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Truth the medicine for a sick nation


“Before a nation can get on with the routine task of nation building, it has to come to terms with its past” (Walter Wink).

My family brought me up in Germany after World War I (1914-1918) and before, during and after World War II (1939-1945). I chose to live in Zimbabwe to serve the church in Africa. I lived in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, during the war of liberation and its aftermath (1972-1980-1987). Neighbouring South Africa was gaining its Independence through violence at that time, fought a war in neighbouring Namibia and abolished apartheid. There was a civil war in Mozambique after our Independence in 1980, and another guerilla campaign in Zimbabwe 1983-1987 (civil strife and war, known as “Gukurahundi”).

guest column: Fr Oskar Wermter sj

All these civil wars were extremely violent and cost not only the lives of many combatants, but also of innocent villagers (rural civilians). I witnessed, at least from a distance, the proceedings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Wink reflects on violence and war in his scripture studies and theological reflections. Our world is dominated by violence and war. Jesus came to establish a domination-free world.

The “kingdom”, which he proclaimed, is a realm free of domination, armed warfare and violence. He never justified the use of violence anywhere (Mt 26:52: “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword”)

For Wink, the theory of the “just war” is not acceptable to any people with a conscience. The church questions today the hypothesis of the “just war”.
People may start a “just” war in defence of their home, and yet end up in an extremely aggressive and utterly nasty conflict.

Wars leave very deep and painful wounds. They are not healed merely by physical treatment, surgery, and medication. They leave wounds in the soul, and in the entire society.

Ex-combatants suffer from post-war trauma. They cannot get over what they have seen and themselves done. People try to “forgive and forget”. Only God can forgive and enable us to forgive those who hated us and wanted to destroy us. “God forgives us, so we must forgive others” (Wink, When the Powers Fall, 16). “Forgetting” is something entirely different. It may be entirely wrong to forget. It may be very necessary to remember so that we never engage in atrocities and destroy the human dignity of our brothers and sisters again.

The wound left by our hatred and cruelty must remain and remind us of what we have done. We cannot undo the great harm to us ourselves. The Lord of heaven and earth alone can liberate our hearts who are in the grip of hatred.

What is simply no option is forgetting, ignoring and simply wiping out what has caused such deep wounds to us as individuals and to our communities. Will a son ever forget his father, swallowed up by this “monster” called “war”?

It is absolutely against the culture of Africa and more especially Zimbabwe to forget our dead, or ignore their memory, and simply wipe out any remembrance, or the love and respect we had for them.

That is why we still have a great deal of work to do. There cannot be any forgiveness or reconciliation without the truth. That is what South Africa has achieved, perhaps not with 100% perfection, but sufficiently to give the families of victims the clear message: you and your sacrifice have not been forgotten. Your loved and dear ones are remembered.

What do you do with the mountains of bodies after the slaughter? Much more of course is left by the bloodshed. The most serious and most fundamental damage is done in our hearts, hidden from view. There is resentment more painful than any physical injury. There is hatred that will perhaps dominate us until the end.

Zimbabweans want to know what we as a nation are going to do to expose the terrible truth. Former President Robert Mugabe, admitted that horrible things had happened during “Gukurahundi”, but did not face up to the full truth. He dismissed the horror as a “moment of madness”. We as a nation have not really tried to bring healing to the people who lost families and saw communities shattered.

Will the foundations we are laying for this new country not collapse if we do not face the truth and cannot make peace with our fellow citizens who lost families in collective slaughter and no longer have homes and security? The perpetrators seem to hope that “time will be the great healer”. Is it really? We will see that time does not allow us to forget.

A brother and companion in my church community assembled war widows after independence and helped them to find healing for their deeply wounded hearts: they had been forced during the war of liberation to witness the execution of their husbands as “sell-outs”.

Even today, after 60 years or so, there are victims still yearning for liberation and healing. In that sense the war is not yet over and “Gukurahundi” is still terrorising the wives and children of the victims.

