July 2017 Issue- Peace & Conflicts:Theological Resources

by Vinoth Ramachandra

Many of us live in societies wracked by bloody civil conflicts. Is there no way of breaking the destructive spiral of violence? Many others are recovering from decades of such conflict and face the painful task of national reconstruction. They ask the question: “How should we deal with the past if it is not to recur?” 

Unmasking violence

Violence is covert as well as overt, collective as well as individual. Even where naked aggression and physical injury are absent, violence can be institutionalised in structures of discrimination and oppression. Long before intentional acts of violence happen, there is usually a history of covert violence. For instance, genocide is preceded by a period (sometimes quite lengthy) of racial stereotyping, public ridicule, misrepresentation and physical segregation of minority groups. Nationalist histories are written which nurture an uncritical loyalty towards national leaders, a  scapegoating  of others (either foreigners or members of another local ethnic group) for whatever misery experienced in that society, a mythical recreation of a golden age  of peace and prosperity, and a depiction of the  other  as either inferior human beings or not human at all. Much of this has been evident in the narratives of local history taught to children in many countries torn apart by sectarian hatred. Not only does this create a climate for violence, but it is an act of violence in itself -- violence against children (brain-washing), and also violence against the other, the “alien”.

Violence is also self-perpetuating. Acts of violence are often responses to violence suffered. It has been observed, sadly, that children who have been victims of sexual abuse are often (but not always) likely to abuse other children. Those who have suffered neglect or domination at home are often (but not invariably) those who want power to dominate others in turn. In places such as Palestine, Iraq or Syria, society is trapped in the spiral of revenge, which is always the result when people choose to meet violence with violence. It is what makes people justify every act of violence (their own) -- they can point to another act of violence, which seems to legitimate what they have done. Yesterday’s victims become today’s victimisers and today’s victimisers become tomorrow’s victims. When violence becomes entrenched in our collective psyche, and no social or political ends can be pursued without resort to violence, then we inhabit a political culture of violence.

Some theological insights

The biblical understanding of sin gives us unique insights into the nature of human conflict. Sin is a theological concept before it is a moral one. It signifies a rejection of God’s call to loving friendship. We make ourselves and our desires the centre of things. Trapped in such aspirations to deity, we see others as competitors to be suppressed, or as simply means to further our own ends, or as threats to our well-being. We have an innate bias towards defending and advancing our own interests. Consequently, we tend to speak of the wrongs we have suffered at the hands of others, but very rarely of the wrongs we have ourselves done to others. This estrangement often turns inwards, so that we even become strangers to ourselves, not understanding our motives and passions, let alone the true ends for which we exist.

Creating a culture of non-violence is impossible without addressing sin in all its social, economic and political manifestations. On the political level, it cannot be separated from the building of a more participatory style of decision-making at all levels of society. For such democracy, as opposed to its caricature in many states that call themselves democratic, is the institutionalisation of non-violent argument, negotiation and compromise. In British statesman and political thinker, Edmund Burke’s famous words, those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable. In situations of ongoing conflict, we must resist all moves to misrepresent the motives and actions of others. We must be in the forefront of all attempts to draw into dialogue the perpetrators of violence, and to debunk both the romantic images of violence and the politico-historical myths that perpetuate violence on all sides. 

The church, with its cultural and political diversity, can also become a laboratory within which civility, argument and participatory democracy can be nurtured in the wider society. Every local church should provide a living context within which people from very different backgrounds are encouraged to share their stories, their suffering and fears, their deepest concerns in a way that contributes towards the re-building of trust.

Such restoration of trust is vital in situations where violence has become entrenched in a nation’s life.  The church must support refugees from all parties to the conflict, and ensure that it denounces all atrocities and violations of human rights. Churches are often tempted either to issue bland calls for a “peace”, that ignores the demands of justice or else to demand justice as a pre-condition for peace. We need to learn to practise what the South African theologian John de Gruchy has called the “dialectic of reconciliation”, namely, understanding reconciliation as a path to achieving justice and as the fruit of justice. (John W. de Gruchy, “The Dialectic of Reconciliation: Church and the Transition to Democracy in South Africa” in Gregory Baum and Harold Welly, eds., 1997, “The Reconciliation of Peoples - Challenges to Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches). The goal of all Christian approaches to justice must be both the liberation of the oppressed and the restoration of the humanity of the oppressors.

Truth is as important as justice if nations are to be renewed. Indeed, practising justice and speaking the truth are inseparable. For justice to be done, the past has to be faced with honesty and humility.  For societies recovering from many years of state terror and civil conflict, some recapitulation of the history of the conflict has to be undertaken, however painful for all concerned. The demons of the past have to be exorcised if new relationships are to be made possible and the nation move forward together.

