Reconciliation as a Political Function

Published on 16th February 2009

Like other areas of human life, politics on human terms is dominated by strife, control, slavery, aggression and retaliation, restriction and segregation, abuse, lies and self-glorification. Africa is doted with spots of untold suffering stirred up by unjust political policies. Disasters in Darfur, Somalia and Rwanda in recent history serve as reminders to this reality. Examples abound where the church has had a hand in atrocities against humanity. There is great need for Christians to have a correct outlook to politics if their involvement is to be found worthy. This outlook ought to be realized in service, humility, obedience to the law and justice of God and diligently work at peace and reconciliation in the redemptive rule of God.


Norman Taggat in “Christian Perspectives on Reconciliation” (ECONI, 8 Nov. 1998) defines reconciliation and gives its biblical basis in the context of politics.He defines reconciliation as a multi-faceted response to alienation sought in different ways and at different levels. It is a way of relating positively to those who are different, and a restoring of broken relationships. It is to want the other person or group to be included instead of ignoring, dominating or destroying them. Reconciliation is taking ‘the other’ seriously, entering into communication with them and being willing to share power, responsibilities and resources. It requires a determination to go beyond the ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ of a situation, clear a space so that attempts can be made to grow into new, sensitive and creative relationships.  Allowing people to tell their stories and listening to them is a vital part of the process of reconciliation.


Politically, reconciliation is not a way of evading real change. It is not dwelling on the cracks in a divided and unjust society, crying ‘peace’ when the causes of conflict have not been candidly examined. Personally and politically, the road to reconciliation is likely to be hard and demanding. It is a long journey in which each step is important. It requires taking risks and making efforts to face reality, hurt, allow time for the healing of wounds and to reach agreements.


From a Christian point of view, reconciliation involves the naming and confessing of wrongs. It is a call to repentance, forgiveness, and a willing determination to put things right. It is not, as some suggest, a secondary issue, a diversion for example from the task of preaching. Working for reconciliation, finding ways of living together is central, not peripheral, to our work and witness as Christians. Reconciliation is Christ’s will for a relationship or a society under stress. It is a way of regarding and experiencing salvation.


In the Bible, reconciliation is wide-ranging. It is primarily about persons. People are reconciled by taking seriously the problems that cause alienation. God, by grace, removes the enmity and alienation caused by sin. Grace is the basis of reconciliation. Through the death of Jesus Christ, God first puts sinners right with himself. Secondly, the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slave and free, male and female is destroyed. The principle of equality is thus established in Scripture. And thirdly, there is a cosmic dimension to reconciliation. God acts in response to the disorder in creation as a whole, to reconcile ‘all things to Himself.’ God is the author of reconciliation, Christ is its agent and the Holy Spirit provides limitless resources for breaking stubborn barriers that separate us such as race, tribe, gender, age, culture, stereotypes, and language among others. Followers of Christ are entrusted with this ministry of reconciliation.[1] The gospel makes it a priority for Christians, wherever they may be found, to reach out in pursuit of reconciliation even with those labelled as enemies.


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up to investigate crimes committed during the apartheid era in South Africa is perhaps the best example in Africa of the working out of reconciliation as a Christian political principle. It has been described as an instrument of transition, bridging the gap between the oppression and human rights abuses of the past and the new democratic order. It was set up under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 1995. The TRC was charged with the task of investigating and providing “…as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights committed during the period from 1 March 1960 to the cut-off date contemplated in the Constitution…”


Hearing begun in April 1996 and completed it work in July 1998. It was chaired by the most Reverend Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Archbishop of Cape Town.


To attain its mandate the commission oversaw three committees dealing with human rights violations, reparations and amnesty i.e. the Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee, Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee and Amnesty Committee (AC). The Human Rights Violations Committee established the identity of the victims, their fate or present whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they suffered; and whether the violations were the result of deliberate planning by state or any other organization, group or individual. Once victims were identified, they were referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee.


