Last week, we explored the theme of reconciliation. We remembered that Scripture assumes our sinfulness and thus our need for forgiveness from God and others. We explored how forgiveness often requires us to forget the pain we experience when we are wronged. We noticed how difficult it is to forgive those who are notoriously destructive of community. And we observed that the Christian faith trusts that it is ultimately God who is reconciling us to himself and one another. To conclude our series on reconciliation, I thought that we could examine a real-world example that illustrates many of these features of reconciliation.
One of the great injustices of the recent past was South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation known as apartheid. The system organized South Africa’s population into racial categories and separated the population on the basis of these labels. Established in 1948, apartheid was designed to keep the Afrikaner-dominated National Party in power essentially by removing the majority from the political equation. Under apartheid, the government segregated residential areas, education, medical care, and a variety of other public services, to the end that South Africa’s majority black population was relegated to second-class status. The government’s intractable support of racial segregation led to constant internal strife, occasional violence, and outcries from the international community. Apartheid was officially repealed in 1990, but it was not until 1994 that multi-racial elections were finally held, sweeping Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress into power.
The end of apartheid left South Africa with a challenging question: what was the new leadership supposed to do about the wound that apartheid and its supporters had inflicted on the country? Millions of people had been treated unjustly for more than forty years; everyone agreed that something had to be done. One option would have been to enact retribution and punish those responsible for subjugating the black majority. This would have at least given the appearance of justice. Instead, South Africa chose a far more difficult and a far more controversial path forward. In 1995, the government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu designed to give those who had been victimized an opportunity to tell their stories and those had committed injustices an opportunity to confess their crimes. The most astonishing part of the TRC is the fact that it offered amnesty to those who had participated in apartheid’s work of subjugation and injustice. For the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the most important part of their work was to allow the truth to be told and to find a way forward for a country that had been divided for so long. The TRC’s primary purpose, in other words, was reconciliation.
Some of those who criticize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission complain that people who had confessed to crimes were not punished; others worried that the “truth” was obscured by the spectacle of the Commission’s work. While these concerns might have some legitimacy, the reality is that South Africa could have descended into racially motivated violence after the end of apartheid as those who had been oppressed sought vengeance on their oppressors. Instead, South Africa engaged in an process of seeking reconciliation and restoration, enabling the country to move forward. Archbishop Desmond Tutu summarized that reconciliation presents: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
I can’t help but believe that part of the reason for the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that its leader trusted that it was God who was reconciling people who had been estranged from each other for so long. Archbishop Tutu trusted Jesus Christ’s mandate to forgive those who sin against us because he knew that it was the only way his country could move forward. And ultimately, Archbishop Tutu understood that it is only by engaging in the hard work of reconciliation that we can begin to hope for transformation.