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Is Reconciliation Possible? A Lesson from Africa

Is Reconciliation Possible? A Lesson from Africa

On December 26, 2021, one of my personal heroes passed away. Desmond Tutu was the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and he died at the age of 90. Tutu led the church through a time of intense suffering, and also led the way in offering reconciliation and forgiveness.

Tutu was a leader of the church in South Africa during the time of apartheid, which means “apart-hood” or “separateness.” Apartheid was essentially a racial caste system with the white South African minority at the top and the black South African majority at the bottom. Land was stolen from black South Africans, cities were segregated into rich and poor based on skin color, and the system was enforced through state-sponsored violence, in particular by a brutal secret police force. The system lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1990s.

When the apartheid system fell and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, South Africa was faced with the problem of how to deal with their past. One option would be to hunt down all the perpetrators: those who had upheld the system by passing unjust laws and overseeing sham trials, and those who committed violent acts in order to enforce it. This option was rejected because it would likely hinder reconciliation, and potentially continue a never-ending cycle of retribution.

Another option was to simply move on. To proclaim amnesty for the perpetrators and get on with life under a new and better political system. But this option was also unsavory: it would provide no accountability, no justice for the victims, no repairing of what had been broken.

South African leaders settled on a third option. They formed what was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Desmond Tutu was tabbed to lead it. The goal of the TRC was to uncover truth and foster reconciliation and forgiveness. All perpetrators of apartheid violence, even those who had committed the most heinous acts, were given two options: make a full confession of your crimes before the Commission and receive amnesty, or be liable to criminal charges if they were eventually uncovered.

There was one more important element for those who chose to confess their crimes before the TRC. The confession would be televised live across the country, and families of the victims would be invited to attend in person. In order to be forgiven in the eyes of the new political regime, the truth had to be publicly proclaimed.

When I think about the unfolding war in Ukraine, about the challenges here in the United States that have to do with increasingly clashing worldviews, or how to move forward from the various injustices that mark our own history, I see the principles behind the TRC as an intriguing model.

This is not to say that the TRC fixed all the problems in South Africa. Or that it would be realistic to set up the same kind of commission in the United States. I’m not offering a solution to the problems that plague our country. But I do want to spark our imagination. For reconciliation to happen, the truth must come out. Reconciliation involves both confession and forgiveness. It involves examining ourselves and confessing the role that we have played. And what’s so interesting about the TRC is the role that the church played.

Desmond Tutu was picked to lead the TRC in part because a proper theology, a right understanding of both God and humans, was needed to pursue the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Hear him describe the role of theology in the work of the TRC:

So frequently we in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such dastardly deeds were monstrous because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, between the sinner and the sin….  If, however, they were dismissed as being monsters they could not by definition engage in a process that was so deeply personal as that of forgiveness and reconciliation…. 

I realized how each of us has the capacity for the most awful evil – every one of us. None of us could predict that if we had been subjected to the same influences, the same conditioning, we would not have turned out like these perpetrators. This is not to condone or excuse what they did. It is to be filled more and more with the compassion of God, looking on and weeping that one of His beloved had come to such a sad pass. We have to say to ourselves with deep feeling, not with a cheap pietism, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

And mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to the stories of victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive….This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.

 Those who had strutted about arrogantly in the days of apartheid, dealing out death and injustice… had never imagined in their wildest dreams that their involvement in machinations and abominations hatched out in secret would ever see the light of day…. Now it was all coming out, not as wild speculation or untested allegations. No, it was gushing forth from the mouths of perpetrators themselves… Those ghastly and macabre secrets might have remained hidden except that this is a moral universe and truth will out.


And the victory was for all of us, black and white together – the rainbow people of God.”  (Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 83-87)


The work of reconciliation is costly. It is costly for perpetrators, because it means confessing the truth about what we’ve done, and the harm that we have caused. And it is costly for the victims, because it means revoking our claim on justice and retribution. Oftentimes what is lost can never be replaced.

But we follow a Messiah who bore an inconceivable cost to reconcile us to himself. Who, while hanging on the cross in great physical agony, asked for his Father to forgive those committing the greatest act of injustice of all time (Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul tells us that we who trust Jesus are now agents of his reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). May we learn from the humility and creativity of Desmond Tutu and our South African brothers and sisters in Christ as we go about that work in our world today.

How Do You Cultivate a Resilient Relationship?

How Do You Cultivate a Resilient Relationship?

In every relationship there is one constant. Whether it be friends, coworkers, neighbors, parents, one’s spouse or children, at some point in time, one will fail the other. It may be intentional or unintentional. It may be big or small. But you will fail someone close to you, and someone close to you will fail you. 

Right here, in the face of an inevitable failure, is when relationships have the highest likelihood of coming to an end. Often all it takes is a single offense to undo years of intimacy. Friend groups dismantle. Marriages dissolve. Collaborative partnerships come unhinged. Failure happens in every relationship, and all too often it means the relationship is over.

Forgiveness isn’t the goal

Where does one go from that place? I used to think failed relationships could be mended if people merely learned to forgive each other, but I was wrong. Forgiveness alone can’t fix a relationship. 

To be clear, forgiveness is necessary. Jesus calls every one of His followers to model a lifestyle of forgiveness. Christians who cannot forgive others should check whether they have experienced forgiveness from God (Matthew 6:14-15). On top of that, we are called to forgive not just here and there, but with such regularity that we lose count (Matthew 18:22). We are to have open hands with offenses and let go of wrongs with diligence. And yet, as difficult as forgiveness may be, it is not enough to repair a relationship. 

