Our second-grade daughter made her first reconciliation recently. She had some questions about the two kinds of sin.
“Mortal sins are the big sins that God doesn’t forgive, right?” she asked. I told her that God always forgives all our sins. Then why, she wondered, do we bother distinguishing the more serious from the less serious sins? I told her sin separates us from God and one another. With bigger sins we have gone farther away from God and one another, and so we have to move our hearts more to be close again to God and others. God always forgives, but we also have to be willing to give of ourselves to bridge the gap. Carpool theology has its challenges.
That same week, Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, O.P., chairman of the Burundi national independent Human Rights Commission, spoke to my students at Catholic University about peacebuilding and reconciliation. From the time of Father Emmanuel’s birth, just before Burundi’s independence in 1963, until today, Burundi has known five decades of violence, including the 12- year war from 1994 to 2006 that left more than 300,000 people dead, mostly civilians, and many times that number traumatized and displaced. How do people put a country back together after such serious and violent divisions? Father Emmanuel and the Catholic Church in Burundi are working at all levels of society to make the fragile peace more sustainable. At the individual and community level, he works with Centre Ubuntu to help restore moral values and rebuild social trust and relationships. Through narrative theater, communities name and acknowledge their troubles and publicly play-act the difficulties in their communities. It is a form of truth-telling and public acknowledgement that is important after conflict, a type of truth and reconciliation process at the village level, more accessible and less threatening to people than formal governmental processes because it comes in the package of laughter and play. The process helps start people talking, trusting and even working on common community projects together. It can open up individuals and communities for greater healing over time.
Father Emmanuel decried dehumanizing opponents, from calling the opposition “enemies to the country” to “parasites” and “beasts.” Such talk lowers the moral bar, breaks social bonds between opposing groups and facilitates the tearing of the social fabric, which takes decades to rebuild. The new Burundi Human Rights Commission is just setting up shop and hiring personnel. Soon it will issue difficult reports, investigating past and current violations of human rights. As for reconciliation, Father Emmanuel says, “We are not there yet.”
Listening to Father Emmanuel, I wonder about ourselves. Are we there yet? Too often we appreciate the need for peacebuilding abroad but fail to see the need for reconciliation and peacebuilding at home. As I took Father Emmanuel on a tour of the monuments in Washington, D.C., he noted all the war memorials (World War II, Korea, Vietnam) but found no monument to peace on the National Mall. Pickup trucks with confederate flag bumper stickers, pro-gun slogans and racist caricatures of President Obama moved by us in traffic. We passed the sites where the Occupy movements had been protesting but were being moved out, despite Constitutional guarantees to the right to assemble and to petition the government peacefully. In his quiet and respectful manner, Father Emmanuel asked why the United States urges peacebuilding and reconciliation abroad but not at home, why the United States reports on human rights violations in other countries each year but never issues its own human rights report.
It is a good question. The United States has been torn by centuries of violence, yet we had no ”truth and reconciliation commission” at the end of the Civil War or after the civil rights movement. Today, overheated political rhetoric picks at that scab. Dehumanizing the opposition as enemies of the country, parasites and beasts tears the social fabric here as well as abroad. As Catholics, we are committed to reconciliation, communion and the peace of Christ, not just in the church building on the weekend among people like ourselves. God forgives all sins. But we have work to do in reconciliation, beyond the confessional to the public square.