Truths for Reconciliation: An American Perspective

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. is Emeritus President of the Faculty and William E. Dodge Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in 1955 and his illustrious career includes: a Ph.D in Religion and Society; six honorary doctoral degrees and posts as a research professor and Professor of Ethics. In addition to some hundred articles, he has written thirteen books. His most recent work is on human rights and national and international restorative justice. He has also written extensive analyses of national coping with “negative histories”, e.g. the Holocaust, slavery, apartheid and war crimes in Germany, South Africa, Japan and the USA. This address was delivered by Shriver at a public lecture organized by UNESCO at the University of Ulster, Belfast in October 2007.

Truths for Reconciliation: An American Perspective

Several years ago, as he was about to leave Atlanta for South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reflected on his experience in America against the background of his chairmanship of his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “America,” he said, “needs a TRC.”

This lecture is a problematic venture into that suggestion. What could Tutu possibly have meant? Does the South African experience of the past decade set any precedents, offer any guidance, to what Americans might need to do for reckoning with our own national past and present?

Such an inquiry, I say, is problematic, as all students of truth commissions worldwide know only too well. Repeatedly they say, “Every nation’s past has its uniqueness. Every national history abounds with facts which cannot be compared one-for-one with that of other nations. If and when its leaders propose a truth commission, that uniqueness must influence its design and its task.”

Follow that cautionary scholarship to a radical conclusion, and you may land in post-modernist territory, questioning whether one human history has any relevance to another, or one cultural wisdom to another. Isolationist and nationalistic closing of American ears to Jefferson’s “decent respect for the opinions of mankind”, flies in the face of the global propinquity of humans in our time. In our experience, if not in our nature, we are not infinitely various, nor are the atrocities of which humans are capable diversely unique. Our goods and our evils are akin, and none of us is immune to needing to learn something from others of us. The other way around–that Americans have something to teach other peoples–can hardly be claimed with integrity without its reciprocal.

I want to propose that we Americans have some learning to absorb by careful attention to three concepts that guided the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (1) Truth that heals rather than divides, (2) justice that repairs rather than revenges, and (3) empathy that expands rather constricts the ties that bind a political community. All three of these concern the moral enrichment of human politics. Here are some reflections on how these three ideas from South Africa might mean for contemporary America.

“Truth” in the TRC’s work, 1995-1998

Much has been written by insiders and outsiders about the South African TRC. The very volume of the literature suggests that the world has reasons to be attentive to that event and its role in the saving of South Africa from bloody civil war. Along with agreements on its new constitution, the prospect of having such a commission played a crucial role in the transition from the apartheid state to a democratic society.

From its very start, designers of the TRC proposed to uncover the truth of an oppressive apartheid regime for the sake of clearing the way for that democratic society. Deputy Chair Alex Boraine shared journalist-poet Antjie Krog’s suspicion of all casual uses of the word “truth”:

“[It] makes me uncomfortable…. I have never bedded that word in a poem… I prefer the word ‘lie.’ The moment the lie raises its head I smell blood. Because it is there…where the truth is closest.”[1]

Krog and Boraine would surely agree with Dean Atcheson, U.S. Secretary of State in the 1940s, that in politics truth often yields to advocacy. The TRC commissioners knew that in public affairs there is no simple truth. Not all truths deserve publicity, and some truth, too simply stated, becomes a lie. Publicly there is only complex truth, and for the acknowledgment of that complexity, the TRC consented to procedures that opened to four dimensions of truth:

  1. Forensic truth, “what happened to whom, where, when, and how, and who was involved.”[2] When they termed it “forensic,” the commissioners took a step beyond the notion of mere “factual” or scientific truth. They alluded to the aspiration of western court procedure to determine “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” That questionable goal, as every wise citizen knows, meets much ambiguity in our legal procedures: one lawyer prosecuting, one defending, and a judge or jury responsible for deciding which version of truth is more convincing. Along the way of court trials, judges and lawyers may try to get witnesses to “stick to the facts,” but the facts are usually embedded in forms of truth-telling that elude the strictures of pure science.
  1. A second momentous form of truth for the TRC was personal or narrative truth. which opens the public arena to the pained memory of injustice-victims. Memories of pain, however flawed with forgetting, indelibly scar the victims of unjust suffering inflicted by agents of the state. Those agents usually stifle public accounts of that suffering, thus adding an extra increment to the victim’s pain. Perhaps suffering is the one tie that binds all of us. In our suffering, we understand each other more profoundly than in our joys, and to tell the story of one’s suffering is to connect with innumerable stories that our neighbors could tell, too.Stories of all sorts compose a very special form of truth-telling in human societies. To account for the society’s very existence, leaders sometimes begin with a story: “Four-score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty and…….” To account for one’s own life, how else to begin than with some precis of autobiography? And what “facts” in one’s life are likely to have crippled us more severely than the suffering we have endured and can only tell about with the imprecision of words? Antjie Krog said that the very heart of the TRC’s work, for her, was the snapping on of the red light at the microphone of a victim, who probably had never before spoken publicly about his or her private experience. Personal stories are not the whole of truth, but they are integral to the truth that leads to new justice. “Truth does not bring back the dead, but releases them from silence.”[3]
  1. But that is not all. Personal stories can only become part of a social story and social-political change, when they are listened to, recorded, and digested in open public dialogue over time. As jurist Albie Sachs defines it, “dialogical truth” is “social truth, truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate.” Boraine adds that “the process of dialogue involved transparency, democracy, and participation as the basis of affirming human dignity and integrity.”[4] Dialogue lays down a few stepping stones on the way to reconciliation between victims and victimizers. Civic reconciliation begins with talk. As Charles Villa-Vicencio recounts it, the Sudanese word for reconciliation is the image, “sitting to talk with your enemy under a tree.”Every day in the two-and-a-half-year work of the TRC, a half hour of excerpts were broadcast over national television. For many white viewers, it was their first hearing of tales of atrocity committed by the South African police. Many shook their heads in disbelief. But it was hard not to believe the stories of victims and perpetrators together, confirming the facts of torture, murder, and sundry other assaults on human dignity. Frequent among white South Africans was the response, “We didn’t know.” After the TRC, that excuse died down. Now, they knew. Now, among other things, the myths of “separate development” and “beneficial segregation” were shattered into untenability. As Methodist bishop Peter Storey put it crisply,“Defenders of apartheid wanted to excuse it by saying that it was a system of good intention that failed. To the contrary: it was a system of bad intention that succeeded only too well.”[5]
  1. Then there was a fourth dimension: truth that heals, the most subtle, complex, comprehensive, ambiguous dimension of the four. Truth-for-truth’s-sake can be a dangerous, alienating weapon. Many are the journalists, the TV talk hosts, and politicians who acquire their power from stories of human crime and who use those stories to knife the perpetrators publicly. But surgeons use knives, too. Their business is healing. So also, the TRC: exposing the facts, hearing the stories, digesting them in dialogue, were all for the purpose of clearing the public air and the private self of the malignancy of secret evil. The Commission believed that opening up the body-personal and the body-politic to such truth about the past strengthens public will and public institutions in the commitment, “Never again.” Combined with new law and new court integrities for curbing and punishing repetitions of such evil, public truth clears the way for new public justice.