Why should we remember the atrocities of the past? Writers such as Elie Wiesel, the Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, have never tired of pointing out that justice for the victims and their families demands that we remember their sufferings. To forget is to add insult to injury. But, it is also to condemn ourselves and our offspring to repeat the evils of the past. In a speech to the German Reichstag on 10 November 1987, 50 years after the infamous Krystallnacht, when mobs on the streets of German cities destroyed Jewish properties and propelled the country towards the “Final Solution”, Wiesel observed: “We remember Auschwitz and all that it symbolises because we believe that, in spite of the past and its horrors, the world is worthy of salvation; and salvation, like redemption, can be found only in memory.” (Quoted in Miroslav Volf, 2006, “The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World”, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, pp.19)

The historic Christian claim is that the One through whom the universe came in to being and is held in being has Himself become a victim of torture and dehumanisation. Thus Christians, of all people, are never surprised at the extent and depths of violence in human affairs. But, they should always be distressed by it. Violence is not a normal aspect of human nature, as some socio-biologists have claimed, but rather an ugly distortion of our humanity. Christians affirm that God is loving friendship, living in self-giving relations of Father, Son and Spirit. And human beings have been created in His likeness for loving communion with God, with each other and with the whole creation. Peace, friendship, and goodness are both the beginning from which the world was created and the telos (Greek for an end or purpose), toward which all things are striving.  But the message of a crucified God also gives us a realistic, clear-eyed portrayal of the very real misery, evil, and violence that afflicts us in this world.

In many situations of unending and senseless conflict, leaders of either side lack the humility to acknowledge their mistakes, let alone their moral guilt. They are willing to sacrifice countless more human lives simply to avoid what is deemed “loss of face”. For those of us struggling with the pain of victimhood, to be loved unconditionally by God redefines our identities. It enables us to love the other, including those who have harmed us. But this process cannot be short-circuited. Theologians and pastoral counsellors have warned that there is a “cheap forgiveness” that does more harm to victims by failing to work properly with memory. It is expressed in the facile advice to suffering victims to “forgive and forget”. To forgive like God is to face honestly the wrong that has been committed and to condemn it. But it is to separate the wrong from the wrongdoer and to offer the latter release from his guilt. To forgive a guilty person is not to declare that he is not guilty but to declare that the person will be treated as not guilty. It is to say to him: “What you did to me was evil, but I will not hold it against you or treat you the way you treated me.”

Medical doctor Sheila Cassidy who was raped and tortured by General Pinochet’s soldiers in Chile in the 1970s, writes of her own bitter struggles to overcome humiliation and desires for revenge: “I know what it is like to be powerless to forgive. That is why I would never say to someone: “You must forgive”. I would not dare. Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive? I can only say: however much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us. Hatred is a devil to be cast out, and we must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving our enemies that we are healed.” (Quoted in Walter Wink, 1998, “When The Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations”, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.24)

However, in Christian perspective, the healing process is not complete until it includes the relationship with the one, who has inflicted harm (if he or she is identifiable and still alive). Any healing of the wronged without involving the wrongdoer, therefore, can be only partial. The primary reason we pray for the power to forgive is not that we can sleep at night without medication or heal our memories, but that we can reach across the great divide that separates us from those who have wronged us. Gregory Jones observes: “Forgiveness is not primarily a word that is spoken or an action that is performed or a feeling that is felt. It is a way of life appropriate to friendship with the Triune God.” (L. Gregory Jones, 1995, “Embodying Forgiveness: a Theological Analysis”, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.218)

When a person has been shamed, honour has been lost. If it is not retrieved, the person remains reduced and dishonoured in the eyes of his or her community. Shame cannot be forgiven, and honour can be regained only by means of revenge. Forgiveness and guilt replace honour and shame by introducing the possibility of change -- change in the relationship between the offender and the offended. Guilt and forgiveness together liberate human beings from the sense of fate.

Reconciliation with the enemy is thus the goal of forgiveness.  “To reconcile” is to bring enemies into a state of friendship, to overcome the alienation. To be reconciled is not to paper over the cracks and pretend that the evil or evils never occurred. The Greek term which is translated “to forgive” in the New Testament is aphiemi, “to let go, loose, set free, acquit, dismiss, remit”. Notice that the direction is all toward the other, not toward oneself. By forgiving, we set the other free. How? By removing from her or his shoulders the burden of our hatred and desire for revenge. We free the other to deal with God. Justice rights wrongs; while forgiveness aims to mend broken relationships. Both are thus necessary in human relationships.

Political leadership in post-conflict situations

In recent years, in countries such as South Africa, Chile, El Salvador, Haiti and Rwanda, some form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been set up in the aftermath of tragedy. The setting up of these commissions surely reflects the biblical conviction that repentance is the basis of genuine reconciliation. Those responsible for disappearances, torture and murder must be prosecuted. If that is not possible, because records have disappeared or witnesses have been killed or intimidated, at least they should be subject to public shaming. The victims must be allowed to tell their story, and the victimisers brought face-to-face with their victims.

