Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

JPT Practice #4: Acknowledge Responsibility/Seek Repentance-Forgiveness

Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness. Seldom is all the blame for a war or conflict only on one side. Acknowledge the wrongs your side has done and repent and seek forgiveness. This invites reciprocation and healing. It used to be believed that only individuals can repent or forgive; groups and nations could not, nor ever acknowledge any wrongdoing without appearing weak. To the contrary, such repentance has often led to healing and failure to do so has led to resentments and future wars.

The modern beginnings of this practice come in the midst of WWII: The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer prepared a confession of sin for the Confessing Church (German Protestants that resisted the Nazi movement) for not having done enough to stop the rise of Hitler, the war, or the Holocaust. Bonhoeffer paid for his own resistance by being executed at Flossenburg in the final days of the war. But after the war, his confession was used by German Protestants publicly at a meeting of the newly formed World Council of Churches. That led German Chancellor Willie Brandt to lead the nation in a similar confession (though Brandt himself, like Bonhoeffer, had resisted Hitler. The result has been a transformation of post-war Germany.

When U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton apologized to Africa for the U.S.’ role in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, it helped open the continent to greater U.S. influence.

The experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission greatly strengthened this practice and many nations are using it as a model. Similar committees have been set up in Liberia, the former Yugoslavia, and Argentina. Such processes break the cycle of one conflict sowing the seeds of resentment and hatred for future conflicts. When such processes do not occur, such horrors as Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, where resentments were nurtured for decades or even centuries and then break out into new eras of genocidal destruction.

Or consider how the Treaty of Versailles placed the entire blame for WWI on Germany, at France’s insistence, when everyone knew there was plenty of blame to go around. In Germany, it created such resentment that it opened the doors for the rise of Hitler. In France and Britain, this injustice created guilt and shame that then, in turn, led to great blindness to Hitler’s threat and permitted Germany to re-arm and then to the strategy of appeasement–which was not Chamberlain’s alone but widely shared. (Even FDR cabled Chamberlain after Munich with two words, “Good job!”) If the Treaty of Versailles had been just in its peace settlement and if the victors of WWI had led everyone else in acknowledging responsibility for their part of the war, had led in repentance, would Hitler have found such a ready audience in Germany? Or, if he did begin to rise to power, would the West, free from paralyzing guilt and shame, seen his threat more accurately early on and been able to oppose it early to far less disastrous results?

At the 50 year anniversaries of Pearl Harbor and of Hiroshima, citizens in Japan and the U.S. urged the Japanese Prime Minister and U.S. Pres. George H.W. Bush both to confess and apologize for each nation’s crimes against the other. Both refused, the occasions were used only to reinforce each nation’s respective self-righteous pride and two historic chances for sowing stronger seeds of peace were missed.

Again, do not misunderstand: acknowledging the role one’s own group or nation has played in injustice or conflict is not the same as accepting falsely sole responsibility. Nor is it failing to hold the adversary to account for its injustices and violence. But repentance begins at home.

For more on this just peacemaking practice see, Donald W. Shriver, Jr., An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995) & Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Image, 2000).


September 15, 2006 - Posted by | forgiveness, just peacemaking

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