Do truth and justice equal “reconciliation”? The answer is ambiguous. As my two colleagues in these lectures have repeatedly emphasized in their writings, reconciliation among humans who have inflicted and suffered great damages in their history with one another, is no simple, instantaneous, short process. It may be a process that takes generations, even centuries. It may never approach perfection. Procedures like a formal truth commission may be only one moment in a large, ongoing attempts of alienated citizens and their descendants to live together in some state of harmony. Worth noting is the sympathy of John Paul Lederach with the multi-dimensional nature of this process. His name for it is “polychronic,” doing “multiple things at a time.”  “Like a dance, we simultaneously have activities taking place related to the past (Truth), the present (Justice and Mercy), and the future (Hope and Peace). Each contributes and each can change the view of the others and the impact of the others. Each needs a voice. Each depends on the others to reach full potential.”[6]

Boraine adopts Lederach’s term, polychronicity: “a process and social space that lets us interact with each of the voices while at the same time we stay in touch with all the others.”[7]

Moral foundations undergird this whole process. Unlike the desire of some academics to analyze politics apart from moral issues, a truth commission sets out to correct moral faults in its sponsoring society. Those very faults may have been written into established law and judicial process, and their correction may have to involve a multitude of other agencies over many future years. Perhaps the crucial dynamic in it all is the determination of clusters of citizens and institutions to continue uncovering the hidden, unhealed wounds of the past so that the present and future can be significantly freed from the curse of an “unmastered past.” That is the phrase used often in recent years in post-1945 Germany, whose burden of its Nazi past could not be lightened without a penitent public combination of confession, corrected history, memorials to the dead, and reparations to the survivors.

America’s Unmastered Past. What might this account have to do with the possible need of the United States of America for a truth commission? A first answer is the fact that we are a society which possesses a diversity of agencies with some responsibility for recalling us as a public to more accurate memory and healing of injustice in our political past. We have courts, newspapers, voluntary associations, religious organizations and universities, all with some capacity to challenge public amnesia and error about the real past of the society. But these agencies do not always do their proper work. They did little to halt the Nazification of Germany in the ‘thirties. For fifteen or twenty years after 1945, they largely kept silent about the evils of the twelve-year Nazi era. One meaning of freedom in any society is the right and power of aggrieved citizens, journalists, academics, politicians, and religious people to engage in political forms of repentance.

An outstanding example of national repentance is what happened between 1976 and 1990 to Japanese Americans. In 1976 a Republican president voided the presidential order of a Democratic predecessor who, in 1942, responded to wartime hysteria on the West Coast by putting 120,000 Japanese Americans behind barbed wire in western mountains and deserts. Then, in 1980, Congress established a commission not radically different from the South African, to hear the stories of the survivors of those camps. It produced a large report of those hearings, one of the truly moving government reports which you are ever likely to read. Then, in 1990, a Republican president sent to each of those survivors a symbolic reparation of $20,000 each. Finally, there now rests in a beautiful cove of Washington, D.C., not far from Union Station, a set of memorials to the unjust suffering of those American citizens and immigrants. It is also a monument to the fact that even governments can repent.[8]

Let it be said very clearly: When it comes to the evil of which individuals and organizations are capable, the best thing is that they not do it. The next best thing is that they repent of it. And the best after that is that they seek to forgive and be forgiven for it.

