Category: What social conditions promote reconciliation?

Since the 1970s, Black History Month has been a time to focus on some of the highlights of the black experience in America. In 2009, Jonathan Bean put together a wonderful book recounting the vital role liberty played in the American black experience. In Race and Liberty In America: The Essential Reader, Bean demonstrates that from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning school assignment by race, classical liberalism differs from progressive liberalism in emphasizing freedom, Christianity, the racial neutrality of the Constitution, racial solidarity, and free enterprise. Bean recalls rich history.

For example, James Forten (1776-1842), a free black who fought in the revolutionary war became a wealth sailmaker in Philadelphia reflecting on the importance of liberty in a 1813 petition to the Pennsylvania state legislature that would have deprived free blacks of basic rights. Forten was deeply concerned about maintaining the rule of law:
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On Friday, representatives from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, including His Holiness Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus and Metropolitan Josef Michalik, President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, signed a joint message committing to further work toward reconciliation between the Russian and Polish peoples and between the two churches. (more…)

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Catherine Claire Larson, author of As We Forgive, the subject of this week’s PBR question.

I wasn’t able to include it all in my book, but I’ve been greatly impressed by the groups which are wedding reconciliation work with micro-enterprise. World Relief has an essential oil business that is enabling Hutu and Tutsi to work in reconciled community, Indego has their basket weaving enterprise that is doing the same, and Prison Fellowship Rwanda has been involved with a cattle operation, while Land of a Thousand Hills works with coffee plantations. It strikes me that by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration. I wasn’t ever able to track it down, but one of my friends shared that her college professor did his dissertation in Reconstruction era history of America. He concluded that in areas where interdependence was more vital to survival that racial reconciliation happened at a more rapid pace. Intuitively, that seems to make sense. I’d love to see the research though.

Additionally, for a very good read on how social conditions contribute to reconciliation, take a look at the book Amish Grace. It documents the Nickel Mine school shooting, along with several other acts of violence that have happened in the Amish community. What’s interesting is how that society’s normal emphasis on forgiveness creates conditions where radical grace seems to happen almost naturally. It’s an interesting case study, although obviously far removed from most social situations. But I still think there are take away lessons.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 22, 2009

main-book1Catherine Claire Larson’s book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda is an exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation in the years following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Fifteen years ago this month, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on a return trip from Tanzania, sparking widespread ethnic violence across the country. By the time the civil war was declared over on July 18, 1994, between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans had been killed.

As We Forgive tells the tale of the war through the lives of seven survivors of the genocide. “Rwanda’s wounds,” writes Larson, “are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates.” Larson’s book is a study in the personal experiences of both the perpetrators and the victims who are seeking some way to live together after such a troubled past.

Through these individual stories Larson places the reader in the recent history of Rwandan society. She writes, “One of the most haunting things about living in Rwanda after the genocide is that killers still walk among survivors.” After the commission of such unspeakable evil, how can a society survive and prosper?

The need for forgiveness is deeply personal. Many of the killers have come to regret their actions, whether soon after the deeds were done or only after years of imprisonment and reflection. But in order for reconciliation to be achieved, both the offender and the victim must seek it. A traditional system of retributive justice, in which the evil committed is simply countered by punishment, lacks many of the tools necessary to bring both parties together.

In this sense As We Forgive is a book about the practice of a different form of justice. “Restorative justice,” writes Larson, “is a process in which victim, offender, and community are involved in dialogue, mutual agreement, empathy, and the taking of responsibility. In contrast to retributive justice, restorative justice focuses on balancing harm done by the offender with making things right to the victim, and on restoring human flourishing.”

But the important thing to note is that restorative justice is not simply about changing the institutional application of criminal justice. Many of the most critical aspects of processes of restorative justice are not achieved by courts, prisons, or police. Indeed, as Larson writes, “there are ways to infuse restorative elements into already established systems or to offer such programs on a voluntary community-wide level.” Larson explores the establishment of these systems and their influence in the lives of Rwanda’s victims, especially from a perspective that emphasizes the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.

Many of the most effective organizations working toward reconciliation in Rwanda do so out of specifically Christian convictions about the nature of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The title of the book is taken from the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12).

