The Political Dimensions of Reconciliation: A Theological Analysis of Ways of Dealing with Guilt During the Transition to Democracy in South Africa and East Germany

Barry Hart

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)

Ralf K. Wüstenberg. The Political Dimensions of Reconciliation: A Theological Analysis of Ways of Dealing with Guilt During the Transition to Democracy in South Africa and East Germany. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Ralf Wüstenberg’s exhaustive empirical study of guilt and reconciliation within the transitional systems of governance in South Africa and East Germany comes to a central conclusion: political reconciliation for the purpose of (re)building nations after structural collapse and historical trauma is not connected to theological reconciliation and related ways of dealing with guilt. It is only in the interpersonal realm that theological and national reconciliation interface, since “[g]uilt and reconciliation can only be thought of as occurring between people … [not] national entities” (261).

This conclusion requires Wüstenberg to explain concepts of truth, freedom, justice, reconciliation, and guilt from various perspectives. The categories of truth, for example, are described as concepts “that pave the way for the theological reconstruction of reconciliation in political reality” (258). This is because they allow for the possibility of reparations and new beginnings in interpersonal relationships. Justice “does not produce [effective] reconciliation, but it can lead to it and can guide the processes to an acceptance of guilt” (259). Justice is connected theologically to politics through its understanding of the need to honor basic humanity.

Interpersonal reconciliation is examined within the political forums of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Investigation Commission of the German Parliament (EK). Wüstenberg directs the reader to the principles of systematic theology regarding process, Pauline commentary on reconciling deeds, and to the Synoptic Gospels, especially the path of reconciliation in Matthew. He argues that theologically and linguistically “process” is distinct from “path,” since “the political process of reconciliation is open and indeterminate. The spiritual path to reconciliation is defined by hope” (267). It is hope that often breaks into the political process of reconciliation, manifesting in acts of remorse, apology, and forgiveness.

Through the TRC and EK, offenders and victims were given the opportunity to walk the spiritual path of new beginnings. Some chose this path, while others did not. When chosen, new relationships were formed and a new narrative begun; and justice went beyond a legal/punitive model, taking on the biblical meaning of right relationship with one’s fellow human being, made possible by God’s love for humanity.

This last point is poignantly reflected in the apology of a Mr. Benzien to his torture victims during a TRC Amnesty Committee hearing. The confessional stories he told, the remorse he showed, and the forgiveness offered by one of his victims, a Mr. Forbes, demonstrates for Wüstenberg the transformation of the political formula “reconciliation through truth” from the secular into the spiritual realm (275). Interpersonal reconciliation was possible because Benzien could awaken from the nightmare of apartheid through a process of confessing and accepting his guilt; and Forbes could come to a place of forgiving the person who violated his human rights and dignity. For the author, this was interpreted as an act of God through Christ that occurred, as it must, through human actors. Reconciliation didn’t happen between all victims and offenders in this case or in the EK processes, which indicates an “open ended” quality of the reconciliation process within the political sphere. The door of reconciliation is offered, but not all choose to pass through it.

The justice question requires further examination, specifically the tension between retributive and restorative justice and their relationship to the criminal justice system and reconciliation. Wüstenberg’s analysis differentiates “justice as punishment” in the South African and German contexts; in the former the “wrongdoer goes to jail and the victim receives recompense” while in the latter it is seen as less effective and implemented in only a small number of cases (188). Justice is also explained in terms of acknowledgement and restoring human dignity, following a restorative trajectory.

Restorative justice “includes moral, political, as well as legal dimensions [and because of that] exceeds the limitations of the possibilities open to a constitutional government” (190). The author’s argument is that the constitutional state is bound by legal principles and can provide only formal and therefore punitive justice procedures. Restorative justice goes beyond the possibilities of criminal law, although the author acknowledges it can be constructively used outside the criminal justice system.

If victims and offenders are to be given the opportunity to reconcile, Wüstenberg must recognize that restorative justice, which holds reconciliation as a fundamental principle, can be an effective part of the criminal justice system and therefore the political process of reconciliation.

Barry Hart, Professor of Identity, Trauma and Conflict Studies, Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA