Like mushrooms in a field, death and suffering have emerged in different parts of the world, reflecting the effects of ethnic, racial, religious and economic conflicts of inequitable distribution of power and resources. The growing awareness of the ambivalence of religion in situations of conflict has led the churches on a quest to retrieve those elements of their belief system and traditions that contribute toward the advancement of peace with justice. In that context, they repudiate the use of religious symbols and language to legitimize violence.
Violence is an attitude and an act rooted in personal and communal fragmentation, and is traced back to distorted, oppressive, abusive, unjust and uncharitable relations. It is advanced by human ideologies, personal or collective. Violence is a paradoxical beast. Its civilized name is “coercion.” Society uses coercion to legitimize its social agencies and to sustain order. Since the dawn of modernity, the State has held a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion. Others use coercion illegitimately as they either attempt to establish a different social order that rectifies the alleged or actual injustices of the State or use violence to impose their own self-serving and capricious state of being. However, coercion never succeeds in establishing the perfect social order. It is an ambivalent force of social integration as well as disintegration. Thus, the process of ordering life in society and redistributing power and resources is forever contested and this will have no end. Christian theology does not attribute any ultimate significance to this understanding of history as conflict and contestation. It signifies the “not yet” of Christian eschatology. Adopting a harmonious view of history is a hasty jump into the eschaton. The use of violence and the committing of cruelties are greatly facilitated as people in conflict develop justifications for their neighbor’s pain. Such justifications provide them with moral insensitivity that justifies the use of brutality.
Violence ruptures personal and communal webs of meaning. The perpetrators of violence impose upon their victims a narrative of domination that favors the perpetrators interests and structure of reality. This is the key to maintain violent control. The narrative of domination is violently imposed as the truth if the original narrative of life is successfully suppressed or at least co-opted. Violence inflicts physical pain upon its victims and suffering as it destroys their system of meaning. Their resistance against the violent narratives of domination occurs when they link their suppressed narrative of life to a much larger narrative that does not ignore the effects of violence upon their lives. Reconciliation and forgiveness occurs whenever the victims of violence discover and embrace a redeeming narrative that liberates them from the seductive and cunning power of domination.
Christian churches provide an expansive narrative of life that liberates people from the oppressive structures of domination that perpetrators of violence have imposed upon them. This is encoded in the principle of reconciliation and forgiveness. These principles are grounded in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus and embodied in the lives of the saints. The applications of these principles to the public life requires the acknowledgment that reconciliation and forgiveness may be high jacked by the perpetrators of violence, and requires the recognition of the deep wounds of those victims of violence. There are at least three understandings of reconciliation that come close to the genuine meaning of reconciliation but distort and even falsify its true meaning. These are: reconciliation as a hasty peace; reconciliation instead of liberation; and reconciliation as a managed process.
Reconciliation as a process takes time – time that can make the participants feel insecure, but time that is necessary nonetheless for beginning a new life. Reconciliation is a process and a way of life with an eschatological horizon that cannot be foreshortened by circumventing history. It requires respecting - and often restoring – the human dignity of the victims of violence. Furthermore, reconciliation cannot occur without recognizing the sources of conflict and initiating a process that liberates the victims of violence from the structures of domination. The struggle against injustice is part of the genuine pursuit of reconciliation. Finally, reconciliation cannot be confused with conflict mediation, a process whose goal is to lessen conflict or to get the parties to accept and live with situations of conflict.
Reconciliation in Christian theology is the enduring gift of God to believers and the Church’s enduring mission to the world. It refers to a healing of division and the beginning of a process towards genuine communion of the whole creation with God, which finds expression in the communion of people with nature and each other. It addresses both personal and communal needs for healing, the restoration of broken social relationships and the relearning of how to live together in peace and mutual trust. In whatever ways the Church acts to bring about reconciliation, it enacts its deepest truth as the sacrament of Jesus Christ and fulfills its Christ-given mission to all people, believers and unbelievers alike.
Reconciliation is the master narrative that inspires, guides, and shapes the involvement of the churches in societies ravaged by serious violation of human rights, divided by inter-ethnic conflicts, or broken apart by countries. It translates into the shaping of cultural sensibilities that help people live in a humane way in this world of strife – a world of conflict over scarce goods between actors who hold varying degrees of power.
Embracing the Other
Reconciliation plants in people’s hearts and in the public life the will to embrace the others unconditionally in their irreducible difference. As Miroslav Volf points: “the will to give ourselves to others and welcome them, to readjust our identities, to make space for them is prior to any judgment about other. It is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is no possibility to heal divisions, to overcome violence and contribute towards the creation of a culture of peace if we allow the demonization of the others which results in the suppression of their irreducible differences through ethnic cleansings, genocides, religious persecutions, imprisonments, and acts of terror.
In an inescapably unjust and discordant world, the only hope that we have to attain a potential, tenuous convergence on what is just must be grounded on the will to embrace the other. If such a will does not exist, then each conflicting party will insist on the justness of its cause and will continue indeterminably in its violent conflict until the death or suppression of the other, thus perpetuating violence and fragmentation in the name of justice, since there is too much injustice in a uncompromising struggle for justice. The will to embrace and affirm the humanity of the others despite their apparent irreducible differences provides the basis for discerning in the others whatever is right or just in their causes and actions. Conversely, if exclusion becomes the basis for being in contact with the other, then primacy is given to whatever rightly or wrongly is named as unjust in the others that does permit any positive relation with them.
The indiscriminate love for all does not, under any circumstances, imply that justice must be sacrificed or overlooked for the sake of peace. Quite the contrary, it demands that one be attentive to issues of justice, seeking to transform oppressive relationships into just relationships by contributing towards the creation of a genuine human community in an imperfect world of inescapable injustice. This cannot be done without hearing the cries of those whose humanity and dignity have been violently taken away by the destructive and violent forces of oppression. The process of reconciliation never comes to a closure, since all responses to collective atrocities and violence are incomplete and inescapably inadequate. The churches in their solidarity with the victims of history infuses upon those victims, as wells as upon the perpetrators of violence, a new outlook of life grounded in God’s love that liberates them from their alienated state of being. It shapes the broader cultural habits and expectations that make peaceful solutions to situations of conflict possible.
This paper was presented at The Second International Forum on Universality and Culture in the Globalization Era, held in Nicosia, Cyprus, May 2-5, 2003