Reconciliation: Restoring Justice

January 16, 2008 at 10:41 pm Leave a comment

Reconciliation: Restoring Justice. John W. De Gruchy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002

At the heart of John Wesley de Gruchy’s exploration of the relationship between the politics of reconciliation and the Christian doctrine of reconciliation (based on his Hulsean lectures given at the University of Cambridge in 2002) lies what De Gruchy calls “Apartheid’s Surprise” (10). The relatively peaceful Dr. John Wesley de Gruchytransition from 34 years of codified racial and ethnic ‘separate development’ in South Africa to democracy marks its official beginning on April 27th 1994, but it is the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that de Gruchy uses as the reference point for his discussion on the practical theology of reconciliation. But why South Africa? She was not the first country to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Why, then, does she continue to receive so much attention?

How Dare We Speak of Reconciliation?

The TRC, officially sanctioned under the terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, received the mandate to find the truth of Apartheid by focussing on a particular period of South African history between the years of 1960 through 1994. This became the focus of the Human Rights Violations Committee who bore witness to the atrocities committed during Apartheid. It was the work of the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, however, that caught the attention of the international community. Quite unlike previous Truth Commissions, the TRC, while engaging in the necessary recording of human rights abuses, moved to formalizing sequential processes that involved the bold attempt to restore dignity to victims and offer rehabilitation to perpetrators, including the possibility of amnesty for truth-telling. “The goal of the TRC,” notes de Gruchy, “was defined in terms of the future” (12) and relied on the primary discourse of the Christian tradition of retelling painful events whereby “. . . victims of oppression were able to enter the process of remembrance and healing, and perpetrators came face to face with their guilt, acknowledged or not, and therefore with an opportunity for change” (23). It is through this retelling of painful, de Gruchy argues, that ‘master narratives’ like that of colonial and Apartheid South Africa become “. . . undermined, contradicted and replaced by the story of struggle, suffering and the ‘miracle story’ of transition to democracy” (23). The ethos of “story telling” in the Jewish and Christian traditions provides the best context for speaking about reconciliation: “For many centuries, long before theologians attempted to construct theories or redemption or atonement, the ‘doctrine’ of reconciliation was narrated, proclaimed and celebrated as the story of God’s salvation” (12).

de Gruchy reviews some of the inherent flaws and challenges in the methodology of the TRC: for some, it was too Christian in its orientation, method and vocabulary, problematic for critics who saw diverse Christianities in outright disagreement over what ‘reconciliation’ means, and a Christian faith that carried the corporate burden of, for example, its atrocities in the Crusades and through European colonization (15, 117). Faried Esack, a progressive Muslim theologian, feared the TRC might fail because of the “. . . ‘unbounded’ grace of [Archbishop Desmond Tutu] its chair.” Reconciliation, Esack argues, “is premised on truth, but reconciliation is not only premised on truth, reconciliation is also premised on justice” (123). A Jewish political analyst, quoting Emmanuel Levinas, declared “Yes, Judaism believes in compassion, but Judaism holds out the proposition that to posit infinite pardon is to posit an infinite temptation to evil” (123). Antjie Krog, the Afrikaner prose writer who scandalized the Afrikaner community with her call for racial unity in 1970, questioned the use of the word “reconciliation” in the context of a country where there is ” . . . nothing to go back to, no previous state or relationship one would wish to restore (14).”

And yet, de Gruchy, suggests, the TRC has been a remarkable catalyst for attempting to deal with both history and future. The very process of truth-telling, he suggests, has raised a wide range of issues that call for further work. It has also, he contends, reopened classical moral, philosophical and theological debates (13). He cites ‘moral symmetry’ (action and inaction as morally equivalent) for an example: “What is the relationship between truth-telling, justice and reconciliation in a world where moral symmetry is seldom the case?” Can one equate the violations of human rights by the perpetrators of oppression, he asks, with those of the oppressed who were engaged in a struggle for liberation? Can we speak of “corporate guilt,” he asks, or is guilt confined to individuals? (13) It is here that De Gruchy identifies the scope of his project as exploring the relationship between “. . . the politics of reconciliation and the Christian doctrine of reconciliation” (13) as illustrated through pre-apartheid South Africa, her democratic transition and national reconstruction and as evidenced in the work of the TRC. This, de Gruchy offers, is a case study for global reconciliation.