One particular case in which this aspect of the book comes through is in the story of Claude. He was a thirteen year-old boy in 1994, when a grenade woke him from sleep and tore his world apart. Years after the end of the genocide, Claude held on hatred and lust for vengeance against those who had mutilated, hunted, and killed his family. Even while he was in school, Claude joined a group called the Survivors Club, which was intended to bring students together to share stories of their survival. But for Claude, “These tales only fanned the embers of something that had begun to burn deep within him and haunt his waking and his sleeping: revenge.”

It wasn’t until Claude became part of a different group, called Solace, that his perspective began to be transformed. “Like the Survivors Club at his school, this was a gathering of Tutsi who had managed to survive the genocide,” writes Larson. “The people who gathered were mainly divided into two groups: widows and orphans. But unlike the Survivors Club, this group sought consolation not simply from each other, but from God. Claude found that this wasn’t like being a member of an organization or society. Solace was like family to him.”

Interspersed between the seven stories of reconciliation in Rwanda are short reflective chapters that apply the moral and spiritual lessons to a North American context. Each one of us knows what it is like both to be wronged and to commit wrong against another. And therefore each one of us knows what it is like to need to forgive or to need forgiveness. While many of the wrongs we experience pale in comparison to the grisly crimes committed in those 100 days of horror fifteen years ago, these exceptional evils prove the necessity of overcoming even seemingly more banal and daily sins.

As We Forgive is a must-read for anyone interested in the recent history of Rwanda, the practice of restorative justice, or the Christian understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This review has been cross-posted at Blogcritics.org.

This year April 6th marked the 15th anniversary of beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. Catherin Claire Larson, a senior writer and editor at Prison Fellowship Ministries, has written a new book called As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, which focuses on how such wounds opened up fifteen years ago are being healed today. (Larson’s book is inspired by the award-winning film of the same name, which debuted in April 2008. Comment carried an interview with Laura Waters Hinson, the driving force behind the documentary film.)

Larson writes,

Rwanda’s wounds … are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates. In the everyday business of life—purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the ground to make urwagwa, and hauling harvested sorghum to the market—survivors commonly meet the eyes of people who shatter their former lives. How can they live together? This is not a philosophical question, but a practical one that confronts Rwandans daily.

Indeed, this question is one that impacts all of us who are called to forgive those who trespass against us just as we hope to be forgiven.

In recognition of the Rwandan genocide, Larson is conducting a blog tour to commemorate the anniversary, and the PowerBlog is honored to be the second stop on the tour over the next 100 days. Larson has already made a visit to the Dawn Treader blog and discussed the costly nature of forgiveness.

Larson’s book is a deeply moving exploration of the political, religious, and civil aspects of sin and forgiveness, told from within the context of Rwandan society. You can look forward to a full review of her book later this week.

For our stop on the As We Forgive blog tour, we’ll be exploring some of the social aspects of reconciliation, especially as related to the Rwandan situation, throughout the week. The government’s role in both the initiation of the genocide and the practice of reconciliation is an important theme in Larson’s book. One of Larson’ subjects, a Hutu man named Saveri, notes on the former point, “What brought us the conviction to commit genocide was the indoctrination of divisive ideas by bad government.” But Larson also touches on the role government can play in promoting reconciliation.

There are important theological, religious, and spiritual aspects to forgiveness as well, and the church as an institution and other ministries have important influences on the ability of a society to heal after such terrible crimes committed by neighbor against neighbor.

So too are there important economic realities at work, as a team of Acton Institute staffers found on their own recent trip to Rwanda. Larson writes, for instance, of the redemptive nature of some form of work or economic restitution as both symbolic acts of repentance and concrete acts of economic interdependence. Larson writes of Saveri’s involvement in the work of a group of volunteers who prepare the sorghum harvest for one of the surviving victims of the genocide:

Within the gate, the work itself was monotonous and dragged on from morning into the afternoon. Yet even so, it held a strange beauty. The deep crimson of the kernels, the smell of the burning fire, the way the bodies of the men and women swayed as they tossed and shook the baskets, and of course, the percussion of labor. The scene took on a symphonic quality, as the rhythmic thud of the pestle pole marked a beat and the swish of the kernels tossed up in the baskets settled into the offbeat, survivors and perpetrators creating the point and counterpoint to reconciliation’s song.

As we look forward to discussing Larson’s book and the political, economic, and religious aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation in more detail, this week’s PBR question is: “What social conditions promote reconciliation?”