God forgives, but only after we have accepted the truth and accept responsibility. God is truth and he cannot forget. A huge task is still waiting for us.

The United States dropped atom bombs for the first time on huge civil populations with the aim of bringing their war in the Far East to a quick end (1945). The number of victims in Japan was so great that any attempt to justify the use of nuclear weapons ethically was considered obscene by most observers. Any people with a conscience would just say, “Never again!”

Can we forgive our enemies? Can we reconcile with a nation that has hurt us so badly, we can never undo the damage? Can we forgive an enemy for destroying our humanity and dignity beyond belief?

During the Cold War (1945-1989), since the end of the Second World War until the collapse of the Soviet empire (Russia and its satellites) another war was prevented by the superpowers (Soviet Union and US) threatening each other with nuclear weapons.

prevented by the superpowers (then Soviet Union and US) threatening each other with nuclear weapons.
A nuclear attack would have triggered off an immediate counter attack and caused the destruction of both powers. This “mutual deterrence”, the sheer fear of complete annihilation, not just of two huge countries, but of the whole world, was a guarantee of peace, meaning “no war”.

But such “mutual deterrence” may break down, such a “peace” can end in warfare and even a nuclear holocaust and enormous loss of life. It is a most uncertain peace.

Even the peace achieved by the “Cold War” did not prevail universally. Countless regional wars caused unimaginable bloodshed and the slaughter of innocent civilians and combatants. We see it in the Middle East. Many people who had escaped the “World War” opted for revolutionary wars and caused widespread destruction.

It was the intransigence of our dominating classes which made those who had suffered endless humiliations to opt for yet another violent conflict. But violence never restores human dignity; it does not achieve genuine peace and progress. That may be one reason for our continued economic malaise.

South Africa was one very special country that challenged all participants in the conflict to find the truth and accept responsibility for the
atrocities that happened as part of the struggle for freedom. Good and noble intentions do not always guarantee humanity, respect and tolerance.

Perpetrators of atrocities in South Africa could ask for “amnesty” provided they came up with the truth and did not hide the horrible things they had done, and they had to tell the truth right in front of the badly hurt families of the victims.

The whole world is full of families and communities, peoples and nations who still need healing, forgiveness and in the end reconciliation. But how do you reconcile with perpetrators of genocide?

Can there ever be forgiveness for Adolf Hitler and his party whose “Holocaust” was intended to destroy the Jewish people, or for Joseph Stalin who almost annihilated the Russian people? And countless guerilla leaders who wiped out whole tribes and ethnicities in Africa, Latin America and the near East?
What mother can forgive the bushfighters who abducted her little sons and turned them into child soldiers, completely dehumanised and turned into monsters?

“A society recovering from the trauma of state violence needs as much truth as possible. Truth is medicine. Without it, a society remains infected with past evils that will inevitably break out in the future. Domination cannot exist without the ‘big lie’ that persuades the many to offer their lives for the protection of the privileges of the few. Truth-telling not only exposes that lie, but establishes a sacred space where others may gather who will no longer tolerate the lie … It is the responsibility of religious communities to see that the truth gets told and to provide that space. Those cases where they have done so are light in our darkness.” (W Wink, When the Powers Fall, pp. 53-54). The “big lie” claims that mobilising the masses as soldiers for the army serves the common God while in fact it only protects the wealth of a minority.

Desmond Tutu saw that the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation could not send all the guilty ones to courts of law and have them sentenced and punished for their unspeakable crimes, it was judged to be impractical. Punishment of the cruel offenders was not the way. It would only have satisfied those who were seeking bloody revenge.

The commission opted for amnesty. Was that not impunity? No, in order to be able to claim amnesty, the perpetrators of acts of inhumanity had to tell the truth and apologise. Society (State?) had to provide compensation. Why the State? Countless countries do not only have law courts to condemn criminals, but are criminal and lawless themselves. States can be morally sick in need of healing, repentance and transformation.

Claiming madness as an excuse may itself be irrational. We need that medicine called “truth” to bring back our moral health.

Fr Oskar Wermter is a social commentator

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