“Reconciliation” de Gruchy contends, “implies a fundamental shift in personal and power relations between former enemies” whether it be the theological reconciliation between a God and his estranged creation, the interpersonal reconciliation between divided individuals, the social reconciliation between alienated communities or the political reconciliation in countries formally divided over, for example, sectarianism or racism (25). These reconciliations, de Gruchy argues, must follow a sequence that begins in the realities of the past, tracing the landmarks of estrangement, alienation and division, witnessing the pain of the victim and the anguish of the perpetrator, and moving towards restitution, reparation and restored identity (31). Here de Gruchy highlights South Africa’s struggle over identity: “. . . the national question has to do with ‘who is African’ within the South African context (31).

Following the second and last of the Boer wars in 1902, British colonial authorities, the recollection of its concentration camps where 27,000 Boer women and children perished from blackwater fever and dysentery still strong in the national memory, made every attempt to reconcile itself with the Afrikaner nation: two settler communities would come together in a united white nation. In a response to the wholesale neglect of blacks in this unification, the African National Congress (ANC) formed in 1912 to “. . . unite all blacks, irrespective of ethnic background, in the struggle against their exclusion and deprivation (31). de Gruchy notes the formation of two nations within South Africa defined entirely by colour; Ever since the fundamental question facing South Africa has been around the relationship between the white nation “seeking to be exclusively European, and the ‘black nation’ seeking to build an inclusive African identity” (32) The rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in 1948 when Apartheid’s ideologists declared the future and security of the whites lay in segregation, not reconciliation, did little to change the dynamics forged in the white Union of 1910 (32). In 1948 Apartheid received theological sanction from the Dutch Reformed Church who decreed it to be the will of God. (32)

de Gruchy points to the Sharpville Massacre of 1960 and the banning of the ANC as the marker of the beginning of the armed struggle in South Africa. The Cottesloe Consultation, a conference of leading South African churchmen, met for the first time in Johannesburg to try to reach a common “Christian” policy on racial issues. This highly significant meeting resulted in a huge agreement between theologians (who used words like ‘justice’ ‘mission’ and ‘cooperation’) but failed to impress the Afrikaner National Party. This landmark meeting, de Gruchy contends, together with the formation of the Christian Institute in 1963 under the leadership of Beyers Naudé, marks the beginning of the church’s struggle against apartheid (33). In 1968 the South African members of the World Council of Churches published The Message to the People of South Africa, the most vigorous, unambiguous, ecumenical declaration to date: “Separate development, as apartheid was euphemistically called,” writes de Gruchy, “was categorically rejected as a ‘false gospel'” (34). (The document itself, de Gruchy contends, stands as an example of Liberal Theology (76).)

It is curious to note that in the late 70’s and early 80’s reformist policies, as pursued by P. W. Botha, the term ‘reconciliation’ was used as a guise for perpetuating the Apartheid regime’s control: the ‘mixed marriages act’ was repealed; pass-book laws were relaxed; Coloureds (descendants of the Khoi and San tribes) and Indians were given separate representation in government. These reconciliatory gestures, de Gruchy notes, did little more than plunge the country into greater turmoil and intensified the armed struggle. This time period will be remembered for its detention without trial, torture, murder, international economic sanctions and ever increasing and more desperate emergency powers.

In 1968 the Kairos Document, an anonymous (de Gruchy outs Frank Chikane in The Church Struggle in South Africa), provocative theological statement from within the townships of Soweto proposed a more radical response: reconciliation, de Gruchy notes, moved beyond mere process and became the goal of the liberation struggle; justice and the end of Apartheid became preconditions for authentic reconciliation (35). (This document remains the prime example of liberation (contextual) theology with its emphasis on the Biblical themes of justice and the preferential treatment of the poor.)

