A Reckoning Between Brothers
Today I would like to tell you a story of a woman named Jo Berry. Jo is the founder of Building Bridges for Peace. But her story doesn’t begin with peace. It begins with horrific violence. It begins with her father, a British MP, killed in a political bombing at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland. In her own words, this is her story*:
On October 12th 1984 my father, Sir Anthony Berry and 4 others were killed in the bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton as they attended the Conservative Party Conference. I made a personal decision just two days later, to bring something positive out of this emotionally shattering trauma and to try and understand those who had killed him. I chose to give up blame and revenge, instead taking responsibility for my pain and feelings, transforming them into passion for peace. The journey of healing began with my intention and I trusted that life would then bring me the opportunities to heal and grow. Two months later I randomly shared a taxi with a young Irish man whose brother had been in the IRA and had been killed by a British soldier. We should have been enemies. But instead we talked about a world where peace was possible and where there were no enemies. As I left the taxi, I had a flash of inspiration. This was one way I could make a difference, I could build a bridge across the divide.
The hardest bridge to build was with Patrick Magee, who was sentenced for his part in planting the Brighton bomb and released as part of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1999 (he planted the bomb that killed her father). I made enquiries from mutual friends and finally met Pat for the first time in November 2000 at a friend’s house in Dublin. My intention was to hear his story so that I could experience him as a human being rather than a faceless enemy. I was scared and had doubts, but the strongest part of me needed to see him and speak to him. I asked him many questions and shared a little about my Dad. At first he began to express his political perspective, which though I was familiar with was hard to hear but I could see he was a sensitive and intelligent person.
Then something changed. He stopped talking and said he didn’t know who he was any more, he wanted to hear my anger, my pain and what could he do to help. It was as if he had taken off his political hat and had now opened up and became vulnerable. The conversation was very different after that and a new journey started, one which we are still on. He now had a need to meet me and rediscover his lost humanity. When he planted the bomb, he was not seeing human beings in the hotel, they were just a means to an end. During our meetings, he began to develop the awareness that he had killed a human being with a soul, someone he could have sat down and had a cup of tea with. He would later say that he was disarmed by the empathy I gave him, that he would have found it easier if I had met him shouting, blaming and defending my position. I wasn’t there to argue my point; I was there to listen and experience his humanity. After three hours, I could not talk anymore and ended our meeting by thanking him for his willingness to engage with me so honestly and he said he was sorry he had killed my Dad…
Since that moment, Jo and Pat Magee have met over one hundred times for dialogue. They have spoken about reconciliation across the world in England, Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Rwanda. They talk about the roots of violence, war, and terrorism, and point people to a better way forward. Even with the pain and guilt and loss they know, even though they should be life-long enemies, Jo believes in something greater. Out of this horrific tragedy, this terrible violence and evil, Jo has brought about something good, something loving, something full of grace.
The story of Joseph and his brothers begins, like Jo’s story, with terrible evil and pain and hurt. They kidnap him and throw him into a hole in the ground. They sell him off as a slave. They think he is dead because of what they did.
At some point in their lives they all expect to have to pay for what they had done. They tell each other, “We are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen” (Gen. 42:21). Reuben says it even clearer, “So now there comes a reckoning for his blood” (Gen. 42:22).
Balancing the scales, paying back hurt for hurt. That is what is expected. That is the way the world works. That is what we often want so much, especially for our enemies. But Joseph’s heart was a lot like Jo Berry’s heart. There was something in Joseph’s heart that no longer craved vengeance and payback for his brothers. Joseph wanted something greater than that.
And so when Joseph finally shows himself to his brothers, he doesn’t payback an eye for an eye. He doesn’t kidnap them and throw them in the ground. He doesn’t lock them up. He doesn’t turn them into slaves or put them in prison. He doesn’t even send them away without food.
Instead, he embraces them. He kisses them. He weeps next to them. He calls them brothers and tells them to live with him. He offers them all the food and provisions he can. Somehow, with God’s grace, Joseph is able to not only forgive them, but welcomes these brothers who had hurt him so badly back into his life.
I am not sure I can do right now what both Jo Berry and Joseph son of Jacob did. I am not sure I could fully listen and welcome and join with someone who hurt me in the way they were hurt. I don’t know if I am that strong yet. But I believe however hard and painful and strange that may be, that reconciliation is the work of God’s kingdom.
The story of Joseph is really another telling of the Prodigal Son. But this time, instead of the older brother, the one who did right, staying away from the prodigal, not joining in the welcome, working out in the fields, this time the brother runs up with the father and embraces him too. This time the brother joins in the welcome home and the celebration that follows. This time there is healing not just between father and son, but between brothers as well.
