Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990’s, the term “reconciliation” has taken on new political meaning, and theological writers have begun to revisit traditional Christian conceptions of reconciliation. With Reconciliation: Restoring Justice, John W. de Gruchy engages this conversation, his central purpose being “to explore the relationship between the politics of reconciliation and the Christian doctrine of reconciliation. . .” (p. 13). What follows is an exemplary project in practical theology, reexamining theological conceptions of reconciliation and justice in light of contemporary conflict resolution efforts. The six chapters of Reconciliation are divided into three parts: “Discourse,” “Agency,” and “Process and Goal.”
In the first two chapters on “Discourse,” de Gruchy does a fine job laying out the complexity of the contemporary conversation, and the mixed history of Christian theologies as they have participated in constructing the developing meaning of reconciliation. In his analysis of the South African case in the very first chapter, de Gruchy’s honest appraisal of the challenges of the TRC and the dilemma of seeking both justice and reconciliation is particularly strongis justice a product of reconciliation or a precondition for it? This dialectic shapes the most novel dimension of the book, in which de Gruchy responds to a primary critique of reconciliation theology by holding together restorative justice and reconciliation. The highlight of the second chapter’s thoroughgoing survey of the development of reconciliation doctrine emerges out of de Gruchy’s use of Dietrich Ritschl’s description of primary and secondary expressions of the doctrine of reconciliation (pp. 18, 76), by which he sets up a sacramental understanding of practices of reconciliation, which he explores in the second part of the book.
The two chapters on “Agency” take up reconciliation as it is embodied in ecclesial life, and the call and resources of Islam, Judaism and Christianity in seeking reconciliation. In the third chapter, de Gruchy acknowledges the imperfection of the human institution of the Church but holds that “. . . if there is no connection, no visibility or earthing of the message of God’s reconciliation in a community that believes it to be true, reconciliation as Christians understand it would remain a disembodied ideal” (p. 88). In a particularly helpful integration of the worship and public life of Christian communities, de Gruchy affirms that the sacraments (particularly the endangered or lost sacrament of confession and penance) are concrete embodiments of reconciliation. The well-intentioned fourth chapter, on the shared resources and responsibilities of the Abrahamic faiths, is probably the weakest point of de Gruchy’s project, and he acknowledges its limitations in the introduction (p. 3). De Gruchy believes that at least some attention is in order, however, given the religious and political conflicts of the Middle East as well as the cooperation of Jews, Christians and Muslims in South Africa. The chapter raises some important issues for further conversation.
The final chapters of the book, “Process and Goal,” open up creative and constructive possibilities for future developments of reconciliation theology. Chapter five, entitled “The Art of Reconciliation,” considers ways in which we might create a space in which we can meet and hear the “other”the arts have particular capacity for this creativity. De Gruchy convincingly argues that reconciliation is not the inevitable consequence of all truth-tellingand further, that space must be created not only for the victims and perpetrators, but also the beneficiaries of injustice to meet face to face. (One critique of the TRC was its inability to deal with the guilt of bystanders.) He also takes seriously the rage of victims and the challenge and agential potential of forgiveness. The book concludes with a reformulation of the image of covenant, in contrast to the ways in which this image was abused by apartheid theology, “implying a new commitment to one another that transcends simply agreeing to co-exist, with hostility continuing to simmer beneath the surface. . .” (p. 185). When victims offer forgiveness and perpetrators and beneficiaries acknowledge their guilt, then we might in hope seek to restore a “covenantal justice,” characterized by right relationships between people and groups who share a commitment to building moral community. A primary concern in restoring covenantal justice is redistribution of land and wealth.
De Gruchy’s work in Reconciliation: Restoring Justice is a timely and careful contribution to the growing discourse of theology, human rights and conflict resolution. “Reconciliation” is a prevalent and contested idea in contemporary political and liberation theology, and de Gruchy’s project takes this conversation very seriously and illumines its central questions, challenges and promises in an honest manner. While the book is largely in the theological reflection mode, and its purpose is not to outline particular practices, the responsible Christian of the 21st century will find in its pages much sustenance for arduous journey toward peace and justice.
Jennifer R. Ayres
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, FALL 2004, VOL. 4, #2
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