The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was empowered to provide victim support to ensure that the process restores the human and civil dignity of any victim and to formulate policy proposals and recommendations on rehabilitation and healing of survivors, their families and communities at large. The envisaged overall function of all recommendations was to ensure non-repetition, healing and healthy co-existence. A President’s Fund was established to pay urgent interim reparation to victims. People who had suffered gross human rights abuses were acknowledged by providing them with reparation. These measures could not bring back the dead, or adequately compensate for pain and suffering, but they could improve the quality of life for victims and/or their dependants. This was perhaps a bigger vision of victim support than has been available hitherto.


The primary function of the Amnesty Committee was to ensure that applications for amnesty were done in accordance with the provisions of the Act. Being granted amnesty for an act meant that the perpetrator is free from prosecution for that particular act. Priority was given to truth and forgiveness over punishment. The Commission underscored that justice is not just retributive and punitive in nature. It assumed another kind of justice – restorative justice which is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances and restoring broken relationships. This is the kind of justice God deals with us through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable that the South African government of National Unity accepted to be fully involved in a complex act of repentance.


The principles of impartiality were meticulously observed by the work of ‘special investigations’ (TRC Final Report, Vol.2, Ch.5.) This reflected positively on the call on Christians to be selfless in reconciliation and peacemaking by avoiding divisive party politics. The most serious culprit of apartheid was the South African government. In application of the policy of apartheid, the state sought to protect the power and privilege of racial minority. Racism therefore constituted the motivating core of the South African political order in the apartheid period. Kader Asmal in Reconciliation Through Truth: A Reckoning of Apartheid’s Criminal Governance (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 1997) reckons that institutionalised racism began as early as the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910 noted in the Land Act of 1913 and in the earlier vicious Pass Laws.


During this period there occurred horrendous forms of economic exploitation, social exclusion and political injustice. These injustices were mainly upheld by the white population against non-whites especially blacks. Liberation movements such as African National Congress (ANC), Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), Azanian National Liberation Army (ANLA), and Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) among others were held accountable for violations of human rights as were various institutions among them the business community, faith community, legal community, prisons department, health sector and the media.


Reconciliation as a Christian political principle as demonstrated in the South African situation is applicable in other African states where warring between peoples occur. These principles indicate first, that reconciliation at the social as well as the personal level requires justice from offenders and forgiveness from victims. Second, that the offer of forgiveness by victims encourages repentance and making of amends by offenders. Third, that forgiveness is vital in the whole process of reconciliation. Each party is called to recognize three things: its own failings, the sacredness of the other, and the primacy of love. Christ’s forgiveness prompts our repentance and enables us to forgive one another. Through Christ, we forgive those who have wronged us and make amends to those whom we have wronged.


Reconciliation is crucial because the past cannot be wished away. It does not come easily by glibly declaring that we should let bygones be bygones. The past refuses to lie down quietly but return with ugly results. It has an uncanny habit of returning to haunt both victims and perpetrators. In the words of Professor Kader Asmal on his installation as professor of human rights law at the University of Western Cape on 25th May 1992:


We must take the past seriously, as it holds the key to the future. The issues of structural violence, or unjust and inadequate economic social arrangement, of balanced development in future cannot be properly dealt with unless there is a conscious understanding of the past.


And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, quoting words inscribed at the entrance to the museum in the former concentration camp of Dachau said, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”. He advised that though it may be a painful experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester but instead must be opened, cleansed and applied with balm so they can heal. This is not to be obsessed with the past but rather it is to take care that the past is properly dealt with for the sake of the future. Although the South African case was unique given unique historical circumstances, TRC opened up new frontiers for warring people wherever they may be found. Although replicating this model for political action elsewhere would need some improvements with the benefit of hindsight, the principles of openness, honesty and truth are foundational in bringing about reconciliation. It is proper for Christians to endeavour to promote reconciliation. As Alan Storkey in Towards Christian Democracy (London: CSP, 1990) states, ‘Christ’s teaching, example and sacrifice is a fundamental route to reconciliation of these animosities in ourselves and others.’


 By Rev. Ben Shikwati

Africa Institute of Contemporary Missions and Research


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