Tutu, Truth & Reconciliation – Brad Jersak
With the passing of Desmond Tutu, we say farewell to the architect and chair of South Africa’s breakthrough “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” which opened the seemingly impossible exodus out of that nation’s apartheid system without devolving into civil war. The model that he and former president Nelson Mandela managed has become a template for other nations who seek to resolve past injustices and find a way to reconciliation.
For those who don’t know exactly how it worked, what Desmond Tutu realized was that there could be no peace, justice, or reconciliation without both truth-telling and forgiveness. Truth and forgiveness are absolutely necessary for relationships (whether family, tribes, or nations) to be healed.
That’s a tall order when perpetrators have spent decades covering up the state-sanctioned torture and murder that crushed any opposition to apartheid. It would mean that those responsible would have to be honest about what they had done, who they had killed, even what they had done with their bodies. And it would mean that somehow, families of the victims would have to hear these details while also laying down the demand for eye-for-an-eye retribution.
The basics of the commission as I understand it were this: if the perpetrators would voluntarily come forward and present the honest truth to the commission in the presence of the families involved, hearing victim impact statements, and owning the harm they had done, then they would not face further punishment under the law. If they told the truth, they would be forgiven. That doesn’t mean that what they did was excusable or justified in any way. Nor does it mean that the families would ‘feel’ their way to forgiveness from the heart. But it did mean that the families and the state would close the door on retribution and vengeance so that no further bloodshed would occur.
Now that can sound like the perpetrators got away with something. That is a spiritual fallacy. No one ‘gets away with’ anything. The vulnerability of telling the truth is painful and terrifying, especially when it means seeing and hearing the consequences of our actions. The conscience is an exacting judge. It can also sound like the victims went away with nothing. This is also an error. To finally hear the truth about disappeared loved ones and letting go of revenge brought a surprising sense of closure to many who passed through the ordeal.
Desmond Tutu’s vision for the commission is rooted deeply in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who IS the Way to reconciliation, the truth that sets us free, and the Life who frees us to truly live. He accomplished this at the Cross through pardon and forgiveness, without payback or retribution. My sense is that Tutu’s legacy of truth and reconciliation will be an ongoing gift to those who understand those gospel foundations.
Others have tried and failed at truth and reconciliation because either they weren’t willing to hear the truth about past injustices or they weren’t willing to offer forgiveness without punishment. Corruption and violence continually try to slither their way back in, as I am told they have in South Africa. That said, those who risk such a process have discovered that an impulse for restitution emerges, a will to seek a way to make things right without coercion. Tutu was not a judge presiding over an ordinary civil court–he was a disciple of Christ, an under-shepherd who has led nations through the valley of the shadow of death into restoration. What he accomplished was not possible. It was an absolute miracle.