Subject: Bishop Belo's Reconciliation Speech
Date: Sat, 06 Mar 1999 09:30:34 -0500
From: "Kathleen O'Connor" <>

Bishop Belo's Reconciliation Speech given on 18th Feb 1999 at Santa Sophia, Camberwell, Victoria and on 24th Feb 1999 at St Mary's Cathedral Hall, Sydney, NSW

It appears to me that the problems of East Timor, which are so much in your news media at the moment, are not unique to East Timor. They occur in many countries in these final years of the 20th century. There are special characteristics to the present culture of violence throughout Indonesia and East Timor, as there are to other places in the world where people live in fear. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy it seems that each country is unhappy in its own way.

I want to talk to you today about Reconciliation and the processes involved in reducing conflict, and moving from fear and anger to peace and development. Reconciliation is not simply made of shaking hands and speaking some fine words. It certainly does not involve forgetting the past and marching on regardless. Reconciliation means much more than that. It is not easy. It is hard, strenuous and difficult. It is also necessary. In fact it is crucial if societies which are split apart by politics and terror are to regenerate and become places where human dignity is respected.

I am indebted to the work of American theologian Robert Schreiter for his insights into reconciliation through his work for the Caritas network, the organisation which has brought me to Australia for this occasion.

Other prime sources of insight can be found in the transcripts of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In that Commission ordinary people have the chance to tell their story. It is an open, public process that relies strongly on a widespread desire to heal wounds, not exact retribution.

I will not talk about the crimes which have been committed in my country, East Timor. Although enough can never be said on that subject to satisfy the many victims, I want to concentrate on the future and perhaps to suggest some ideas about working for a true and just peace through processes of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a word which is used a great deal in Christian writings for it comes to us directly from the life and example of Jesus Christ. In the short time that I have been here I have noticed that Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is a subject of considerable importance in Australia. You have a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Other countries too have adopted the words and practices of Reconciliation ñ South Africa, Chile, Rwanda, to name only a few. But it is clear that Reconciliation in Australia is not straightforward. Setting up a national institution does not necessarily affect the feelings and understandings that lie in the hearts of ordinary men and women.

Sometimes the word Reconciliation is linked to the word Truth. South Africa has a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That is an extremely important conjunction of meanings ñ Truth and Reconciliation. For it is only through establishing and agreeing on the Truth that we can achieve Reconciliation.

Take the story told by Reverend Mpambami to that Commission:

ìPeter and John are friends. It happened that Peter stole a bicycle from John, and then after three weeks Peter came to John saying, John let's talk about reconciliation. And then John said, I donít think we need talk about reconciliation at the present moment until you bring back my bicycle. Where is my bicycle? And Peter said, No, let us forget about the bicycle, let us talk about reconciliation. And then John said, We cannot talk about reconciliation until my bicycle is back.

We cannot deal with reconciliation until the people who are victimised sit down around the table and talk about what happened first. The bicycle may be replaceable but the dead are not. We cannot go to a shop and buy back those people who are dead.

Nelson Mandela has said: To make peace with your enemy, one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes your partner.

What does he mean by that? Simply that in order to make a new start to lives fractured by violence and fear, we must talk with our persecutor. Recognition must be made by the perpetrators of crimes as to the facts of what happened, and victims need to be prepared for the recognition that crimes in which they suffered need to be put to rest and the burden of shame, fear and anger can be relieved. This needs to happen in a mutual process based on equality and dignity for all concerned.

Living in fear, faced every day with violence, creates victims paralysed and captive to the past. Our concern must be to break the cycle of violence. There are many parts of the world where the violence continues for many years after the initial events think of the Middle East or of Northern Ireland. Our concern must be to create new living conditions where the victims can become survivors. To do that requires true reconciliation both individual reconciliation and social reconciliation.

The last twenty years has seen numerous attempts by governments to establish Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. In many of these the Church has played a leading role, particularly in South America. Some 25 official Commissions have been established relying mainly on public hearings where victims can present their cases. These have been situations where there was an urgent need to establish clearly the truth of what happened because many governments refuse to recognise the truth. They develop the capacity to lie on a grand scale, to distort facts, to divide people. When that occurs we need a process of restoring a moral order to society. A moral order grounds civil society and it uses the law to institutionalise its morality.

It is amazing how powerful a weapon the truth is in the fight against dictatorship. Take the example of Argentina where a military dictatorship ruled throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, conducting a war against its own people who merely wanted an open, democratic country. The crucial event which more than anything else brought about the downfall of that dictatorship is found in the actions of the grandmothers and mothers who started to meet outside the Presidential Palace in the capital Buenos Aires. They were the grandmothers and mothers of children who had disappeared and they carried photographs of their loved ones. They were asking for information as to their whereabouts and they continued to meet for many months in that very public place. The authorities did not dare to oppose them through confrontation and their continued presence, with the photographs of their children brought home the truth of that regime to many millions of people.

