By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (October 22, 2013) — Reconciliation can only happen when those who seek it refuse to be by those who benefit from oppressing others, Allan Boesak, a former anti-apartheid leader told a gathering at North Park Theological Seminary on Monday night.
Boesak spoke alongside Curtiss Paul DeYoung, a professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, on the topic, “Can there be peace in the present age?” The two co-authored the new book Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism. The full presentation can be seen on CovChurch.tv.
Boesak said that when apartheid was crumbling in South Africa, activists agreed they would not seek “retributive justice” as was done in Nuremberg following World War II. Nuremberg represented a “victor’s justice,” in which the victor set the rules, he said.
After long discussions on how to proceed, anti-apartheid activists, who included Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, decided, “We will not let the dead keep us captive to retribution,” Boesak said. “We will rather ask what we can do for the living.”
Such an approach required a significant change in paradigm so that the focus was on “survivor’s justice,” which said that all of the involved parties were survivors of disastrous decisions made by political adversaries. Instead of the victors setting the rules, everyone would be invited to share in the victory.
Treating whites who had oppressed them not as the enemy but rather as “political adversaries” left open “just a little bit of room to say, ‘Can we talk about what this means for all of us?’” said Boesak, who currently is the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Pursuing reconciliation and peace involves political, communal, and personal forgiveness. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation but so also is repentance, Boesak said.
Reconciliation has remained elusive in South Africa. “They thought they could get away with a cheap reconciliation,” Boesak said of whites in South Africa. “Most white South Africans even today have no clue of the gift that black people were offering them. They think reconciliation was their due. They think there was nothing to forgive them for.”
Boesak said he deliberately chose not to bring an upbeat message. “Reconciliation is not sentimental. Reconciliation is not trying to get people to feel good about themselves. Reconciliation is not closing our eyes and saying, ‘It’s going to be alright one day’ because every day that you talk about one day, somebody dies and somebody is responsible for their death.”
Boesak said, “Peace is not impossible because the one who calls us to peace is the one who left us his peace, and who says with God all things are possible,” but his words and sober tone were far from triumphalist.
Afterward Boesak and DeYoung took questions from the audience including one from Boaz Johnson, North Park University professor of biblical and theological studies, who returns frequently to his native India and is active in efforts to break down the caste system.
A political leader in the country told him, “ ‘Boaz you are going to cause a Rwanda here.’ How do you deal with questions of that sort?” he asked, adding that the question haunts him.
Boesak replied, “You have to ask the question, ‘Why is the politician saying that?’ Sometimes politicians are not just politicians. People have too much invested in the status quo to even contemplate change that involves justice.”
He continued, “(They) bring up these most horrendous historical moments to frighten us away from even talking about justice. I have found that it doesn’t matter how many times you frighten people with that thought—if people want to fight for justice, they will.”
People who support and benefit from injustice “never see the disaster that they have caused. They only see the disasters that come from fighting for justice and wanting change.”
Boesak encouraged Johnson and others to continue pursuing peace despite warnings of holocausts. “We must refuse to be burdened with that falsity that is intended to paralyze the struggles for justice and human dignity.”
The presentation was part of North Park University’s campus theme program, which this year is addressing the question, “What is peace?”