I’d like to believe the Christmas carols. Really, I would. I want to believe that the holidays are a special time, a magical time, a time of “peace on earth” and “goodwill toward men” when we can all set aside our differences and rejoice in our common humanity. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? And I do think that happens. I’ve experienced it. I’m sure you have, too. But I also know that, often, the holidays can be a reminder of just how many divisions there are. Or, perhaps more accurately, those divisions don’t go away just because the holidays come around.
It seems like one of the only things Americans can agree on is our disunity; a 2016 Gallup poll showed that 77% of Americans perceive our country as divided. This isn’t new, of course. Partisan thinking has always been a part of the American story. Human brains find binary frameworks and tribalism incredibly attractive. People split up; it’s what we do. But what makes our current cultural moment particularly tense, I think, is how seemingly impossible it is to bridge the gaps between us.
I also know that, often, the holidays can be a reminder of just how many divisions there are. Or, perhaps more accurately, those divisions don’t go away just because the holidays come around.
We’re divided along political lines, gender lines, religious lines, ethnic lines and in countless other ways. We’ve been hurt. We’re angry. We’re right. And so we remain, entrenched, embittered. And there’s talk of bridging the gap, sure. We use that big beautiful word “reconciliation,” but what does that even look like?
What is ‘reconciliation,’ exactly?
According to the International Centre for Reconciliation, based in Coventry, England, reconciliation is “about renewing relationships in order to live better together—with God, self, others and the earth.” The ICR’s origin is rooted in tragedy. On the night of November 14, 1940, German pilots firebombed the city of Coventry, killing hundreds, damaging countless buildings and virtually destroying the city’s cathedral, which had been standing since the late 14th century. What happened next, though, was remarkable.
Instead of tearing down what was left of St. Michael’s Cathedral, Provost Richard Howard chose to leave the ruin standing and painted “Father Forgive” on the altar, evoking Jesus’ final words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24 NIV). Howard’s omission of the word “them,” however, is critical. As Howard saw it, everyone was in need of forgiveness, no matter what side of the war they were on. He believed that reconciliation trumped division.
In the years since, the ruined cathedral has become a worldwide symbol of peace and the site for the ICR, an organization devoted to reconciliation between nations, religions and people groups. According to the Coventry Cathedral Reconciliation Ministry (as the ICR is now called), reconciliation is typified by three things: “healing the wounds of history, “learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity” and “building a culture of peace.”
He believed that reconciliation trumped division.
In recent decades, reconciliation as a theory and a practice has gained quite a bit of traction. In 1994, following the end of the brutal system of institutionalized racism known as apartheid, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The purpose of the organization and the hearings that followed was to take a different, radical approach to justice: rather than dispensing punishment (“retributive justice”), the commission offered a space for both victims and perpetrators to share their experiences and move toward common ground.
Following South Africa’s example, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been attempted in numerous places throughout the world, in Sierra Leone, Nepal, Canada and Greensboro, North Carolina. The Greensboro TRC was formed in response to the 1979 Greensboro massacre in which five people were killed during a clash between KKK members and anti-racist protesters. According to its website, the Greensboro TRC is founded on the belief that “confronting and reckoning with the past is necessary for successful transitions from conflict, resentment and tension to peace and connectedness.” These TRCs recognize that while retributive justice may solve some problems, it does not solve the big problem, the problem that won’t go away no matter how many people we punish—human beings need to learn how to live together. This is the issue that reconciliation seeks to address.
Reconciliation isn’t about ignoring the damage done or pretending there aren’t differences between us. In fact, it’s the opposite. We need to recognize the damage and the differences in order to get anywhere. Victims need to express their hurt. Perpetrators need to hear that hurt. But we can’t stop there. Charles Villa-Vicencio was the National Research Director for the South African TRC, and in a 2007 radio interview, he argues that discussion of “truth [and] justice… outside of the desire to build a relationship, outside of the desire to move on…can be a very destructive and very vindictive thing.” Without an intent to reconcile, our attempts at justice are limited at best, and harmful at worst.
So. What does reconciliation require? What would it take to bridge the gaps in our lives?
People want to be seen. It could not be simpler or more difficult. In his essay, “Reconciliation from a Socio-Psychological Perspective,” psychologist Herbert C. Kelman asserts that if societies are to function smoothly and mindfully, their interactions must “must be based on mutual trust and mutual acceptance.” This mutuality requires an acknowledgment of one another’s humanity. We need to see what is human in each other in order to treat each other humanely. It’s so easy to forget, especially when the other person or people group has made us feel less than human. But if we’re going to coexist, if we’re going to move forward, we need to learn how to see each other.
Without an intent to reconcile, our attempts at justice are limited at best, and harmful at worst.
Is it uncomfortable? Sure. And maybe you’re not ready. Maybe the wounds are still too fresh to even consider beginning to see the humanity of the person on the other side. That’s okay. But let us be challenged by the very idea of reconciliation. How often do we consider our hurts and divisions in the context of reconciliation? How often do we think of our gaps as bridgeable?
In the South African TRC, much of the ideology of reconciliation was embedded in the idea of ubuntu as encapsulated in the Zulu phrase “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”: a person depends on others to be a person. I like that a lot. We don’t have peace on earth. Not yet. We hardly even have goodwill toward men. But we have each other. We are who we are because of those around us. So what kind of people will we be? Let’s be reconcilers, next year and forever. That sounds like a good new years’ resolution to me.