Having written a lot about forgiveness in a political context over the past decade, I have also studied enough American history to know that as a public we have yet to “master” many an unwelcome truth about our national past. The strongest moral reason for uncovering a negative past is that some of our fellow citizens still suffer from its impacts. Below I will illustrate a few of the American pasts still waiting to be healed. They wait partly because American culture tends to treat the past lightly while enthusiastically hailing the future. A Yale historian, Carl Becker, commented sixty years ago that the past for Americans is like the dust stirred up on the tracks to the rear of a vehicle. Like drivers we fix our eyes on the future. As the contemporary cliché puts it, the past is “history,” that is, something back there we can ignore. Not so, insist that class of citizens to whom the South African TRC paid special attention: the victims of injustice in that past, including their descendants, who are the first to agree with William Faulkner, “The past is not dead and gone. It isn’t even past.”

As it designed a process for uncovering that painful past, the TRC was charged with steering a course between impunity and vengeance, i.e. between ignoring past crimes and subjecting the perpetrators to judicial prosecution and punishment. In so steering the process, they turned the concept of “healing truth” toward the kindred concept of restorative justice. From that turn Americans might learn in some new institutional ways to practice the dance of virtues implied in the great formula of the Hebrew prophet Micah: “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

A Justice That Restores Broken Civic Relationships

Perhaps the most ambitious hope of the TRC was that, given public opportunity for perpetrators to tell the truth about their crimes and victims to tell their sides of the story, a process of post-apartheid buildup of civic community would begin. No society can soon recover from vast, institutionalized assaults upon that heroic norm for which America is famous, “that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights….” One can hardly get the words out of one’s American mouth without raising the suspicion that down through two centuries we Americans have always silently and publicly added the qualification, “well, not all men, not slaves, not women, not Asians….not…not…not.”

Since 1776, however, we have to say that American society has gradually, by stops and starts, heeded those Jeffersonian words and expanded their applicability. The expansion accounts for much of America’s world influence. No one doubts that our Civil Rights Movement of 1950-70 provided encouragement not only to the descendants of American slavery but also to those who were fighting the battle against apartheid in South Africa. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his partners in the Movement forced Americans to acknowledge the gap between our democratic principles and our actual social behavior. The poet Browning famously wrote that one’s “reach should exceed one’s grasp or what’s a heaven for?” What is moral principal for if not to inform us of our immoral behaviors? But there are limits to the wisdom in that rhetorical question. A very large gap between social behavior and stated social morality can lead to great hypocrisy and corruption of public rhetoric, dialogue, and justice. The guilty conscience of our constitution-makers is clear in their writings, but it was not so clear in their behavior. Roger Wilkins has written a fine, probing book on this history as it has affected the lives of African Americans. He acknowledges with gratitude the foundations of democracy laid down by the constitution’s fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason. But one and all these men were slaveholders. Wilkins confesses that in his investigation of four of his own slave ancestors he felt “a rising rage that men so distinguished and so powerful could have been so timid about using that power in the cause of freedom and justice for America. I want to take those four lives [of my family] as emblems of those millions of others like them–and push them in the faces of those four founders and say, ‘Look at the pain you might have avoided and the potential you might have liberated had you had the capacity to care for human beings like these as deeply as you cared for yourselves and for people like you.’”[9]

Sociologists may say that no society realizes in practice all of its values, but the struggle to realize them is the line between integrity and hypocrisy in political discourse. South Africans, too, will have a lot of catching up to do with the rhetoric of their TRC and, especially, with their new Constitution. For example, one parliamentary charge to the TRC was that it should propose some level of reparations to the victims whom it interviewed. An ANC-dominated government, beset by many another duty, took a long time–about five years–to authorize reparations to the 22,000 interviewed victims in the amount of some $3900 each. Like the $20,000 each to Japanese Americans, it was a token amount, but it was not nothing. It was a gesture towards restorative justice.

The great restoration of justice in the proceedings of the TRC was the priority attention it granted to the victims of crime over the perpetrators. Strangely regular in western law courts is the reverse priority. Look at any courtroom drama on television, and the center of the drama is always the guilt or innocence of the accused. What happens to the victims of the crime? They are likely to be sitting silently in the courtroom, if they are there at all. As for effecting repair of the victim’s losses from murder, theft, or other insult, that is not often said to be the criminal court’s business. The repair of criminals is not said to be their business, which is to punish the guilty. These days in America the courts have dished out the punishment of prison to two million of us, an unprecedented number in comparison to the rest of the Western world.

Punishment and restraint may have to be assumed in criminal law, but it is not enough for obeying the democratic assumption that all human beings have value and rights, even when they have misbehaved. South Africans, too, believe in imprisonment of criminals. But their new constitution goes to great lengths to specify the limits of courts to detain, keep secret, or deny to the accused legal representation. Among the most striking contrasts to American law is that you can be in jail in South Africa, but you can still vote. The contrast should challenge the American imagination. Do prisoners cease to be citizens? Are prisoners being prepared for a return to society by denying them all exercise of their citizenship? Must they not only be segregated away in warehouses called prisons but also deprived of participation in the country’s political life? Arguments against enfranchising prisoners come quickly to mind in most Americans. Why not listen to the long experience of South Africans in how courts and prisons can trample on the humanity of the guilty and the innocent?

