RECONCILIATION OR JUSTICE?
Why do we have to have a choice between reconciliation and justice? Actually, in my opinion, you can’t have reconciliation in its truest sense without justice. There can be different levels of justice, and thus different levels of reconciliation. Starting with the lowest and worse would simply be silence and acquiescence. This would be when the victims accept their plight, and for the sake of “peace,” or the sake of survival, simply keep quiet and refuse to confront the abuser or oppressor. To the oppressor this may feel like “peace” or reconciliation, since the act or system that defines the oppression is not threatened, nor the oppressor made to feel guilty. The victim may or may not harbor bitterness, hatred, or feelings of shame, but the objective reality is that their acquiescence is not in fact justice. By contrast there can be the very spiritual and amazing act of forgiveness without any reason to give it except love, or grace, and this is most magnificently demonstrated in the crucifixion of Jesus. This is where one suffers injustice, does not mentally or morally acquiesce to it, but instead carries the suffering while knowing full well its evil, but forgives the tormentor. To some who witness such love it may seem no different than the silent sufferer, but in fact it is completely opposite. It is a brave and courageous act, and so sublime as to seem a miracle. The forgiveness to an unrepentant oppressor is an act of justice because the victim decides to bear the evil. This is what forgiveness is when there has been no confession, repentance, or recompense. Forgiveness is the kind of justice that knows full well how evil the oppression has been, but refuses to let it define itself as victim, suffers the wounds and chooses not to strike back.
This does not excuse the oppressor before God or morality. Ultimate justice will still be played and distributed, at least according to the Bible. “Justice is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Temporarily however, the oppressor is saved from retribution. What the oppressor is not saved from is his bondage to his own evil, racism, brutality, arrogance, and self-deception. He is not saved from his alienation towards those he has oppressed. This is to some degree justice delayed by the choice of the oppressed, but it is not reconciliation. Then there is a partial justice, which can be admission of fault, admission of historical oppression or recent injustice, and a willingness to tell and own the truth. For many oppressors and victims of injustice this is a liberating moment. Finally, for the afflicted to hear the oppressor tell the truth, to stop denying and hiding, to begin to bear some of the shame and pain of the past for themselves can be the beginning of a road to healing for both sides. Even here those who were oppressed may choose to carry the results of oppression and forgive the oppressor. In this there is possible some reconciliation, some peace based on truth. It still requires the price be paid by the victim, and if they choose to do so, then to some degree justice has been requited. Again, forgiveness is miraculous, and healing. For those who were at one time oppressors to truly receive such forgiveness, and to understand its price, is devastatingly humbling. If the oppressed choose not to forgive, then there is no reconciliation, though the oppressor may feel emotionally relieved of their burden. In many ways this makes the victim twice the victim. Hurt is now coupled with bitterness and hate. Though an outside prison may have been opened it is replaced with one on the inside of the soul. When truth is told by abusers and oppressors, and they pursue acts of restitution and recompense, they put flesh on words and bring proof of repentance; it cannot change the past, but it can change the course of the present toward an equitable future. This also can bring great liberation in the souls of both oppressor and oppressed. It can bring about meaningful reconciliation as not just emotional healing takes place but social, legal, and economic restoration take shape. Unfortunately there are some victims who cannot recover, or who will not. Their bitterness has become their identity, it has become the way they navigate life, and they seem to have no tools by which to disconnect it from their souls. This is the continual tragedy of injustice, but the repentant former oppressor no longer fully owns it because there is nothing they can do about it except to keep loving. It now lies solely in the heart of those who cannot give up the pain to find a way out, and this we believe Jesus offers them through his power. In this world some things seem impossible to forgive, except by the grace and power of God. The pursuit of justice should never simply be acquiescence. It may sometimes have to be forgiveness in the face of an abuser’s refusal to admit, tell, or seek the truth. We recognize peacemaking then to be one sided, and not fully realized, and quite apt to erupt in more oppression. Truth in that case must continually and courageously be told to power, and for the Christian pursued always with a heart ready to forgive and reconcile. Truth may not be kind, but believers must be. Forgiveness does not mean leaving the helpless undefended, and the refusal to call power to the acknowledgement of truth and justice is an abandonment of the very ones God calls us to champion. Oppression hides behind self-justification, excuses, rules, systems, etc. Truth must dismantle everything that allows unjust outcomes and love must bridge the breach to justice.