At precisely this time, De Gruchy observes, Nelson Mandela, on Robben Island, entered into secret talks with P.W. Botha to explore the possibility of negotiations. In doing so, de Gruchy sees Mandela setting in motion a “new process of possible reconciliation between white and black” (37). While some accused Mandela of ‘selling out’ and engaging in ‘cheap reconciliation’ his move underscored the goal of a democratic, non-racial South Africa: there could be no reconciliation without liberation and justice. Here de Gruchy sees Mandela’s political realism and moral integrity: “Mandela recognized the need to allow those in power to discover space in which to manoeuvre . . . without loss of face. He helped them catch a vision of a new and just South Africa with its promise not only of the liberation of the oppressed, but also the restoration of their own humanity” (37).

The final landmark De Gruchy identifies in his sequential review of the work of pre TRC reconciliation is the Hunter’s Rest Church Leaders’ Conference in Rustenberg in November of 1990 where 300 leaders (mostly middle-aged men) from eighty denominations were present. The highlight of the conference, De Gruchy notes, came when Professor Willie Jonker, breaking from a prepared speech, “. . . speaking both personally and on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church [and Afrikaners], confessed guilt for his church’s support of Apartheid, and when Archbishop Tutu spontaneously embraced Jonker in an act of vicarious acceptance and forgiveness” (38). De Gruchy returns to this theme in Part Two: Reconciliation Embodied where he speaks of the mediation of human beings, “. . . fallen and fallible, seeking to be a . . . community of ‘vicarious love” as one of the places where reconciliation becomes a reality (95).

The symbolic climax of South Africa’s negotiated settlement, de Gruchy notes, lies in the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President on 11th May 1994. For much of the world, this became the incarnational event of the miracle of Apartheid. Political analysts had long projected civil war. “The miracle” writes de Gruchy “is that within the short space of four years the spiral of violence that threatened to turn the country into an ash heap was countered” (38). This ‘miracle’, in fact, can be traced once again through a sequential path to reconciliation; late in 1993, an Interim Constitution contained this clause: ” . . . there is a need for understanding, but not for revenge, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization” (40)

The TRC rejected any call for revenge. This truth-telling, it offered, was to be an extraordinary act of generosity by a people who insist that “. . . the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth be told.” The South African Council of Churches recognized this as the “. . . creation of a space where the deeper process of forgiveness, confession, repentance, reparation and reconciliation [could] take place (40). This process, de Gruchy notes, was not without its detractors. The TRC vision came out of a religious context, a Christian ethos, with a specific Christian doctrine at its core. In the absence of a clearly articulated and agreed upon definition of ‘reconciliation’ the ensuing rhetoric became highly politicized: “Those who wanted to forget the past spoke of the need for reconciliation as though it was coterminous with moral amnesia. Right-wing conservatives spoke of reconciliation as an impossible dream and clung to their apartheid ideals.” (42). While uncovering the truth of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past would lead to the promotion of national reconciliation and the reality of a constitutional state, it could not fulfil the hopes of those who placed a greater hope in a new and democratic South Africa for huge improvements in water, electricity, sanitation, education, employment, safety and protection. As Thabo Mbeki wrote in his address at the opening debate on Reconciliation and Nation Building in 1998 ( four years into its new democracy), “South Africa remains “two nations, the one white and relatively prosperous, and the other black and poor” (42). In the original article, Mbeki goes on to say “The abolition of the apartheid legacy will require considerable effort over a considerable period of time.”

Reconciliation in Christian Tradition

“Atonement” de Gruchy argues “describes the reuniting of God and humanity through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As such, atonement expresses but does not exhaust, the meaning of reconciliation” (45). de Gruchy goes on to equate the doctrine of ‘reconciliation’ as interchangeable with the descriptors of ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption.’