Is there a place for international courts of justice before which to prosecute and punish war crimes? Certainly. It has long been a Christian conviction, and recognised as such by the legal community in recent years, that crimes against innocent non-combatants are violations of international moral norms.  If national courts are unable to act against the instigators and perpetrators of such crimes, owing to lack of political will or inadequate national legislation, then the “international community” has an obligation to act in the interests of justice. But here again, the credibility of such courts depends on how far they retain their independence and do not follow what has come to be called “victors’ justice”. The latter will always be perceived as a form of collective revenge, rather than as impartial justice, as long as members of the “victorious” group are exonerated from prosecution. The famous Nuremberg trials against Nazi officers and their collaborators were never followed up by a tribunal to investigate allied war crimes (and post-war atrocities on German soil committed by Western and Soviet troops). The refusal of countries such as the United States of America (USA) and China to recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is a serious obstacle to the prevention of such crimes against humanity.


A Christian understanding of reconciliation stems from what has already happened in the history of the world. The bridge of peace is already there. We are called to cross it, not build it. The situation between God and humanity has been changed decisively, something objective has occurred which has made everything in the cosmos different. Those who have experienced that reconciliation through penitence and trust are called to point towards that bridge, to declare what has been accomplished, and to convert our politics to that gracious reality.

But the Christian faith is also realistic. It recognises that reconciliation between people rarely happens, whether as individuals or collectivities, we prefer to live with our bitter memories, bathed in self-pity, nursing our resentments, or refusing to accept our acts of wrongdoing towards others. Uneasy co-existence is usually the norm, not mutual repentance, restitution and reconciliation. 

There will be a final day of reckoning. It will be when the Judge of all the earth will bring us face- to-face with the wrongs we have tried to cover up as well as face-to-face with our victims and those who have victimised us. Those who have escaped human courts will face a divine court of perfect, transparent justice. In the here and now, justice is hardly ever attained; hence we remember wrongs suffered. In the world to come, justice will have been done; and, therefore, we will be able to let go of memories of wrongs suffered. In the here and now, healing is always partial, and even forgiveness does not remove the emotional scars and the physical pain. Hence, we live with a sense of irreparable loss. In the world to come, our humanity will share fully in the resurrected Christ; and, then, we will experience the completion of our healing. 

But how should we remember? Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf notes that remembering by itself cannot be redemptive. Victims often remember in a way that nurses resentment, even hatred, and stirs up deep longings for revenge. Such bitter memories are what often fuel long-standing conflict, as families and communities pass on stories of suffering to future generations. Individuals and entire communities can be so obsessed with their memories of wrongs inflicted that they even define themselves in terms of victimhood and become paralysed by the past.  

Volf argues correctly that memory is logically linked to truth.(Quoted in Miroslav Volf, 2006, “The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World”, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, chp.3) Built into the claim that we are “remembering” an event is the assertion that, to the best of our knowledge, our reported memory is true in the sense that it corresponds in some way to events as they occurred. Psychologists have uncovered the phenomenon of “false memories”, stories told so vividly that they leave an indelible imprint on the victim as much on his or her hearers. What makes these stories false, however, is that although believed passionately by the sufferer (and the more the story is told, the more “true” it becomes for the latter) independent testimony does not validate the claim that the event in question actually occurred. 

So we should remember truthfully. To remember truthfully is to render justice both to the victim and to the victimiser/wrongdoer. Truthful memory neither downplays nor exaggerates the harm inflicted by the wrongdoer. It also refuses to depict the latter as totally evil. In my own Sri Lankan context, for example, it is not uncommon to find those minority Tamils, who have suffered at the hands of the majority Sinhalese people (either mobs or soldiers) and have fled to Western nations, speaking of the entire Sinhalese ethnic group as brutal chauvinists; and never mentioning the many instances of Sinhalese people who have risked their lives to save Tamils. Thus, a commitment to truth-telling on the part of victims and perpetrators -- and in most situations of protracted conflict the line between them is blurred -- requires that all consciously strive to listen to the accounts of the other as well as honestly share their own. 

Volf writes: “Seekers of truth, as distinct from alleged possessors of truth, will employ “double vision”- they will give others the benefit of the doubt, they will inhabit imaginatively the world of others, and they will endeavour to view events in question from the perspective of others, not just their own.” (Quoted in Miroslav Volf, 2006, “The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World”, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, pp.57)

All of us are formed as human persons by what we have experienced, including sufferings we have borne. This is especially the case with those, who have suffered severe trauma as a result of violence inflicted on themselves or on those close to them. But we are not just shaped by our memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us. We are more than what we have suffered, and that is the reason we do not have to passively surrender to our memories. We can do something with our memories, refusing to let them define our future. 

(This talk was given at the IFES East Asia Graduate Conference on 7 August 2016 at Cha Am Beach Hotel, Thailand. Vinoth Ramachandra is IFES Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement