The Challenge of Grace and Reconciliation

I was away at the Provincial Synod of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa last week in Benoni.   I confess the synod proceedings didn’t excite me as much as the people I met and all of us gathered in worship from across Southern Africa (see  But something did happen within the proceedings that moved me deeply…

In his opening charge, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, spoke about the importance of women in the church and the formation of a Gender Desk at the highest structural level of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.  He followed this up by saying that a Gender Desk is not simply a Women’s Desk – that the roles of men and women alike, of every culture, have been distorted and brutalised, especially in South Africa by Apartheid.  But he didn’t end there.

Archbishop Thabo did something divinely crazy, and full of grace, he said: “I want to mention one unmentionable area that we must dare to tackle: the dehumanising effect of conscription on a generation of young men – barely more than boys.  Many are still wounded from that time, and need to be able to speak and find healing.”

Why is it crazy?  Moral history is always on the side of the righteous victor.  Would you find anyone in their right mind calling on post-World War II Europe to create a space for German soldiers to speak about their wartime experiences so they could find healing?  Could you ever envisage President Robert Mugabe wanting to rake over the “Rhodesian War”, with an explicit concern for the white combatants?  Human nature rebels against such an idea.  Politics cannot cope with the idea.  It pushes the concept of healing and reconciliation to the extreme. But such is the foolishness of Jesus, who dared to say, “love your enemy” (Luke 6v26) and then died for that same message.

“Forgive them, Father,” Jesus said to the perpetrators of the violence against himself, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23v34).  Of course, they thought they knew what they were doing at the time.  They were being soldiers.  They were short-circuiting a potential uprising by disposing of a rebel leader whose provocative kingdom teaching may have resulted in later terrorist insurgencies (or so they thought).  It was a strategic pre-emptive strike sanctioned at the highest level!

Later these soldiers were to find themselves on the wrong side of history. But Jesus’ words still held true, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  And so the words of Archbishop Thabo for me echo that very stark cry of Jesus from the cross – the Word incarnate.

Creating and embracing a space for white men from the conscription era to share their pain and be heard will call South Africans to recognise (again) a nation crucified.  It will offend the sensibilities of many.  It will rub salt in the wounds of those hurt and brutalised by Apartheid.  But God, as Sovereign Healer, can bring healing to all – victims and perpetrators, soldiers and citizens.

Without this movement of grace there can be no long-term hope or future.