The doctrine of reconciliation is found in what de Gruchy calls the “explanatory myth” of redemption: Humankind is created to be in covenantal relationship with God, partners with God to manage God’s world. “Faithful stewardship” writes de Gruchy “is the first presupposition of the doctrine of reconciliation” (48). The second presupposition is that disobedience alienated humanity from its creator God leaving men and women estranged and ‘fallen.’ The third supposition is that God freely chooses to overcome this alienation and redeem humanity from its “bondage to sin and its consequences” (49).

The character of this “explanatory myth” moves into “historical narrative” with the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham, a matter of great significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims. (In a later chapter, de Gruchy quotes Seyyed Hossein Nasr on this shared Abrahamic tradition: “In a sense Judaism is essentially based on the fear of God, Christianity on the love of Him and Islam on the knowledge of Him, although this is only a matter of emphasis, each integral religion containing of necessity all these three fundamental aspects of the relation between man and God” italics mine) (131).

The Biblical account, de Gruchy contends, seeks to do something more than document history; it stands as a “witness” to God’s redemptive activity in history. In the Christian tradition, de Gruchy turns to Paul, the first Greek author to speak of the person offended as the one who initiates the act or the process of reconciliation; God is the one who takes initiative in seeking an end to hostility (52). Humanity enters justification through faith: a justification, de Gruchy offers, as restoring rather than punishing. de Gruchy interprets the Christian doctrine of reconciliation in social and political discussion through Paul’s teaching on reconciliation and its connection with restorative justice. He examines ways in which the doctrine of reconciliation has developed in the course of the historical development of Christian doctrines such as covenant, sin, guilt, forgiveness, vicarious suffering, grace and redemption, love, power, justice and hope. To illustrate what de Gruchy sees as “substantive connections” between the Christian doctrine of reconciliation and political reconciliation in our time, he recounts the atrocities committed at Vlakplaas in the context of vicarious sacrifice. The TRC had made frequent visits to this Apartheid torture and death camp during their deliberations, and in 2001 traditional healers, slaughtered cattle and goats in a cleansing ritual. “We are all familiar” writes De Gruchy “with the role of scapegoats who bear the brunt of oppressive power” (71). He goes on to name Steve Biko, Beyers Naudé and Nelson Mandela and identifies them as redefining “vicarious suffering.”

Reconciliation Embodied

In Part Two, de Gruchy reviews the Christian church as an instrument in enabling and embodying reconciliation in the world; the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in promoting reconciliation and social justice (3). He recalls Mozambique’s liberation from Portuguese colonial rule after nearly twenty years of war in 1974, and its ramifications for Southern Africa: Zimbabwe emerged from colonial British / Rhodesian rule in 1980, Namibia from South African control in 1990. The writing, de Gruchy suggests, was to be clearly read on South Africa’s wall by both white and black tribes.
de Gruchy draws parallels between he Christian doctrine of reconciliation and the humanist philosophy of ubuntu. The Zulu maxim “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” translates into “A person is a person through other persons.” It has no apparent religious connotations and speaks more to becoming a person by behaving with humanity. Ubuntu features prominently in the work of the TRC, particularly in the way it is used to describe the process of reconciliation, and Ubuntu is considered by many to be a founding principle, if not the founding principle, of the new Republic of South Africa. Ubuntu becomes, de Gruchy argues, a precondition in the building of community (91) and, by analogy, a “civic sacrament” in communal memory and representation (96).

Early colonial classifications of people did not focus on race but on religion, and baptism became the “civic sacrament’ through which people were not only admitted to the Church, but to civilization as exemplified in European society (97). This sacramental rite invoked the idea of new identity best illustrated in the taking of (or in many instances the assigning of) “Christian” names. Christian conversion, De Gruchy argues, became confused with deculturalization (97). (Many of the famous names associated with the struggle against Apartheid will be forever linked to Walter, Nelson and Desmond – not Ulyate, Rolihlahla and Mpilo.) While the sacrament of baptism denotes initiation into the Church, the sacrament of penance, de Gruchy notes, lead to conflicting views over the process of repentance and controversy over faith and its relation to works. “Perhaps,” writes de Gruchy “one of the reasons why some perpetrators of apartheid crimes were unable to confess their guilt and see the value in doing so was related to the lack of any spiritual formation or liturgical practice . . .” (107).

