(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

After slaughter, torture, and organized oppression, how can nations heal? Is the Christian gospel of reconciliation at all relevant in the political arena? Does God’s promise of redemption and salvation have any meaning during the messy transition to democracy or during reconstruction of fractured nations? John W. de Gruchy, a political theologian, wrestles with these questions in a study of reconciliation and its relation to restorative as opposed to retributive justice. Personal experience of entrenched racism and institutionalized oppression of non-Europeans during the apartheid regime in South Africa informs his analysis. He contextualizes theological ideas by considering the rationale for and the limitations of hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after the dissolution of apartheid. His ideas are relevant for peacemakers in other countries struggling with reconstruction after periods of atrocities, such as genocide in Rwanda, sectarianism in Northern Ireland, or ethnic cleansing in Serbia.

Reconciliation is organized around three major topics: the language of reconciliation, agency or the role of the church as an instrument of reconciliation, and the process of reconciliation. De Gruchy explains that when people speak of reconciliation, meaning depends on the context. If the context is theological, reconciliation is between fallen humans and God; if personal, it is between people, such as feuding neighbors or spouses; if social, it is among local groups, such as in schools with troubled relations; and if political, it is among larger groups such as victims of apartheid, perpetrators of abuse, and bystanders. In all cases, reconciliation involves a restoration of social relationships by overcoming enmity and abuse.

Ambiguity arises when meaning shifts with context or when the language of victims and perpetrators differs. For example, de Gruchy states, in South Africa, eleven official languages exist. Reconciliation for some black South Africans means restoration of identity, whereas for some white Afrikaners it means restoration of justice or the promise of amnesty. The many meanings of...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2002. Surveys efforts worldwide to rebuild countries by examining patterns of past human rights abuses and by giving voices to victims.

Kelly, Geffrey B., and F. Burton Nelson, eds. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rev. ed. New York: HarperSanFranciso, 1995. Excerpts from the works of Bonhoeffer, a martyred theologian who resisted the Nazis. He believed that Christians are called to work for social justice as disciples of Christ. Useful essays by the editors introduce each section.

Krog, Antjie. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. New York: Times Books, 1999. A wrenching record of apartheid victims confronting perpetrators in public hearings. Will help readers understand forgiveness as moral courage.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Image/Doubleday, 1999. Winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize and former Anglican archbishop, Tutu describes his role as chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.