Prisons are only one illustration of how a society, including our own, can trample on truth and justice in the very pursuit of the same. Quite a different matter is how schools teach the young the truths of history. History, as written and taught, dehumanizes when it omits, distorts, or falsifies the suffering of some group of human beings at the hands of other human beings. Over the past five years it has been my privilege to examine a fair number of the history books studied in high school classes in Germany, South Africa, and the United States. In Germany in 1960 your history teacher might have found it convenient to end the course with the 1920s, before Nazi era. In South Africa, in 1960-80, you would be told, without comment and in mostly passive voice, how the apartheid system “was enacted” and how a new government “was elected by the people,” with little comment on how “the people” comprised 12% of the occupants of the land. Now the history books in those two countries read quite differently. The bitter facts of Nazism and apartheid stare out from the text and pictures of the books. The many-leveled responsibility of leaders and ordinary people for the evils of Nazism gets vividly portrayed. The new South African texts contain not only pictures and statistics detailing how apartheid hurt millions of children, families, and prisoners; but mostly absent now is that plague of history-writing, the passive voice, which pretends that “things just happen” outside any human agency and outside the question of how “things” could and should have happened differently. (It’s a way to sidestep responsibility. When the scandals of Abu Graib came to Donald Rumsfeld’s attention, he said dismissively, “In war stuff happens.”)

I am glad to report for the American case, that our high school history texts are doing more justice to more American ancestors and descendants than has ever been done before. We are a nation of immigrants, and it is hard to do justice to the stories of all our immigrants. In books and in public attention, we sometimes submerge their stories in a few paragraphs or no paragraphs at all. In my own high school history classes in the 1940s lacked any account of Christopher Columbus that would have helped me understand why, in 1992, Native Americans would be so outraged at the idea of celebrating Columbus “discovery” of America in 1492. Up to the 1980s, who told high school students that, in the sixteen years after 1492, one to three million Indians perished from the war, slavery, overwork, and disease which Europeans brought with them to the Americas? Howard Zinn observes: “When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure–there is no bloodshed–and Columbus Day is a celebration.” Even Samuel Eliot Morison, great Harvard biographer of Columbus, concedes that “the cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”[10]

Well, not complete. In 1900 there were some 250,000 Native Americans surviving, probably less than 2% of the original population. Indian inhabitants of the continental U.S. now number over two million, and their survival on the pages of American high school history books, I am glad to report, is on the rise. No high school student is likely to leave a history class now without some knowledge of the meaning of names like the Trail of Tears, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. And they will not read that the expulsion of Indians west of the Mississippi just “happened,” without knowing that Andrew Jackson and land-hungry white settlers made it happen. (We tend to blame leaders for big political crimes. We like to forget that they are often responding to pressures from their constituents. There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to acknowledging Euro-American treatment of Indians.)

To be sure, the revising of popular knowledge of the shadow-side of a nation’s history is painful for national pride. I am reminded of Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett’s complaint about southern white members of the Civil Rights Movement. “They are nothing but southern burglars,” he complained. Indeed: doing justice to one’s favorite ancestors while being forced to confront their blind or cruel sides is hard on personal or collective egos. One form of restorative justice, in the writing and the learning of history, is attention to the truths of this blindness and cruelty.

Consider, for example, the tangle of resentments that still separate descendants of two sides of the Civil War. As a southerner born and raised in Virginia, I think with some resentment about the caricatures of southerners that were long in fashion in our pre- and post-Civil War neighbors to the north. Foreigners and new immigrants are often puzzled by the persistence of Civil War-related resentments among southerners. The resentment has a long past. For example, diplomat Joseph Montville quotes the view of Ralph Waldo Emerson of the southern students whom he sometimes met at Harvard:

“The young Southerner comes here a spoiled child…. He has conversed so much with rifles, horses, and dogs that he is become himself a rifle, a horse, and a dog and in civil educated company…he is dumb and unhappy, like an Indian in church.”

In a short space, Emerson managed to stereotype both Southern whites and Indians! That sort of language is an assault on the self-esteem of other humans who have their right to their own histories. The long-lasting North-South mutual contempt in this history, said Montville, needs modern acknowledgment. There was no better recent opportunity for that than the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry, who happened to be from Emerson’s Massachusetts. It might not have gotten Kerry more votes in the South, but a Kerry apology for these prejudices might have been a healing investment in the cure of the slumbering infections of American sectionalism. Were that apology ever to be tendered, its author would do well to confess that as regards the history of slavery and segregation of African Americans in this society, northern white people bore a full share of responsibility along with southern white people.[11]

There is no better demonstration of continuing racism in America, born of slavery, than the ninety-year history of segregation that followed the eleven-year postwar era we call Reconstruction. How puzzling it must be to foreigners who study U.S. history to observe how a federal government, having won the Civil War partly on grounds of turning former slaves into voting citizens, looked on contentedly to the disenfranchisement of freed slaves for ninety years after 1876. How did it happen? Read historian David Blight’s book, Race and Reunion, if you want to know. Blight does the work of a truth commission in a way all historians should be glad to imitate. “Revise” history? You bet! If we never revise it, a public falls victim to illusions about a past shot through with the holes of error and amnesia, much to the insult of ancestors and descendants of the abused, the neglected, and the real victims in that history. Blight, for example, describes the great 50-year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, wherein veterans Federal and Confederate shook hands on that battlefield and celebrated national reconciliation. Where in it all were survivors of those 180,000 African Americans who served in the northern armies? They were back behind the tents, sorting blankets, no more a part of the commemoration than they would be two years later when they were permitted no representation in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. “It was a white man’s experience and a white nation that the veterans and the spectators came to celebrate in July 1913″ and April 1915.”[12] And all this happened in the opening year of the presidency of the Virginian elected to the White House in 1912 after his service as president of a distinguished Northern university. After his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson proceeded to segregate the staff of that White House and to play host to the first screening of a racist film, Birth of a Nation.