The overarching culture of the TRC was shaped and formed by a peculiar mix of colonial Christianity that finds its earliest roots in the Dutch Reformed Church in 1652 and with the arrival of the Anglicanism in the early 1800’s. It should not be surprising, then, that in 1997 the TRC commissioned the Research Institute of Christianity in Southern Africa (RICSA) to advise it on setting up special hearings for reconciliation amongst faith communities in the country to determine the role and position of religious groups during the Apartheid years. de Gruchy notes a central theme in their statements: penitence for failing to do more during Apartheid, and a commitment to working towards national reconciliation and justice in the future. “Victims, benefactors and perpetrators” de Gruchy notes “were members together in the Churches, an indication of both the failure of the Church to be a community or reconciliation, but also of its potential to help bring about national reconciliation in this post-apartheid period” (112).

Reconciliation and the Household of Abraham

In chapter four, de Gruchy presents his well-meaning and most problematic chapter on the historical relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam with a very brief attempt at understanding their relationship in South Africa and their response to the TRC. The inclusion of this chapter may stem from a self-conscious criticism that the focus of his book is thoroughly Christian in its orientation. “I am fully aware that the issues need to be explored aware [sic] of the multicultural character of virtually all societies today” de Gruchy writes in his preface, “and the dynamics of multi-faith relationships” (2). “To do justice to this wider dimension of the subject would have required a much larger volume, or, at least, a quite different format” (3).

de Gruchy makes a brief reference to the Islamic offshoot PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) and its involvement in the spiralling crisis of mob violence and urban terrorism around the time of the second democratic elections in South Africa (113). PAGAD’s bombing targets included moderate Muslims, synagogues, gay clubs and Western restaurants, most notably the 1998 bombing of Planet Hollywood. The rise of religiously inspired vigilantism following the collapse of Apartheid deserves careful review in any study of South African history. To gloss over such events promotes a suspect revisionist history that does little to advance reconciliation. I have incorporated what I found useful from de Gruchy’s chapter on Judaism, Christianity and Islam in my section under How Dare We Speak of Reconciliation. De Gruchy and his editors would have done well to reconsider their inclusion of chapter 4. Imam A. Rashied Omar, in An Islamic Experience of Religious Pluralism in Post-Apartheid South Africa, publishes revealing statistics of the religious make up of South Africa from the first demographically supervised population census conducted in 1996: Christians comprised 66.4% of the population with Muslims at 1.1% and Jews at 0.41%. These cold statistics tell us about the plurality of religion in South Africa, but they do not tell of the pluralism of religion in South Africa, i.e. the quality of religious co-existence or human interaction. What these statistics do, though, is to impress upon this writer the overwhelmingly Christian ethos in which the major players in the demise of Apartheid were formed.

Questions for discussion

In his opening chapter How Dare We Speak of Reconciliation, De Gruchy identifies himself as citizen, Christian and heir of colonial privilege (17). Do you find evidence in the text where he writes from this privileged viewpoint?

de Gruchy is a well-informed insider to the work of the TRC. Do you sense a ringing endorsement? A critical assessment?

de Gruchy reveals his central conviction in writing Reconciliation: “. . . reconciliation is about the restoration of justice, whether that has to do with our justification by God, the renewal of interpersonal relations, or the transformation of society” (2). What examples of renewal and transformation do you find in the text?

A South African contacts you via your blog. This 20 year-old woman is asking for any text books you might send to help her understand the concept of “reconciliation.” Do you send de Gruchy’s paperback off immediately? If you enclose a note with your gift, what might it say?


Entry filed under: Restorative Justice.

Reformulating and Modifying the Theory and Practice of Restorative Justice Paul Westermeyer’s Te Deum

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