The story of Joseph reminds us that we serve a God of grace and transformation. We serve a God who knows there is pain and evil in the world, but is working to bring healing and wholeness and love back into it. And God wants us to be a part of it too. God’s grace is powerful enough that even our worst enemies may one day be again our brothers and sisters.
In both these stories, it wasn’t just Joseph and Jo whose hearts were turned by grace. Reconciliation can never be one sided. Relationships can’t be restored if one side is still attacking and hurting the other. That is abuse, not reconciliation.
But in these two stories there is reconciliation. In those years since mistreating Joseph so badly, his brothers are no longer the same. They no longer are the attackers that Joseph knew. Their youngest brother, Benjamin, even younger than Joseph, could have been treated exactly like Joseph. After Joseph is sold into slavery, Benjamin now becomes the favorite son of Jacob. He is also born of Rachel. He is the treasured and protected one.
But with Benjamin, the brothers do a 180. They are not envious or hateful of Benjamin. They don’t attack him. Instead, they do everything they can to protect and care for him. They leave him back home the first time they come into Egypt so that he will be safe. And when they are forced to bring him back, they promise to give their own lives for his. Reuben offers his own sons for Benjamin’s protection. And right before this moment, Judah, the same Judah who talked the brothers into selling Joseph as a slave, that Judah is now offering his own life so that Benjamin’s will be spared. The hearts of these brothers have changed. They don’t carry the bitterness and envy and hate they once did. They see in Benjamin another chance to do right, another chance to love.
God gives grace and transformation not just to those who are hurt, but to those who have done evil and wrong themselves.
When he met Jo Berry, Pat Magee thought he had found a fight. He was expecting her to attack him and argue with him and denounce him. But instead she approached him in a different way, which caused his own heart to change. As he writes*:
Jo’s openness, calmness; her apparent lack of hostility – in fact her willingness to listen and to try to understand, disarmed me. Had Jo instead shown anger, however justifiable, it would for me have been easier to cope with. The political hat would have remained firmly attached. But in the presence of such composure and decency, as I said, I felt disarmed. It was a cathartic moment. As an individual I carried the heavy weight of knowing I had caused profound hurt to this woman. I expressed a need to really hear what she had to say and to help her come to terms with her loss, if that were possible:‘I want to hear your anger, to hear your pain.’
A political obligation henceforth became a personal obligation. I now realised more fully that I was guilty of something I had attributed to the other: that our enemies demonised, dehumanised, marginalised, reduced us. I began from that moment to see Jo’s father in a fuller light and to begin the process of understanding his view. I was also guilty of adhering to a reduced view and of not perceiving the other’s full humanity; instead apprehending our enemies in terms of their uniform or solely from their political colours. All that I came to admire and respect in Jo was surely due in part to his gift of values so apparent in her. And that was a measure of the loss. Jo’s loss of her father; her daughters’ loss of a grandfather. But loss also in terms of my own humanity. For war does rob combatants of something of what it is to be human, of an essential capacity to empathise and to see the world through the eyes of others.
In our world, there is a lot we say can never be healed, can never be forgiven, can never be brought back together. The story of Joseph and the story of Jo and Pat tell us differently. What was once thought dead is now alive. Who were once enemies now are united in something good. What was once broken can be healed through God’s grace. This is why Christ came and died and rose again. And this is the work Christ calls us to do. All of us know pain and hurt. All of us know sin and evil. All of us have been both those attacked and those who do the attacking. But in Christ’s kingdom, none of us are left out.
As we see racism and bigotry, inequality and injustice still very much alive in our world, we may want the scales of justice balanced. We may want an eye for an eye. But in Christ’s kingdom it will not be just victory over our enemies, it will be victory with our enemies. It will be hearts and minds transformed and changed. It will be cracks healed and bridges built. It will be us learning how to live fully with one another instead of trying to kill one another. Our hope and prayer this week is not that those who do evil will have evil done back to them. Instead, it is that they will turn from evil, turn from racism, turn from hate, and know the amazing love, the amazing grace, the amazing transformation of Jesus Christ, the one who came because God so loved the world.
And when that happens, may we have the strength and courage and love, just like Joseph and Jo Berry, to welcome them back as brothers and sisters made in God’s image. Amen.
*The words of Jo Berry and Pat Magee can be found at buildingbridgesforpeace.org. Their story is also shared at theforgivenessproject.com.