Reconciliation, the overcoming of differences, the healing of broken relations, is initially a religious concept addressed in the Hebrew Bible and especially in the New Testament. It has acquired wider meaning in the context of the wars and violence of the twentieth century.
In the Hebrew Bible, the term kiffer (from the verb kaffar: covering over, atonement, propitiation, reconciliation) was used in the context of animal ritual sacrifice. Propitiation of God was the objective. Saint Paul, especially in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 and in Romans 5:10, raises this concept to the level of a restoration to the favor of God for sinners who repent and put their trust in the expiatory death of Christ. But the term refers not only to such reconciliation with God but also to the task of reconciliation with other persons as a primary requirement for the followers of Christ. In Matthew 5:23-24: “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”
In the Gospels, as in much later discussion, reconciliation came to be paired with the concept of forgiveness, the forgiveness freely given by God and to be imitated by all. In this, the New Testament’s reconciliation with God and with others took on the full character of the Hebrew Bible’s shalom: completeness, soundness, welfare, peace. Yet in practice, the concept long tended to be confined to the private sphere, the individual’s forgiveness by God, as in the Catholic practice of confession to a priest and the absolution of sins, now called the sacrament of reconciliation rather than, as in the past, of penance.
But the wars of the twentieth century and the many situations of transitional justice (the restoration of civil relations after periods of oppression) brought the wider social-political concept of reconciliation back into prominence in Christian thinking and made it the property of all the world. Thus, in South Africa, the effort to heal the society after the ills of apartheid gave rise to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its grant of amnesty to offenders, on condition that they admit their guilt, was seen as far more satisfactory than the more vengeful process of the Nuremberg Trials after the collapse of Nazism. We can observe an outgrowth of this development in the growing interest in restorative justice, a legal concept that defines the objective of a justice system as the restoration of relations rather than simply the determination of guilt and the punishment of the offender—retributive justice.
Christian proponents of reconciliation, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa or the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, have consequently held prominence in this movement, although it has also been taken up as a managed and secular technical process conducted by professional mediators. Realization of the benefits that can be derived from this kind of process has brought about the rise of Track II diplomacy, the work of nongovernmental peace-building professionals who can often help the citizenry of conflicted societies reach reconciliation in ways that the official diplomatic representatives of governments cannot, or who can be the catalysts of solutions to conflict that governments could not generate themselves.
Distinguishing between the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation has troubled many. We may see forgiveness as the personalized action of individuals and reconciliation as the effect of the healing of relations in the broader society.
Welcome as all this has been in its humanity and generosity, it carries its dangers. Most obvious is that a demand for instant forgiveness and reconciliation, and a blaming of victims who cannot bring themselves simply to forget the evils done to them, can lead to the hasty covering up of severe trauma in a society, leaving the underlying ills unaddressed. Connected with this is the tendency, sometimes, of churches and religious actors, as well as those who most benefit from systems of exploitation, to treat reconciliation as an alternative to the liberation of victims of oppression, imposing a sense of guilt on them if they persist in their quest for justice rather than reconciling themselves to an unjust status quo. In an atmosphere in which reconciliation is seen as a virtuous action, superior (more religiously acceptable) to the pursuit of justice, this can take on the character of blackmail. And in this context the professionalization of the mediator’s task in managing conflict can easily become an unwelcome form of coercion.
Warning indications hang, therefore, over this valuable practice and concept of reconciliation. An understanding is required that unfair disparities of power between victims and controllers of society may not be tolerated. The third-party reconciler must realize that forgiveness is not an instant process, and that those who feel themselves victimized, often from both or all sides of a conflict, must have time to mourn, to lament the harm that has come to them. They must have an opportunity to learn, through what may be a difficult and time-consuming process, the common humanity of those who have hurt them. They and their victimizers need to unlearn the stereotypes by which they have perceived one another. And all the participants need to understand that it may not be possible to resolve all problems and contentions among them, but that the more promising course is a conflict transformation by which the relations among them are seen in a different light.
Setting the objective of reconciliation, however, rather than simply a cessation of violence or the stifling of protest, as in a military process of “pacification,” holds promise to bring about more humane relations among peoples, possibilities of addressing their inevitable differences of interest or aspiration nonviolently, and the healing of past traumas in ways that do not call for visiting retributive trauma on those who have harmed us. The development, as rather a new discipline, of peace studies has been a result of the renewed social and political interest in the concept of reconciliation.
- Helmick, Raymond G., and Rodney L. Petersen, eds. 2001. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.
- Kritz, Neil J., ed. 1995. Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes. 3 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press.
- Minow, Martha. 1998. Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence. Boston: Beacon.
- Schreiter, Robert J. 1992. Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
- Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.
- Volf, Miroslav. 1996. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
"Reconciliation." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr.. Vol. 7. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 110-111. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. University of the South. 18 Oct. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=tel_a_uots>.