The problem with making forgiveness the goal of healing strained relationships is that it makes confession the only means. Confession is certainly an essential part of mending relational fallout. Confession is a way for the one who has committed an offense (or is a member of a group or corporation that has committed an offense) to own their failure by “naming ownership of the thing” that brought fissure. Ownership is essential for the offender to name and for the offended to witness. 

But when forgiveness is the goal and confession the only means, then relational mending is a one time transaction that can make the offender feel absolution has been achieved while the offended is still emotionally (and possibly physically) wrestling through the pain of the original offense. This sort of forgiveness may very well be the grounds for a sense of freedom from the offense for the offender, but it will not necessarily restore the relationship for both parties.

In a culture of hyper-individualism, relational immaturity and an underlying expectation that everything we want should come with the click of a button, this can be hard to accept.  

While both parties may share a common perspective over what created the distance between them, it will not necessarily reestablish their former relationship. In some circumstances such efforts can actually create more relational distance when this dynamic isn’t acknowledged. 

As a pastor, I’ve seen this take place with a husband who has cheated on his wife, and having confessed to the affair and apologized, becomes enraged and wonders why she can’t “just treat him normal” from now on. “I said I was sorry, ok?! Why can’t you let it go?!” His failure to acknowledge how his previous sin continues to cause pain — even when she has extended forgiveness — actually may cultivate a sense of insecurity leading her to fear that her husband may commit the same sin again: “Was he just saying sorry so we don’t have to talk about it anymore, or is he really sorry and wants to change?”

As a pastor in our city, I’ve seen the same dynamic in conversations regarding race relations and the history of racial injustice in the United States. When historic injustices that have lingering effects are brought up, a common trope from some is “Why can’t they just move on?! That took place so many years ago!” This kind of response communicates a lack of genuineness in remorse and an unwillingness to listen. Is it any wonder that our city and nation are still so separated? 

Forgiveness is necessary, but it neither shuts off the valve of pain nor completes the work of restoration. Confession is necessary, but it is not sufficient. 

Resilience needs more

So how can we cultivate relationships that press through failure? What is the path to cultivating resilient relationships?

Every relationship that endures through failure requires an additional step: the important move through confession to repentance. While confession owns one’s guilt over a past action, repentance works toward actions of life for the other. Confession longs to receive absolution. Repentance longs to engage in the long-suffering work of repair. Confession can be perceived as a one and done transaction. Repentance accepts that a cyclical and ongoing journey is necessary.  

In some relationships, the most we can hope for in the short term is forgiveness. Much like Paul and John Mark (Acts 15:36-39), we end a relationship with an empty ledger of offenses but choose not to continue on in the relationship. For those relationships we long to see last, we need to go beyond absolution and do the enduring work of restoration. And for that, we need more than confession and forgiveness. We need repentance and repair for both parties. 

A well worn path

Examples of this are seen throughout the biblical storyline. It’s etched into the Old Testament law given to Israel to guide them into communal flourishing (e.g. Exodus 22, Isaiah 58). It was practiced by leaders like King David who had a heart like God’s in navigating national injustices (2 Samuel 21). It’s what John the Baptist proclaims to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 3:1-6). Zacchaeus lives this out in establishing a radical financial repayment plan after which Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10).

This was also carried out in the early church. In the early African church, we find the Canon of Hippolytus (4th Century A.D.), a book on church order as believers sought to live out the teaching of the Apostles. There were certain vocations that were not accepted in the early church because of how they maligned or abused neighbors. In some cases baptism was forbidden unless it could be established that they had left such vocations by the testimony of three witnesses.

If it was found that they had returned to a destructive line of work, they were barred from the church community. Injustice was simply not tolerated. It was not a place where you could just live life any which way and still remain in the fellowship. And when were they allowed to return to membership in good standing? It wasn’t after education, confession and forgiveness. Rather “they are to be excluded from the church until they repent with tears, fasting, and alms.” Repentance and repair revealed in everyday life.


In Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and our Liturgy, Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Wilson comment on this early church practice. They write, “…the worker’s road to redemption runs primarily through liturgical practices—not theological education. Through the liturgical practices of tears, fasting, and alms, the worker is ultimately restored to the worshipping community.” 

Too much?

This response may seem outlandish or over the top. Frankly, most of the biblical characters and writings seem absurd to a world that downplays evil and so downplays the long suffering necessity of restoring and cultivating resilient relationships. We want what Bonhoeffer warns against as cheap grace or an easy believism that erroneously justifies doing anything we want to do with the assurance of absolution (Romans 6:1-2). 

Rather, Christians are to have a robust appreciation for the complexity of sin and the pervasiveness of evil within relationships and cultures, so we don’t approach God and others transactionally. We don’t come just wanting to get absolution, but actually seek reconciliation through the road of costly repentance. All of this has us humbly crying out for “more grace” (James 4:6).

So what about you? Me? Is it too much to ask of us?

If you want to cultivate resilient relationships, don’t just come with confession looking for absolution. Come with a posture of repentance ready to repair and go down the long road of rebuilding. It takes longer than we often want to give, but what you get are restored relationships, enduring community and genuine intimacy.

And for that we should be willing to give everything. Again. And again.