting with her father’s murderer – of the questions and thoughts that went through her mind. To hear that, do join the hundreds of other people who have watched the talk for themselves on the Facebook page of Newbold College of Higher Education. https://www.facebook.com/newboldcollege/videos/357769264834262/?epa=SEARCH_BOX There you will hear the description of a high inter-personal drama as two strangers navigated the distances and barriers between them and came to recognise a measure of mutual humanity.
This was not a story minimising or cheapening the challenges of such a relationship. Both participants had stepped on to what Jo describes as an emotional roller coaster. There are still times when Pat wants to go back and justify what he did and Jo still finds it hard to listen to him do that. But they talk about it again. The progress of the relationship, the effects on Jo’s children – all have been explored on the journey. Eventually Jo asked herself, ‘If I had experienced everything Patrick has experienced, would I have made the same decision?’ Her answer? ‘Every time I suspend judgement, open my heart and become present to the other person, I see that ‘would I make the same choice and there is nothing to forgive.’ As she travels to Rwanda and other places, this coming to ‘a recognition of common humanity’ in both sides of a reconciliation process has become a recurrent experience.
Jo makes no claims that, these days, she is ‘above’ getting angry and hurting people. ‘I still get angry and want to blame someone else,’ she said. But she tries to focus on learning to recognise the anger and change her response. ‘All feelings are understandable,’ she says, ‘what matters is what we do with them…Some people have to do a lot of emotional work…it can be really hard.’ She clearly knows!
So has Jo Berry’s experienced forgiveness? She claims she is still learning. In fact she has doubts about the use of the word ‘forgiveness’. She believes it suggests a power imbalance between the ‘forgiver’ and the ‘forgiven’. Her concern is for the development of a community which moves from having power over others to sharing and working together.
For people from a church background where ‘being right’ or ‘knowing the truth’ often seems so important, what Jo said about being ‘righteous’ was particularly interesting. As a spiritual but non-religious person, Jo works for a community where all needs are met and where people give up being what she calls ‘righteous’. ‘When people are ‘righteous’ they think they are right and blame others,’ she says. In the world that Jo Berry dreams of, whether we are believers or not, everyone can find their own way to give up blaming and punishing people. What we need is to learn to see people in their full humanity. ‘What we need are safe places around the country where people listen and offer dignity and respect to each other. What we need is ‘a policy of cups of tea with the other’, she said.
Cups of tea with ‘the other’ sounds like a fairly easy assignment until you imagine it happening between some of the groups Jo has in mind: Muslim women and leaders of the National Front, Brexiteers and Remainers, victims and perpetrators of abuse - you get the picture!
So the questions I’ve been asking myself since the lecture are something like this: Why is ‘seeing people in their full humanity’ so difficult – especially for religious people? How come the church is not at the forefront of such attempts? What might we learn from professional peace-makers like Jo Berry?