What is Reconciliation about?

Image: JCRS

Aim of Reconciliation Studies is the scholarly description, interpretation and evaluation of processes of creating "normal" and if possible "good" relationships between states, groups, organisations, and individuals reacting against past, present or preventing future grave incidents such as wars, civil wars, genocides, atrocities, forced displacement, enslavement, dictatorship, oppression, colonialism, Apartheid, and other human rights violations and injustices.

While on a surface the good relationships are between States, groups, organisations and individuals, on a deeper level we always deal with five dimensions of reconciliation:

  1. With oneself
  2. With the other(s)
  3. With the own group
  4. With environment
  5. With transcendance

Reconciliation is about personal encounters between victims and perpetrators (through and beyond Truth and Reconciliation Commissions), but also about changing structural violence, such as poverty and exclusion, and creating a culture free from hatred and negative stereotypes about the other group, by fostering justice and mutual respect.

Reconciliation, the long-term work to create better relations between (former) enemies after massive carnage, is a promising alternative to continuing tensions, violence and the destruction of lives through never-ending hostilities. It is demanding, also on a psychological and spiritual level. It is costly, but certainly much less than the culture of security through weapons and armies.

Reconciliation fosters the creation of a “culture of peace." The peace sought via reconciliation is not an ideal one, but that what is at stake is the reconstruction of communal relationships after open warfare.

A common misunderstanding concerning reconciliation perceives it as if reconciliation implies that victims would accept the wrongdoings of the perpetrators giving up all claims to justice, reparation or security against the repetition of violence. Reconciliation, on the contrary, includes justice, reparation, work on trauma, security building and a long-term and consistent confrontation of the violent past and the guilt of the perpetrators, including their punishment.

Which practices does reconciliation involve?

Reconciliatory processes involve several practices like:

  1. Political and legal provisions, like: treaties of cooperation, clarifications of territorial disputes;
  2. Creation of a common security architecture, with disarmament and crisis management;
  3. Apologies and symbolic acts to show friendship and to honor the victims by politicians representing the country;
  4. Reparations and other attempts at restoration;
  5. Cooperation in regard to economic, legal, ecological and international issues, including mutual-help in cases of disaster;
  6. Cooperation in civil society, such as city-twinning, youth and student exchange programs;
  7. Confrontation with history: opening of archives; the work of historians; preservation of a past narrative through museums and memorials; confrontation with individual history through the right of victims to know;
  8. Encounters between victims and perpetrators, through and beyond Truth and Reconciliation Commissions;
  9. Intentional strategies designed to humanize the image of the other, to overcome negative stereotypes, to build historical dialogue and common schoolbook commissions, changing education towards more understanding of the other group;
  10. Changing the discourse of religious leaders concerning the other group, especially if the difference between the groups is also a difference between religions;
  11. Individual medical, psychological (trauma therapies) and social help for the victims;
  12. Specific practices for intergenerational issues related to reconciliation (survivor-witness-programs, formation also beyond schools).

What does reconciliation take into account?

Reconciliatory processes are multidimensional and take into account:

  1. An orientation towards the past: The past must be dealt with, if reconciliation is to take place. Telling of the victims’ narratives and their acknowledgment by both the perpetrators as well as by the society are paramount in reconciliatory processes;
  2. Conserving the past: The past must also be remembered by building museums and memorials, by books written by historians, by archives and by the conservation of the sites of suffering;
  3. Truth: Truth must be sought, known and acknowledged by all, including the perpetrators;
  4. Guilt: Individual perpetrators have done wrong through their free will. They are responsible for their deeds and must confess their guilt;
  5. Words of apology and forgiveness: Granting forgiveness demands in many cases the verbal expression of guilt from the perpetrator's side. Official apologies often pave the way towards reconciliatory processes;
  6. Empathy: It is vital for the public and also for perpetrators and victims to show empathy and compassion with the victims;
  7. Emotions: Reconciliation with the former perpetrator and with oneself, social and individual healing can happen only through the expression of emotions;
  8. A vision of a common future for victims and perpetrators: This leads to a new cooperation and provides security for both partners,  cf. "Never again." It includes the acceptance of the perpetrator into the moral community, which is possible through an accepted apology or/and through punishment including reparations;
  9. For religious people, human reconciliation is related to reconciliation with God. In Christianity the reconciliation of the world with God (2 Cor 5:19) is the presupposition of inter-human reconciliation, in Judaism inter-human reconciliation is a precondition for the reconciliation with God on the "Great day of reconciliation (Yom Kippur)" and in the eschatological future;
  10. In the academic field: Reconciliation Studies are a new trans-disciplinary approach, which aims at overcoming the shortcomings of traditional security policies and peace-building strategies.

Which is JCRS peculiar approach to reconciliation?

In his novel “Hyperion”, the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) wrote: "Versöhnung ist mitten im Streit und alles Getrennte findet sich wieder." [Reconciliation is in the middle of strife and all that was separated finds each other again.] (Friedrich Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, Darmstadt 1998, Vol. 1, p. 760). In antithesis to a widespread notion in political science, where reconciliation is seen as an event that occurs only after the end of the conflict, the "Hölderlin perspective" pays attention to those elements in a conflict that speak for, and potentially lead towards, reconciliation: groups or individuals who disagree with the conflict, common laws and customs, moments of economic cooperation, common feelings, correlations of acting and reacting, etc. According to the Hölderlin perspective, reconciliation starts now, already in the middle of violent conflict, even if it might take many years before a stable peace is possible.

Through the "Hölderlin perspective", at the JCRS we study reconciliation as a comprehensive process, which includes civil society as well as some political leaders, specialists of many disciplines as well as grassroot activists, lawyers as well as psychologists, religious leaders as well as historians, popular media as well as classical literature, women as well as men. Often reconciliation is lived as a spiritual path, but it can also be seen in completely pragmatic terms.

Reconciliation does not mean cheap peace or the giving up of rights. Reconciliation necessarily includes truth and justice. All those who want a better future for themselves or their children and grandchildren are invited to take reconciliation as a possibility into consideration.