There is a funny story that illustrates how these un-funny stories come to pass: A young man traveling in Mexico buys a talking parrot and ships it to his mother in Arkansas. A few days later he phoned and asked, “How did you like the bird, Mother?” “It was delicious!” she replied. “But mother, that was a talking bird!” “Well, then,” said she, “why didn’t he speak up?”  Societies muffle a multitude of voices. Inhibitions against speaking up publicly have afflicted African Americans for 400 years. Their voices have never been completely muffled, however. From Sojourner Truth to Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois, prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘fifties, a mounting chorus of voices prepared the way for the shouts for justice that burst into American politics in the nineteen-fifties. A Texan President, Lyndon Johnson, listened to those voices and did something in response to them. “We shall overcome,” he said to the U.S. Congress on March 15, 1965, as demonstrators in Selma, day after day, were marching to claim the right of all adult Americans to qualify as voters.

Those marchers, in turn, prepared the way for that Japanese-American effort to repair our national memory, for the anti-war movement of the ‘sixties, the Women’s Movement of the ‘seventies, and the Farmworkers’ outcry against their working conditions in the ‘eighties. One might say that, as we struggle to voice and to hear the truth of negative national history, we are seeing the work of a truth commission in bits and pieces. One revised history book or one film can start the process. They can educate future lawmakers, ministers, artists and university teachers to new articulate versions of a national past. Once a society has facilitated the speaking-up of long suppressed citizen voices, it is well on the way to creating a culture of memory and institutional changes that embody that memory with new measures of restorative justice. In the early 1990s Congress approved a change in the name of the national park where the Battle of Little Big Horn was fought. Now it is no longer “Custer Battlefield” but “Little Big Horn Battlefield.” One wonders if Congress accepted this change, urged by Lakota Indian leaders, because back in the ‘seventies some members had seen the film, Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George, a devastating undoing of myth surrounding General George Armstrong Custer.

But books and films are not enough for furnishing public memory with revisions. It is a comfort to us book-writers that occasionally we have some public influence, but many are the truths of negative history that get locked up for good on library shelves, leaving most citizens remain blissfully unaware of truths whose absence from public dialogue perpetuates the oppressions of public amnesia. Americans have reason for hope in various new public breaks in these silences, especially in the last ten or fifteen years. In late 2003 a president-appointed commission began work on the design of a museum of African American History and Culture to be located, we now expect, on the mall in Washington. That commission counted 238 local museums across the land which memorialize the triumphs and the tragedies of African American history, but it noted that a national African American museum is as overdue for “the nation’s frontyard” as was that to Native Americans, which opened in September 2004.

The refurbishment of public memory is a multi-faceted project. One illustration from my home state of Virginia I find especially encouraging. There, in its capitol city of Richmond, April 22, 2005, saw the dedication of a new museum, to be housed in the old Tredegar Ironworks, where once were manufactured guns for the Confederacy. For the first time ever among American museums, this one will tell three stories of the Civil War–Federal, Confederate, and African American. But even more dramatic is a movement in Richmond, capitol of the Confederacy, to come clean publicly about its deep investment in the slave trade of the 19th century. You can now walk a riverbank trail where once staggered the bare feet of slaves unloaded on the James River docks. And now, in an event without precedent in that proud Virginia city, its prestigious street of Confederate heroes, Monument Avenue, includes a statue of a famous African American athlete and a Richmond native: Arthur Ashe.

The story of that statue is worth telling. Back in 1863, in its classic capitol building, the state legislature of that fateful war year mourned the death of one of the great generals of their cause: Stonewall Jackson. They put his body on display in the classic capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson. Until 130 years later, no Virginian death would be so honored. That year, 1993, saw the body of Richmond’s world class tennis champion, displayed in the capitol. Ashe’s life has been cut short by a blood transfusion administered before doctors understood the sources of AIDS. He spent his last ten years promoting AIDS-awareness and education among young African Americans. His death prompted Richmonders to begin a civic dialogue on the question, “Should we not honor him further with a public statue in his memory? If we did so, where would we locate that statue?” Some said, “On the once-segregated tennis courts where he learned to play as a young person.” Others said, “Well, the place in Richmond that now honors our great war heroes is Monument Avenue, where our 19th century ancestors raised up horse-mounted generals, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson.” They say that the logjam in the 1995 city council hearing got broken when a white citizen rose to say, “If we put the statue on the tennis courts, it will say, ‘He was a great tennis player.’ If we put it on Monument Avenue, it will say, ‘He was a great man.’”

So they put it on Monument Avenue up the block from Stonewall. He lifts a tennis racquet in one hand; in the other, he extends a book toward a group of black children around his feet.

While this has been going my native southern state, some new humility about that great crime in American history–slavery–has come to public expression in some northeastern states, too. Yale, Brown, and Harvard universities are unearthing the fact that some of their earliest endowments came from slave trade profits. In New York, we have rediscovered an old slave burial ground where perhaps 20,000 slaves were interred, and it will soon become a national park memorial. Columbia historian Eric Foner recently wrote in the Times that New York was rivaled only by Charleston as an early American center of that trade, just as Wall Street was unrivaled in its financing of the Cotton Kingdom right up to the Civil War.

