Friday, November 14, 2008

Roger Ebert: Honorary Mennonite

Roger Ebert just did a good Howard Zehr impression on his blog with The third most important story of the year.

In a wide-ranging essay on religion, racism and violence, Ebert talks about the recent Muslim fatwa against terrorism, his firsthand impressions of Iran, and how South Africa managed a peaceful transition of power.

It made me think about how blacks in South Africa had to endure Nazi-like rule and would have been competely justified in violent overthrow of their government, according to the morality of Just War.

But not only did they manage a peaceful transition without resorting to violence, but they set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a national theraputic forgiveness ritual. Here's Ebert:

After apartheid ended, decades of old wounds were open and bleeding. Still unpunished were whites who had engaged in the Sharpeville Massacre, the torture and murder of political prisoners, and the loosing of attack dogs against school children. And Africans who had engaged in terror bombings, assassinations, and the "necklacing" of fellow Africans suspected of cooperating with the whites. (A necklacing consists of chaining a tire around a victim's neck and setting it afire.)

There were very few violent reprisals, even though both sides had a very good idea of exactly who to target. Under the leadership of the heroic Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. It held hearings throughout the beloved country, and its rules were firm: Describe fully what you did, who your victims where, and where their bodies might be found, and then make an apology that the Commission members believed.

Then walk away. Your crimes and your sins are now between you and heaven. Think about that. It was successful. The stature of Tutu, de Clerk and Mandela helped make it so. South Africans of all races, weary onto death of decades of violence, greeted the Commission almost thankfully. It is one of the most extraordinary stories in human history.


Patrick Gabridge said...

The concept of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is one of the final elements lacking from the American Civil Rights struggle of the 50s, 60s and 70s. We saw a peaceful revolution in America, where an entire segment of the population moved out from disenfranchisement and operating under systematic, open, governmental oppression. Perhaps the central difference is that even though blacks in America received the right to vote and participate, and governmental blocks to their active participation in society were removed, they did not possess the powers of majority population that exists in South Africa. As a minority population, they did not shift into a position of power over whites, but merely moved out from extreme powerlessness (their freedom was, in many ways much more precarious than the freedom of blacks in South Africa).

In a way, there were some rumblings of this sort of healing gesture under the Clinton administration, but we struggle with the notion of a general apology for slavery and oppression, much less than with specific apologies for actions taken in the 20th century. The men who were responsible for American racial violence in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, are old and dying off now. Sporadic justice department investigations probe for final grasps at justice, but it may be that our opportunity for such a reconciliation has effectively faded from possibility.

If this is true, perhaps this might account for the huge American swell of emotion around the election of Barack Obama. Part of me scoffs when I hear or read yet another media person saying that now race relations have shifted for the better--not that much is institutionally different now than it was on November 3rd. But does the symbolism of the election of a black president carry some of the cathartic weight that was lost with the passing of a generation guilty of racial violence? (Guess who's in a rambling mood?)

Fingtree said...

Hopefully someday we will have a true commander in "Chief", an American Indian native son or daughter. An Eskimo/Palin ticket maybe? I'm sure the Evangelical whites would be willing to overlook the Eskimo heritage if she was on the ticket.

Dan S said...

Great thoughts Pat. I guess when one side continues to hold most of the power, there's no felt need to reconcile, and that's why race has continued to simmer as an issue.

Yea, I was surprised as how cathartic the symbolism of Obama as president seems to be. No, nothing has changed institutionally. But there is more power in the sybolism than I thought there would be, more so than simply having a black police chief, mayor, senator, etc.

But, I'm also assuming it will wear off, and his being black will not matter so much next year. I guess we'll see.

brownie said...

I was under the impression that you thought the Just War theory was bunk.


Dan S said...

I think if people actually followed all the provisions in Just War Theory, there would be no war, because almost no wars meet the critiria.

So, it isn't the theory itself. It's that people use the name of the theory to rush off to war, but ignore what it actually says.