In 1989 the African National Congress transitioned to power in South Africa and in 19996, they created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was the first ever of its kind – at least on a large national scale. It was, in my opinion, an evolutionary and a revolutionary move. One that shifted away from a focus on those who committed to crimes, to the victims of those crimes. It was also a shift from retribution and revenge to healing, compassion and reconciliation.
Our own country will need a similar process if we are to move forward together. We will need a process that allows us, as a country, to see the harm that has been caused to some many people, so many families. We must find a way to stop pointing fingers and laying blame if we are to find common ground and seek solutions to the major crisis we face as a nation and as a global community.
In South Africa, the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to hear testimony (stories) from thousands of people who were affected by sometimes egregious, human rights violations during the period of apartheid set up by the white South African government. The Commission used a restorative process to find out the truth and to heal the damage, not to lay blame or even to punish.
In the years since the Commission completed the bulk of its work and issued a full report, the government of South Africa has, for the most part, created and sustained a stable and prosperous nation. I wonder if such stability would have been possible if they had used the traditional “winner take all” revenge model. One of the results of the Commission was a list of the stages of reconciliation. These stages while written specifically by the Commission for healing in South Africa, offer us wonderfully clear guidelines on why reconciliation is necessary in any community. The guidelines also offer a process by which reconciliation can occur. I offer these 7 guidelines, as written by the Commission, along with some of my own comments about them in the belief that they can be adapted to any community or relationship to facilitate reconciliation:
The work of the Commission dispels the ‘myth that things can be done with magic dust, to bring people together and then they just start working together. There are stages, actually, in reconciliation.
The following stages or signposts on the reconciliation road have been highlighted by [the Commission]:
- Reconciliation does not come easily. It requires persistence. It takes time.
Healing never comes quickly. It always takes time, persistence, and patience. Healing deep wounds can take years we must be willing to continue to participate in the healing process, even if it seems it will take forever.
Seeking reconciliation with a power greater than ourselves is one of the ways we can work together to heal the earth. This greater power reminds us that we are all part of a greater whole. Each of us has an important place and healing the whole comes as we work to heal the our own wounds and wounds between us.
- Reconciliation is based on respect for our common humanity.
Reconciliation asks us to find balance and to do so with a compassionate heart. Part of the purpose of the Commission was to restore the humanity to those who had been accused of grievous violations of human rights. By acknowledging the humanity of those involved in any act which causes pain, we can begin to see that are capable of these kinds of actions. With that basic human understanding we find forgiveness and compassion is easier to express.
It is very easy and very tempting to strip away the humanity of those who cause us pain. They become the animal, the hooligan, the sick-o, the monster, the pervert. By dehumanizing someone, we remove our responsibility. Our responsibility to see them as human beings. Our responsibility to see them through the eyes of compassion. Our responsibility to see that all human beings are capable of these same kind of acts.
Reconciliation requires us to be in relationship with those who caused us harm. It requires us to see their humanity- in an ‘I –Thou’ relationship. It requires us to treat them, at the very least, with dignity and respect.
- Reconciliation involves a form of restorative justice which does not seek revenge, nor does it seek impunity. In restoring the perpetrator to society, a milieu needs to emerge within which he or she may contribute to the building of democracy, a culture of human rights and political stability.
“Reconciliation meant that perpetrators … must be given the opportunity to become human again. [A woman], whose son was killed by the police … confirmed this crucial insight. … [She] was asked how she saw the notion of reconciliation. She responded as follows:
‘What we are hoping for when we embrace the notion of reconciliation is that we restore the humanity to those who were perpetrators. We do not want to return evil by another evil. We simply want to ensure that the perpetrators are returned to humanity.’
Someone from the Commission asked: ‘Many people in this country would like to see perpetrators going to prison and serving long sentences. What is your view on this?’
‘In my opinion, I do not agree with this view. We do not want to see people suffer in the same way that we did suffer, and we did not want our families to have suffered. We do not want to return the suffering that was imposed upon us. So, I do not agree with that view at all. We would like to see peace in this country. I think that all South Africans should be committed to the idea of re-accepting these people back into the community. We do not want to return the evil that perpetrators committed to the nation. We want to demonstrate humaneness towards them, so that they in turn may restore their own humanity.”
This notion of returning the perpetrator to the community is one that is difficult because we do not currently have a system that allows for repair of harm and reconciliation. It means that we accept and acknowledge that even those who have committed crimes and harmed others have something to offer to the community. We recognize that their experience, through the lens of reconciliation and rehabilitation, is valuable and can help change a community and heal it. Not all perpetrators can or should be returned to the community- there are some who cannot hear their conscience, who cannot accept responsibility or accountabilty for their action- but this means that we need to continue to work with them toward that end.
- The full disclosure of truth and an understanding of why violations took place encourage forgiveness. …
An entire country was given the chance to clear out the dirty laundry of their past. They were given the chance to hear how their actions impacted one another. And they were given an opportunity to apologize and take responsibility for those actions. No doubt there were some who felt they got away with something- but I suspect they were really very few in number. I find it hard to believe that anyone could have been unmoved by the honesty, the depth and the emotion expressed in the testimony provided. That testimony gave voice to the voiceless. And, by listening to the stories of those who harmed others, we see a fuller picture of their actions. We gather a greater understanding of all those involved opening our hearts to the possibility of compassion.
- Reconciliation does not wipe away the memories of the past. Indeed, it is motivated by a form of memory that stresses the need to remember without debilitating pain, bitterness, revenge, fear or guilt. It understands the vital importance of learning from and redressing past violations for the sake of our shared present and our children’s future.
We can hold the memories with a sense of closure and finality that need not find its way into future generations. We can acknowledge that our own resentment need not become our children’s resentment. We do not need to feed hatred to our children as a way of continuing the pain of the past.
- Reconciliation does not necessarily involve forgiveness. It does involve a minimum willingness to co-exist and work for the peaceful handling of continuing differences. …
Like the previous guideline, reconciliation is not about forgiving and forgetting. It is about remembering and still allowing for the possibility of change and growth. Each us can learn from our past actions and mistakes and holding our hearts open to that is essential to reconciliation.
In our own communities, this ability to co-exist and work for peaceful handling of continuing differences is vital. We do not all share the same understandings, nor do we all share the same political leanings. Holding an attitude of respect for one another and for our differences is part of what allows us to live and work together. Our use of the democratic process supports this co-existence through the democratic process of meetings, discussion, and debate.
- Reconciliation requires a commitment, especially by those who have benefited and continue to benefit from past discrimination, to the transformation of unjust inequalities and dehumanizing poverty.
This is about a commitment to change- to realize that oppression affects us all in negative ways; to recognize that when any people are oppressed, or treated badly, we are all diminished. The injustice affects us all. We see this in our own county, where so very many people are living below the poverty level. Their oppression affects us, and causes us to react. The general effects of poverty are felt by all of us. A system that permits such inequities can be fertile ground for reconciliation if there is a will to seek it. Those in, or with power, must give something up to gain the far greater benefit that reconciliation has to offer. Holding power allows one the illusion of safety and security but in truth, it limits ones ability to share fully in life. Fear of loosing power and the repercussions that might follow can be debilitating.
Reconciliation takes time, and requires a respect for humanity. It is about restorative justice- not revenge. It seeks a full disclosure of truth, and asks us to learn from and redress the past. Reconciliation does not always require forgiveness- but does require a willingness to co-exist peacefully as human beings on this planet. It requires a commitment to change, knowing that the future can offer something far greater than the past.