Reconciliation and forgiveness
Yesterday was the Day of Reconciliation, a public holiday in South Africa. Perhaps it is one of those “happy holidays” that Americans talk about. And today I came across a quotation from Laurens van der Post’s book Venture to the interior, which I first read more than 40 years ago. He wrote about the suffering in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902:
It has always been one of the more frightening ironies of Afrikaner life that people like my father, who with Smuts and Botha had fought and actually suffered in the war, could forgive and begin anew, whereas others, alive today, who were never in the heart of the conflict, can still find it so hard to forgive an injury that was not even done to them, and how can there be any real beginning without forgiveness?
I noticed something similar in my experience with War Crimes officers, who had neither suffered internment under the Japanese, nor even fought against them. They were more revengeful and bitter about our treatment and our suffering in prison than we were ourselves.
I have so often noticed that the suffering which is most difficult, if not impossible to forgive, is unreal, imagined suffering. There is no power on earth like imagination, and the worst, most obstinate grievances are imagined ones.
That passage struck me at the time, and I commented on it in my journal when I first read the book, on 4 June 1966
This seems to touch on the core of a rather big question of human behaviour, One is that we so often find it easier to forgive those who injure us than those who injure others; and this imagination business. Reading about life in Nazi Germany conjures up all sorts of horrors, but they are imaginary horrors, I have never experienced them. In South Africa there are probably the same horrors, but one gets used to them. This is why so many people emphatically deny that South Africa is a police state, because it does not fit their mental image of a police state. But Germans probably felt the same 30 years ago.
I seem to recollect Trevor Huddleston in his book Naught for your comfort saying how much harder it was to forgive things done to other people, because one can only imagine how they feel. And John Aitchison, questioning the value of Liberal Party rural meetings, because you know that you go to encourage them in the face of SB intimidation, but by going you only encourage the SB to step up their campaign of intimidation. But it is a selfish martyrdom attitude — a sort of “I alone can bear the suffering” kick. But they too must bear their share of suffering — we are not the ones to deny it to them. It is their privilege as members of God’s kingdom.
It is so also among the Jews. The ones who keep harping on the Nazi concentration camps are not the ones who suffered there, but those whose relatives did. In a way this is the root of altruism — a willingness to suffer for others. But it can also be selfish and self-glorifying.
That is one reason I am sceptical about demands that people should apologise today for deeds committed by other people in generations past, such as, for example, the demand by Anglican bishops that Tony Blair should apologise for the slave trade.
The same applies, of course, to recent conflicts in the Balkans, which still have repercussions today in the demand for independence for Kosovo. One of the best comments on that is at Notes from a Common-place Book: Remember the Balkans?. Perhaps the Balkans need a Day of Reconciliation.
There is another entry from my journal, though this time more recent, from an Orthodox mission conference in Athens on 6 May 2000:
The next speaker was Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch, who spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy.
These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West — there is talk of “ancestral hatred”, but it is not “ancestral hatred” that is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of “ancestral hatred”. If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the
more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity.
He suggested some preliminaries for a theological consideration of these things:
(1) respect for other religions;
(2) listen and learn;
(3) give thanks for manifestations of the Logos in other religious traditions;
(4) Pray over insurmountable differences.
The mystery of the Trinity as the answer for those who think that the Father has no Son, and those who think that the Son inevitably kills the Father. Orthodox Christians and Muslims need to seek ways of preventing the use of religious symbols in support of conflicts. Human rights: despite emphasis on their universality, they can be applied selectively. Human rights abuses are emphasised when the victims are members of our own communities, but ignored when others are victims. The contemporary discourse about religion drawing bloody borders between people is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which Orthodox Christians must resist.
It is not ancient hatreds that cause war: it is war that causes ancient hatreds. And we can overcome ancient hatreds by forgiveness and reconciliation.