These vignettes from north-south alienations in the history of America are of a piece with the continuing legacies of the crime of slavery. To claim that, in 2005, the legacies have all disappeared is to have stopped listening to African American citizens themselves. How is that half of America’s two million prisoners are black? That African American young men in our cities have the highest rates of unemployment? Why did a Los Angeles Times editor, Jack Miles, observe in 1992 that the black baggage handlers in L.A. hotels and suburban gardeners had lost out to first-generation Mexican immigrants? How is it that on Park Avenue, New York, distinguished black Americans like Danny Glover and Cornel West could find themselves bypassed by taxis in favor of white pedestrians? Is it still true of American history and popular culture that, as Cornel West claims, “A profound hatred of African people…sits at the center of American civilization”?[13]

In sum, justice in the politics and culture of a society depends hugely upon the ability of rulers and the ruled to listen to the stories of injustice whose effects linger in the present. To restore accurate public memory of a shameful past is a work of justice that is at once intellectual, political, and moral. It is a necessary prelude to “doing the truth,” as the New Testament phrase puts it. That is one lesson of truth commissions in South Africa and elsewhere. Let me nominate one other lesson

Expansion of citizen empathy, the connective tissue of political dialogue

The city of Houston became only too famous recently for being the headquarters of a large failed corporation, Enron. The misjudgments, the foolish risks, and the probable criminal behavior of some leaders of that corporation are well known throughout the world, and they need no rehearsing here. If there is one feature of that scandal which tugs at my memory, however, it is what happened to thousands of Enron employees in the wake of that colossal management malfeasance. Many not only lost their jobs, but also their pensions, their mortgages, and–perhaps worst of all–their trust in a highly-respected group of human leaders who personified the capitalistic system. Even aside from Enron’s exploitation of electricity consumers in California, its former employees had every reason to express great anger at its corporate leaders: “You were in business for your own great profits. You did not really care for your own employees, not to speak of your customers.”

Is that too harsh a judgment? I think not. It brings to my mind the much-neglected ethical foundations of capitalism set forth by none other than its great economist hero, Adam Smith. Symbolic of that neglect is the fact that, in the mid-1980s, the library of the Columbia University School of Business Administration had on its shelves a half dozen copies of Adam Smith’s 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations and not a single copy of his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (By the way, the Library of my seminary across the street from Columbia has four copies of Moral Sentiments and not a single copy of Wealth of Nations!) Capitalism needs both books. In that earlier work, Smith wrote that morality consists of an observance of a plurality of standards–prudence, justice, and benevolence. The latter is our capacity to “enter into or identify ourselves with the joys and sorrows of others.” This requires imagination.

“By imagination we place ourselves in [another’s] situation, we conceive ourselves enduring the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something, which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike him.”

One might never imagine that the author of these words would become the touchstone of truth for advocates of twentieth century capitalism, or that he could ever have made statements like:

…. [T]he wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society.”[14]

Thus, Adam Smith’s ethic is a long way from authorizing an economy or a polity of cutthroat competition, unrelieved by actions that alleviate human suffering imposed by a system. One of his contemporaries took Smith to heart was Edmund Burke, the great exponent of political conservatism. Burke believed that we cannot truly empathize with the suffering of a neighbor without being moved to action to relieve that suffering. Of course, it is not always so. Acknowledgment of another’s suffering can remain merely intellectual and sentimental. Burke, by contrast, believed that genuine empathy leads to action. Politicians, he claimed, must practice empathy-at-a-distance, as he himself did in his public criticisms of the behavior of the English Governor of India, Warren Hastings, whom he accused to ignoring the interests of the Indian people. His subordinates, said Burke, were “young men” who “govern there, without society, and without sympathy with the natives” of India.[15]

The great summary ethical rule of the Hebrew and Christian traditions is: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rightly to comprehend our neighbors past and present is to empathize with them personally and contextually. To write humane history is to raise up our neighbors of the past into view as human beings like unto ourselves as well as different from ourselves. A few years ago, a Yale historian remarked that his job was to “resurrect the dead,” i.e., so to describe them that readers can identify with their real, concrete humanity. Among other things, this means trying to face, with them, the dilemmas they faced. If you are western North Carolina farmer in 1860 and you don’t want to fight a war, how do you keep out of it when all of your neighbors are rushing to join up? If you are Abraham Lincoln, will you oppose the Mexican War and risk not getting reelected in 1848? How do you get rid of slaves when they are your principal wealth and the only way to make the plantation work which you inherited? What must an eighteenth-century woman do faced with marrying a man she doesn’t love versus living a life of poverty? What do freed slaves do when they must either become share croppers or let their children starve? At least to empathize with such questions should be a hallmark of true historical imagination. It’s not just the facts that must be learned, but the human experience in which the facts are embedded. Was that not one of the great assumptions of the TRC’s quest for truth?

Empathy for others, including the radically different “other,” should be a hallmark of all education deserving the name “higher.” This spring of 2005, in his course on Middle Eastern affairs at New York’s Queens College, Professor Mark Rosenblum drew students ranging from Orthodox Jews to pro -Palestinian Muslims. His aim was to break down stereotypes in the minds of students on all sides of this and other world conflicts. Two students testified to the success of the course from their opposing political points of view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

  • [Iman Khan, U.S.-born to Bangladeshi parents]: People stop spreading legends and start talking the truth. That includes speaking truthfully about the other side. It is so easy to hate people on the other side when you don’t have to know them. But when you engage in discourse with them, you see they feel the way you do about your people. It’s not so easy to hate them anymore.
  • [Michael Kohan, Jewish]: I use to believe that the conflict could be solved militarily without a Palestinian state. But now I realize, whether I like it or not, there has to be one.[16]

