Posts tagged with: reconciliation

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, June 26, 2009

Clint Eastwood’s 2008 project Gran Torino has recently been released on DVD, and what a delight it is. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired auto worker whose wife has just passed away.

I was unable to catch the film in theaters, despite my desire to do so. Based in Michigan, Gran Torino was filmed places like Royal Oak, Warren, Grosse Pointe, and Highland Park. As the production notes state, “Though the screenplay was initially set in Minneapolis, Eastwood felt Walt’s past as a 50-year auto worker would resonate most as a resident of ‘Motor City’—Detroit, Michigan.”

It was a wise decision. Everything about Gran Torino rings true, from Walt’s disdain for his priest, whom he calls “an overeducated 27-year-old virgin,” to his way of speaking (he “slings racial slurs like most people use nouns and verbs”), to the local ambiance (including a “ghetto clothesline” in the basement of Walt’s Hmong neighbors). The film’s action revolves around the title character, a 1972 Gran Torino, Walt’s prized possession, a car that he had a hand in building himself. Walt’s bigotry extends most virulently to his neighbors, the Lor family, Hmong immigrants from southeast Asia. One of the boys in the family, Thao, is eventually pressured into joining a neighborhood gang. His first assignment is to steal Walt’s car.

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Blog author: clarson
posted by on Thursday, April 23, 2009

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, April 20, 2009

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?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa has been hailed as the standard for working for restorative justice in the contemporary world.

One of the misunderstandings surrounding the work of the commission, however, involves the relationship between the forgiveness, reconciliation, and amnesty offered by the commission in relation to the coercive power of the state.

David Schmidtz, in his recent book Elements of Justice, writes,

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set out in 1995 to document human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994. Part of its mandate is to grant amnesty to those who cooperate in documenting relevant facts. Now, these crimes were not ancient. It was not a situation where innocent people were being asked to pay for crimes of their ancestors. Many of apartheid’s perpetrators were very much alive, and by no means beyond the reach of the law. Yet, even so, Mandela’s goal (like Desmond Tutu’s) was reconciliation, not revenge. He wanted to prevent the legacy of apartheid from continuing to hang over future generations (214).

It is important to note that the cooperation of many these witnesses was accomplished by means of the threat of punitive action. The offer of amnesty was a carrot only in relation to the overarching threat of the stick.

Where the carrot wasn’t taken, the stick must still be used. And so we find that some South African apartheid-era officials who did not cooperate with the commission are now being charged with crimes.

These officials “will be tried for a 1989 attack on the Rev. Frank Chikane, who, at the time, was the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, an organization at the forefront of the struggle against minority white rule.”

This news is noteworthy for two reasons. First, “This is the first case of the prosecution of apartheid-era atrocities in which alleged perpetrators were denied or did not seek amnesty from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

And second, it shows just how dependent on the threat of force the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission really is. This is why Christopher D. Marshall, in his work Beyond Retribution, notes that the TRC occupies a mediating position between the proceedings of war crimes tribunals like Nuremberg and complete offers of amnesty among some Latin American nations.

It’s my hope to explore the theoretical connections between reconciliation and punishment in a paper on restorative justice that I’m currently researching.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is considering the addition of the Belhar Confession to its set of doctrinal standards, which currently include the ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) and Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dordt).

The Social Justice Club at Calvin Seminary, the pastoral school for the denomination, is sponsoring a blog to discuss the Belhar Confession, to “have the student body of the Seminary become leaders in this discussion.”

The consideration of the Belhar Confession comes at the request of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which has asked the CRC to “consider the Belhar and respond to it.”

The Social Justice Club’s blog notes that “no confession has been added to our present three for nearly four hundred years.” The CRC has modified the text of the Reformed confessions at various points, however, such that the CRC and the RCA, which ostensibly share the same confessional standards, cannot include the text of the Heidelberg Catechism in a new jointly-published hymnal, “because the two denominations use different versions.”

The CRC also has a contemporary testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” which occupies a position below that of the formally-recognized confessions.

The basis for considering the Belhar Confession is that the CRC does not have a confession that addresses race relations and reconciliation. Here’s a relevant section from the contemporary testimony,

We grieve that the church which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope, and spans all time, place, race, and language has become a broken communion in a broken world.

When we struggle for the purity of the church and for the righteousness God demands, we pray for saintly courage.

When our pride or blindness blocks the unity of God’s household, we seek forgiveness.

We marvel that the Lord gathers the broken pieces to do his work, and that he blesses us still with joy, new members, and surprising evidences of unity.

We commit ourselves to seeking and expressing the oneness of all who follow Jesus.

I would think too that the relevant section of the Apostles’ Creed, as exposited by the Heidelberg Catechism, would be the clause on “the holy catholic church.”

Do Reformed churches need “a strong confession on race relations” beyond what is offered in these, and perhaps other, sections? There is a strong Protestant tradition, including that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Baxter, that would contend that any such confession must begin with the confession of our sins.

Speaking of a status confessionis, what about some other documents, such as the Barmen Declaration? Are the Barmen and the Belhar statements so contextually-situated and particular that they are unfit for status as more generally-relevant confessions?