Telling the truth through a public process is the first element of reconciliation. In many countries, not just Indonesia, or Australia, the factual truth of what happened, perhaps hundreds of years ago, lives with us now. If that truth is not recognised, or it has been distorted by the political process, it becomes very difficult to agree on the facts of what happened. When governments state that certain events have not happened, and yet we have the victims before us to testify that they did, government loses its credibility, and it loses its authority. We see before us today governments that lack natural authority and have to make up for that by the use of force. They do not have the support of the people because they are not trusted by the people. We hear many fine words seeking national unity, cooperation and harmony, yet, almost in the same breath orders are given to military units to shoot civilians, protesters are rounded up, many disappear, many are tortured. No government which governs by the use of force can survive except by force. There is no going back because force begets force and the perpetrators of crimes live in fear that they might become victims in their turn.

People torn apart from each other by violence and discrimination can only resume peaceful humane relationships if they recognise the events which have caused so much harm. The need to recognise the truth of what happened and then come to an agreement about how future relations are going to be handled. But as long as the truth remains unrecognised those relations will be constrained for as long as memories survive. It is clear that such memories survive a very long time. Even today victims of the Holocaust in Europe retain the memory of what happened to them 50 years ago.

The life and example of Jesus Christ teaches us that the victims should be our first concern. Victims of violence bear more than physical scars. The psychological burden can remain for the rest of their lives and sometimes it is so overwhelming that it results in suicide. Such cases are well documented. I understand that Australia has become home to many thousands of people from war-torn countries bearing these burdens. I thank God that a refuge is available and that its people will welcome the survivors.

But the life and example of Jesus Christ teaches us more than to take care of the victims. It teaches us that the victims themselves bear more than simply the burden of their mistreatment. We learn that it is the victims themselves who must start the process of reconciliation. Jesus Christ was Himself a victim of violence. He was crucified by the Roman State, experiencing a horrible painful death. In His resurrection we see the victim overcoming his pain. His friends and disciples, in great fear themselves, abandoned Him in the hour of His greatest need. In His return to life He approached the disciples and brought them to the understanding that they must spend the rest of their lives spreading the word of His teachings. They overcame their fear. They recognised their own abandonment of Jesus and they built new lives. We read in the Gospels of the transformation which Jesus underwent through His death. Victims need to transform themselves into survivors and ultimately some are able to approach their tormentors without hatred.

I have heard that many stories of transformation of victims have been recounted during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. One story is that of a man who accidentally met his former torturer in a car sales room. He was initially tempted with the idea of killing him with a knife but his anger was dissipated when he talked to the man and found him poor, sick and friendless. He arranged for him to get to hospital but the former torturer died soon after. The survivor now felt able to shake off the burden of bitterness and hatred and was able to move forward with his life. The former torturer felt relieved of the burden of shame which his work had placed on him.

That is an example of reconciliation between two former enemies. It is based on recognition of the facts of what happened and then the mutual need to move on to a new life unburdened by the past. The past is never forgotten. But its burden is lessened.

When we have whole societies needing to reconcile the difficulties become even greater. The effort being made in South Africa to create a public debate on reconciliation is a great step forward. Their Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a very open process. It is not bounded by legalities such as courts of law impose but is closer to the oral traditions of Africa, allowing ordinary South Africans to recount their stories in a public way, first of all to establish the truth of what happened. There has been discussion about reparations, of vengeance and of justice. Observers have sometimes been overwhelmed by the expressions of magnanimity and generosity shown by those who have suffered. I think we in this part of the world have a lot to learn from this new experience. For what is required of us is that we come to some sort of public judgement about the past and to start the process of building on that judgement so that we can start new lives in the new millennium.

I have read too about your Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and its report on the Stolen Children. This report recounts many stories of suffering, perhaps not so much of physical violence, but of psychological violence. It seems to me that the capacity to tell these stories, in a public way, shows great courage. Undoubtedly the survivors gain by relieving the burden of secret memory and bringing it into the open for all to see. Their private knowledge has now become public knowledge. This new public knowledge acknowledges a truth which had not been widely known before. It seems to me that there is no going back to a time when those stories were not public. Those truths are now part of the public discourse of your society. No-one can pretend that these events did not happen. The effects of government policy are now clear.

In Indonesia we have lived for so long under a regime which distorted facts and language every day that we will need many such reports to be able to establish that sort of clarity. To tell the truth in a public process will require peace and the abandonment of the use of force by government before people will be willing to cooperate. The political process needs to establish a new governmental mechanism in East Timor. Our greatest fears are that this is not yet underway and that in fact we have more violence to meet before that can even start.

I have not spoken about justice. I think we need to think carefully about different types of justice. A process of reconciliation presents to us the idea of a restorative justice not a justice of retribution. Let us compare the two and seek the best way forward. I do not offer any particular solution. We should observe carefully what happens in other parts of the world where the fighting may have ended but the conflict continues.

Neither have I spoken today of forgiveness. It would be quite wrong of us to demand forgiveness from those who have been hurt so deeply. That is not something that is within our power. Individual acts of forgiveness are proof of the grace of God.

Pope John Paul II has captured the relationship of truth to justice, especially as it relates to forgiveness, in his message for the 1997 Day of World Peace. He says that there are two things required to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation: respect for the truth and a justice that is not limited to that which is right among the parties to the conflict, but looks above all to re-establish authentic relations with God, with the self, with others. Truth prepares the ground for justice.

Kathleen O'Connor at CISET, Sydney. +61 2 9957 3746 ph email <> +61 2 9957 3746 fax

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