Empathy for political enemies is a supremely difficult emotional-intellectual achievement. In every war, government treats the enemy as less human than its own citizens. Illustrations from American history are legion, never more so than right now. As of spring 2005, hardly any American newspapers print estimates of how many Iraqis have been killed in the current war. In the upstate New York village where we spend much of our summers, a local Presbyterian elder wanted to post publicly the number of American dead in the war alongside the estimated number of Iraqi. The proposal was disallowed by the town board as being “political.” Yes, when you count some dead and refuse to count others, you have made a political choice. In December 2003, a department of the surviving Iraq government proposed to calculate the number of Iraq dead in the war to date, and the U.S. military forbade that investigation to proceed. At the same time, by newspaper and television, we learned of every single death in our armed forces. If one needs a sign of how war corrupts human beings’ image of each other, there are those photographs from Abu Graib. The American president dismissed those photographs with the remark, “That’s not the America I know.” But it was one part of an America that the world now knows. Those who use those photographs to stereotype all Americans are guilty of propaganda as many of us are guilty of denial. Among other empathies, mine go out especially to those American military leaders who are deeply saddened by that awful misbehavior of some soldiers at Abu Graib. The photos unjustly damage the reputation of other soldiers and of an America that is not as evil as its enemies like to believe.

It is easy for everyone, including ordinary Americans, to condemn behavior of soldiers involved in this disgrace, but like the behavior of guards in the Nazi death camps, their example will do nothing for our moral growth if, horrorstruck, we cry, “How could they?” The more painful, necessary question is, “How could we?” Abu Graib gives us a glimpse of how victors can degrade themselves in the way they treat the vanquished. The movie, Sometimes in April portrays the Rwanda genocide in unforgettable images. At the end of the movie, a young woman visits the school where dozens of Hutu and Tutsi girls were slaughtered after they refused to divide themselves into the two tribal groups. As she trudges through a dark room, kicking up against bones and skulls, she cries out a prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!”

Many of us Christians pray those words without due seriousness about the “us.” From his long interviews with the German doctors at Auschwitz, Robert Lifton raised the painful question to himself, “Am I, a medical doctor, also capable of degrading myself and my profession in the service of those awful experiments on men, women and children in the laboratories of Auschwitz?” In Rwanda, recruits to the genocidal gangs have sometimes confessed afterwards, “The first person you kill is hard, but the second is easier, and after four or five you get used to it.” Are we all like that? Is it wise or courageous to dismiss the question?

No doubt the most strenuous challenge of empathy comes vis a vis people who least empathize with ourselves. What kind of human is one who commandeers a civilian airplane and crashes it into city towers killing several thousand Americans and citizens of eighty-two other nationalities? Must one worry with trying to empathize with those terrorists? Adam Smith’s “prudence” alone might answer “yes, for the sake of warding off other terrorists.” But then there is Adam Smith’s “justice and benevolence.” Let it be clear that “empathy” is not the same as “sympathy”. Understanding how someone becomes a murderer is no excuse for murder. But the empathy-destroying impulse to destroy one’s enemies before they destroy you resides in the psyche of every human, including this writer. Not long ago, undergoing one of those security inspections in an airport, I found myself saying out loud, “God, I hate those terrorists.” Later I had to remember the hard teaching of the man to whom I, as a Christian, have sworn loyalty: “You have heard it said to people of old, ‘Thou shalt not kill….’ but I say to you…whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to hellfire.” (Matt. 5:22). By that standard, I fear, a lot of us Christians in America stand in danger or going to hell.

Most distressingly these days, empathy-defying hatred flames out between Americans themselves in the very name of God. Have you noticed the temper of the rhetoric that flies between different wings of the American Christian movement? Not long ago a North Carolina Christian called the current president of my seminary an “anti-Christ” because of his views on abortion. I have heard a liberal-minded Christian woman, grief-stricken over the death of her son in Iraq, call current White House leaders “maniacal hypocrites.” And not long ago, Bill O’Reilley conversed with a young Muslim, who, while condemning terrorism, started to talk about the humiliation which many Muslims feel in their experience of westerners. O’Reilly speedily cut him off, over talked him, and ordered him off camera.

These are bad omens for the influence of religion on politics and public communication in America. How shall we address the great theological split now between those articulate Christians who want to focus the public ethical agenda on issues of sex, abortion, and gay marriage and those who are sure that, of all ethical demands in the Bible, justice for the poor is far and away the most prominent? Evangelical-bashing, liberal-bashing, secularist-bashing are far from the contribution that Christians were called to make to the ancient public world. Back then, Jesus complimented us with the possibility that we might be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” (Matt. 5: 13-14) Christian degradation of each other and any of our neighbors is a fundamental violation of the Jesus rule: “Hereby shall others know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34, 15:12)

New York’s Judge Learned Hand may not have meant to speak religiously when he said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right”; but that great Micah norm of “walking humbly with God” should call Bible-believers to remember that God is the final judge of our attempts to discern truth and to do justice. We Protestants need to imitate the passionate outcry of Oliver Cromwell to a bunch of Scottish Calvinist soldiers, “I beseech you by the mercies of Christ, think that you may be wrong!” (Many people in Ireland have hostile memories of Oliver Cromwell, but let us give that English leader credit for some political wisdom!)

