Several years ago, some of us from First Presbyterian Church in Johnstown, NY visited Johannesburg, South Africa on our way to rebuild a church in Mozambique. In Johannesburg, members of the local presbytery (a biracial group) outlined the four steps that they were taking to respond to victims of violence after the cessation of apartheid: First, justice is called for when crimes are officially recognized and acknowledged. Then confession is required from those who committed the crimes, and forgiveness is needed from those who have been injured. The third step is to set up reparations for those who have suffered great loss. The final step is to change the systems that created inequality and injustice. They were still working on these elements as we listened to their discussion.
Today, we can recognize how difficult this process is when justice and equality is denied; protests take place in our cities by those aggrieved and, regrettably, violence can occur on both sides of the street.
Recently, I have been reading Jürgen Moltmann’s latest book The Spirit of Hope, Theology for a World in Peril (Westminster John Knox, 2017) which discusses these four steps. Commenting on the processes used in Germany with Nazi perpetrators, and in regard to more recent atrocities involving sexual abuse, Moltmann lists a fifth step that had not occurred to me.
Based on his experience, he recommends that churches and communities should develop “a new ritual for the justification of victims” (pp. 196). In brief, this ritual involves three facets.
1. The victims must emerge not only from the suffering that was inflicted on them, but also from the humiliation they have endured. This allows them to stop hiding from their pain so they are able to begin to move past it.
2. The victims must be delivered from their degradation so that they may lift up their heads to God. Their lives need to be changed so that they can feel the love of God in Christ after having been abused and insulted.
3. Finally, they need to be delivered from the desire to inflict the same evil on their perpetrators through violence and revenge.Paul urges Christians not to be overcome by evil (Rom. 12:21). As Moltmann knows, this is very hard to do but, ultimately, it is liberating and healing.
We know from experience in Albany Presbytery that members of our churches and communities have experienced violence, injustice and humiliation, and the voices rising from the streets remind us of our own complicity.
Five steps of reconciliation would enable us as Christians to recognize the pain of our neighbors and bring ourselves healing and forgiveness.
Litanies of reconciliation can be used in nations, cities, and in individual homes where conflict is appearing. Prayers and scriptures can be found in the recent Book of Common Worship (2018, pp. 591-632, 639). Perhaps each presbytery could appoint a task force to compose their own services that fit their immediate situations.
A good place to begin is found in the first entry in “Prayers after a Violent Event” (p. 593):
God of the ages, you have always been faithful to your people.
Come to us now, we pray!
Give comfort and courage to those who are suffering.
Give strength and skill to those
who are working to save and to heal.
Give us your peace that passes all understanding
in these moments of shock and sorrow.
Open our eyes, hearts, and hands to the movements of your Spirit,
that we might be comforted and comfort others
in the name of Christ, our healer and our light. Amen.