Iain Maclean, ed., Reconciliation, Nations and Churches in Latin America, Routledge, NY, 2016. 296 pp. $54.95. ISBN: 9781138264717.
Without justice there is no reconciliation. This refrain echoed a half dozen times throughout Indigenous activist Leah Gazan’s keynote address on the final night of a conference titled “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Churches to Action: Building Capacity for Restorative Solidarity.” One hundred Indigenous and white Settler leaders listened in and nodded intently at this sacred Saskatoon gathering, convened in the aftermath of the bold Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a seven-year process documenting the testimony of approximately one hundred fifty thousand Indigenous people who were taken away from their families and placed in residential schools as children.
The TRC, based on their findings and informed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007),1 issued ninety-four calls to action, six of them specifically geared toward churches and faith communities. Gazan’s plenary proclamation concisely summarized the questions, comments, and concerns stoked by Indigenous leaders on that pre-Indigenous Peoples Day weekend in 2016, particularly by the seven residential school survivors in attendance who served as elders, guiding participants with both historical memory and spiritual anticipation.
It was in the wake of this soul-stirring conference that I soaked up Reconciliation, Nations, and Churches in Latin America (2016), a compilation of ten essays from scholars homing in on the role of churches in reconciliation processes; Christian theological understandings of reconciliation; and visions and paths toward future reconciliation. These contributions build on lessons from the more than twenty-five commissions experimenting with truth and/or reconciliation processes in the Global South over the past twenty years, mostly in Latin America. This reading was the perfect pairing with my attendance at the Saskatoon gathering. It scripted me to a more confessional, humble space, enabling me to realize finally just how out-of-the-loop I’ve been about the bold Indigenous-Settler collaborations conducted to the north and south of my United States context.
If any place on the globe needs a national TRC, of course, it would be the United States of America. We white liberal Christian “Americans” possess a dangerous combination of hubris and cluelessness, still hung over from the self-congratulatory celebration of our first black President and now slumped over in a self-righteous stupor, woozy from an electorate who opened the doors of the White House to a race-baiting, misogynist, reality-TV-star billionaire. Amazing how quickly we shifted the blame to our favorite scapegoats: the rednecks and the Russians! The truth of the matter is that we are neither post-racial nor postcolonial. We’ve built a wall of denial so high and wide that we are blocked from the horizons of a real way forward. Without justice there is no reconciliation.
In his essay on a Latin American theology of reconciliation, José Comblin, a Belgian priest and professor of theology in Brazil, proposes that “reconciliation . . . presumes a total inversion of the whole civilizational and cultural process” (169). The TRC process is about fact-finding, but more importantly it calls for a spiritual awakening. It ushers in a conversion of the national imagination, what University of California, Berkeley professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres calls “incessant processes of decolonization” (240). Margaret Guider, Professor of Religion and Theology at Western Jesuit School of Theology, calls it simply a commitment to both truth-telling and “never again” (123–27).
Maldonado-Torres, in his concluding chapter titled “Reconciliation as a Contested Future: Decolonization as Project or Beyond the Paradigm of War,” summarizes the entirety of this decade-old re-publication edited by James Madison University’s Iain Maclean: “The chapters in this volume all suggest in one way or another that the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and related mechanisms for promoting reconciliation could be seen as part of this struggle against racist, sexist, and colonial hegemony” (241).
Dr. Elaine Enns, my colleague at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, posits that the goal of healing the trauma wrought by colonization is what she calls “restorative solidarity,” a combination of inner work, critical historical awareness, and empathy that results in a deep understanding of “how our story is connected to theirs, such that our mutual healing and wholeness is, in fact, intertwined.”2 This is precisely what, according to Enns, psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan calls “intervulnerability,” the road to real salvation: “awareness of the mutuality of suffering impels us to search for ways to heal the whole, rather than encase ourselves in a bubble of denial and impossible individualism.”3
Meanwhile, we find ourselves stuck in the bubble, not heeding what Martin Luther King warned my parents’ generation was the most “dangerous development in our nation”: “the constant building up of predominantly negro [sic] central cities ringed by white suburbs.”4 This viciously overlooked form of segregation has led to vast swaths of white Americans being “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”5 The comforting white noise of suburban silos makes it virtually impossible to hear the painful testimony emanating from the reservation, the ghetto, and the barrio.
This white noise is precisely what Notre Dame professor Margaret Pfeil, in her chapter on the Peruvian TRC process, diagnoses as “a collective guilt of omission.” Pfeil describes Peru’s recent history as affected by a false consciousness in which “structures leading to death on a massive scale were not identified, making it harder for individuals to take conscientious action” (181). We USAmericans are also guilty of distracting ourselves from how these deathly powers dominate our political and personal lives.
Reconciliation, Nations and Churches in Latin America is a helpful resource of history, social analysis, and theology for all those taking seriously the role of TRCs in our challenging pursuit of restorative justice in the North American context. The book’s weakness is that it is not accessible to everyday people of faith and conscience attempting to organize in our communities. This compilation, from authors with both expertise and experience on the ground, is substantive and timely, but it risks being left to languish in the academy, limited by its length and language. Our hope is that serious readers of this project will be inspired to translate for the rest of us.
Tommy Airey is a mission associate at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and the co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net.
Elaine Enns, “Facing History with Courage,” Canadian Mennonite 19, no. 5 (February 2015): 4–9.
Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2015), 74.
Martin Luther King, “Two Americas,” Speech at Gross Pointe, Michigan, March 14, 1968.