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Reconciliation and forgiveness

Mary Bryant

21 June 2006

Recent events in East Timor have focused attention once more on the need to achieve reconciliation after a period of conflict. After 1999 it was reconciliation with former militia members and with Indonesia that was needed. Now it is reconciliation between so-called “Easterners” and “Westerners”, Lorosae and Loromonu.

While there has been a formal reconciliation process in East Timor in the form of the Repection, Truth and Reconciliaiton Commission (CAVR), President Xanana Gusmao has also consistently advocated for reconciliation throughout the country, most recently through the documentary A Hero’s Journey.

Central to Xanana’s approach is the role of forgiveness in healing the past. He has repeatedly called on his people not to demand punishment for their former oppressors, on the grounds that this can lead to a destructive cycle of revenge.

Xanana has obviously come to his own peace with the past, and his role as a peacemaker in the new nation cannot be overestimated. But from a Catholic point of view, forgiveness by itself might not produce the fruits that are needed for a country thirsting for peace. This is my reflection on this issue, based not on a deep understanding of the politics and history of East Timor, but on the insights that a deep understanding of the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation can offer a country like East Timor.

The sacrament of reconciliation is designed to bring peace, healing and restoration to the minds, hearts and souls of people who have committed sin or have been wounded by sin and need to forgive. For the most part the healing is a mystery, and yet most people accept that to forgive or to ask for forgiveness brings a freedom and release to the heart (feelings), soul (relationship to God) and mind (conscience).

Although the sacrament is traditionally a relationship between the individual and God but it also has relevance for communities and nations.

Forgiveness is normally understood as a personal choice to sacrifice pain and suffering in the hope of peace and healing. It is ultimately an act of faith with no proof that the peace will come and an understanding that relief is not always immediate. Christians are promised salvation for this offering. The word “salvation” itself is derived from the word ‘salve’ meaning to heal.

The word “forgive” is translated from two words and means to give completely, or completely give. Or the word may simply be pulled apart to mean to give before. The mystery of the sacrament of reconciliation is rooted in this notion that the sinner offers their sin and this is transformed, not into admonishment but mercy, healing and restoration.

Reconciliation requires forgiveness. But equally, forgiveness requires truth and justice. For any nation that has experienced trauma and human rights, establishing the truth is the starting point in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. As Pope John Paul II said in his message on World Peace Day 1997,

Forgiveness, far from precluding the search for truth, actually requires it. The evil which has been done must be acknowledged and as far as possible corrected [justice]. It is precisely this requirement which has led to the establishment in various parts of the world of appropriate procedures for ascertaining the truth regarding crimes between ethnic groups or nations, as a first step towards reconciliation.

Justice is the sister of truth. It responds to the sins uncovered in the exploration of truth. It is a deeply a sensitive legal, social, emotional and political process that requires ongoing commitment and resources. This continues to be the challenge for East Timor as it attempts to balance the need for justice with the reality of having to live with Indonesia. In Australia we are confronted and continue to grapple with the question of saying sorry and the need to take responsibility for the sufferings of Indigenous people over the past two hundred years.

Pope John Paul II reminds us that forgiveness is not a substitute to justice but an integral part of the process of peacebuilding. He states that:

forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not of justice. In fact, true peace is “the work of justice. Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquillity of order, which is much more than a fragile, and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds, which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing.

This has, at times, been recognised by Xanana — for instance, when he writes that “those who committed violations of human rights should face trial as a gesture of repentance.”

The thing that stays constant in both East Timor and in our own nation is that people want peace and thirst for healing. This desire is the fuel that propels them into the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. The sacrament of reconciliation promises that the fruits of this process will be peace, restoration and healing. What must not be forgotten or simplified are the cries for truth and justice – the things that are truly needed for reconciliation to produce fruits.

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