My mentor Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that the one certain truth in the Bible, empirically confirmable, is: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) I will ask the pardon of those who read this lecture when it sounds, right here, like a sermon; but I am bound to cry out to contemporary citizens and politicians who resort to religious language in politics: Would you pause and take a few lessons from the public speeches of the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln? Did you notice the traces of a Micah spirit in that Second Inaugural Address, the spirit of “justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God?” Not “both sides have read the bible, but our side has read it rightly,” but rather, “Both [have] read the same Bible and pray to the same God…but the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” Not “with firmness in the right that we all along knew as right,” but rather “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Not “let us rejoice that those rebels have suffered the just vengeance of our armies.” But rather: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us…bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan. Finally, not only a “lasting peace” but also a “just” one, and not only inside this fractured America but also “with all nations.”

This last public speech of Lincoln, you know, now thought to be his greatest, got little praise in the Northern Press, which blamed him for not trumpeting the victory over the south and not resonating with the triumph of the Union over secession. Lincoln knew that the speech would not be popular with war-weary northerners: “Men are not flattered,” he mused, “by being shown that there is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”[17] Lincoln was not even a member of a Christian church, but he read the Bible enough to have known what German theologian Martin Niemoeller knew as he looked out of his cell window in Dachau: “God is not the enemy of our enemies. God is not even the enemy of God’s own enemies.”

So here at the end I will confess, as one Christian theologian to an audience and readership of many other religious persuasions, that achieving empathy for my personal and political enemies is no easy task, one likely to remain imperfectly done to my dying day. But I think I know the importance of the task. An American psychologist of another generation said once, “Democracy depends upon the ability of voters, once in the voting booth, to vote for somebody else’s interest in addition to their own.” Applied to the great range of interests affirmed by our neighbors local and worldwide, it is a strenuous rule. But, like the moral legacy of the South African TRC, it is a rule that calls citizens to stretch our capacity for empathy beyond the sympathies natural to us in our families, among our friends, and among people most like us. We need public leaders who will help us in that stretching of our empathies. Where are the politicians who should have called us, soberly and attentively, to empathy with both the parents and the husband of Terri Schiavo? Where, those who should tell us that the Islamic world really is suffering from a sense of inferiority which cannot be cured by the wealth, technology and weapons of the West? Where, leaders of religion and state who not only condemn the treatment of prisoners at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay but who, on behalf of soldiers bound by a different military ethic, offer the world a public apology on behalf of all us Americans? Where is the public patience, among citizens and leaders alike, to listen to Germans who warn against the political arrogance from which their nation suffered so much in the 20th century? Where, the humility to say to the Chinese, “You have some of your statistics wrong, but you are right that we have a way to go in America before we have a clean record on human rights?” And where, the public and private recall of a South African struggle to fit together truth, justice, mercy, and empathy in such a way that wrongdoing citizens are still citizens, and wrong-damaged citizens are candidates for public reparation?

For that reparation, we Americans will need the patience of a multi-dimensional public truth-telling to each other, a conversion from our proclivity for defining justice as retribution rather than restoration, and mutual commitments to a journey toward reconciliation marked by mileposts of expanded empathy for enemies and other strangers. Thank God for what South Africans have already done to set up those mileposts. Thank God, too, for Americans who have embarked on the same journey.


[1]. Alex Boraine, A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 267.

[2]. Boraine, p. 288.

[3]. Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (New York: Times Books, 1998), p. 32. She is paraphrasing Chilean philosopher Jose Zalaquett.

[4]. Boraine, pp. 290-291.

[5]. Personal communication.

[6]. John Paul Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999), p. 79.

[7]. Boraine, p. 80.

[8]. For an extended analysis of the work of this commission, in the context of secular forms of collective repentance and forgiveness, cf. My book, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 155-167.

[9]. Roger Wilkins, Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), pp. 121-122.

[10]. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), p. 7.

[11]. Personal communication from Joseph Montville.

[12]. David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p 387.

[13]. Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press), p. 73.

[14]. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. E.G. West (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), pp. xx, 9, 346.

[15]. Edmund Burke, “Speech on Mr. Fox’s East-India Bill,” in David Bromwich, ed., On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters of Edmund Burke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 310.

[16]. The New York Times, March 8, 2005, p. B8.

[17]. Cf. Ronald C. White, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2202) p. 189, and Forrest Church, The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p.55.

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  2. This article is like a long conversation with a compassionate scholar who presented his arguments one-by-one on why America needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People are hurting. As Shriver stated, the injustices committed in the past are not in the past, but are lived every day. It is a legacy that led one Black man to exclaim, “America hates us”. Shriver does not condemn any particular people, and is conciliatory in his tone. He seeks healing for both the oppressed and the oppressor in our history. Healing for the oppressed in the way of public acknowledgement and reparation; and healing for the oppressor in the way of restoration rather than retribution. But, he isn’t as empathetic to the pervasive, willful blindness of many to the suffering of others. His tone is hopeful. Shriver suggests it could take one movie or one book to restore our blindness to injustice, and cites textbooks that are coming closer to the truth of our past with vivid pictures and oral histories. He states that his education in 1942 of Columbus’s discovery of America would not have prepared him for the Native American protest of Columbus in 1992 over the killing of one to three million of their people shortly after the discovery of the New World. What would be the value of Americans confronting past and present injustices? People would not be denigrated as objects of war as in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay or the weighing of Covid 19 deaths versus the death of the economoy. We would recognize our mistakes before we commit them. We would weigh in favor of others over profits. We would raise up our children to be critical thinkers, voters, and good leaders.


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