Some Cursory Thoughts on Reconciliation in Authoritarian/Post-authoritarian Contexts

Reconciliation is at the centre of missio Dei and, consequently, it should be at the centre of our mission in the world (2 Cor. 5:18). There is no greater offence possible than the one we brought to our Creator, when we, his creatures, turned our back to God. Yet, God paid the full price for making peace between himself and us, sinful, rebellious human beings, by allowing his Son to become fully human and to die a sacrificial death for us all. And he continues to transform us through the inner working of the Holy Spirit, into the image of Jesus Christ, to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).

At the same time, God, who created us as free moral agents, does not impose on us his reconciliation. We may accept or refuse it. With the acceptance, and the refusal, important consequences come into existence, which lead us to very different futures. This should be fully our model of reconciliation.

In former dictatorial societies in Eastern Europe, and other parts of the world, we were faced with two typical choices, and a number of variations between them.

1. Some people, by temperament and/or conscious decision (sometimes based on a ‘Christ against culture’ approach), chose to protect their Christian identity by opposing the government – more or less openly, and paid a high price for it. Some of them turned this into a largely political struggle. There are a number of risks with this position.

  • it tends to create a sort of ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards Christians who opted for a different approach, which makes reconciliation difficult, if not impossible, after liberation, because they are tempted get the others (seen invariably as ‘traitors’) exposed and condemned at any price;
  • it weakens the Christian’s ability to ‘negotiate’ its place in the world – to be a light IN the world, rather than FOR the world, from outside it (Mat. 5:14);
  • it could make Christians, in some cases, totally incapable to function in a free world (see the case of some ‘unregistered’ Russian Christians, who refused to register even when freedom came, or when they were able to emigrate;
  • it risks to make Christians concentrate too much on on ‘wineskins’ (getting external freedom), which may detract them from the essential matter of working for the ‘new wine’ of the Spirit (Christian discipleship), that could help them thrive better either under oppression or in conditions of freedom.

2. Others have chosen accommodation with the regime, for the sake of survival. This option has other, sometimes opposite, risks associated with it.

  • it gets people too close to the seat of power, where they risk compromising on the essentials of the Gospel and the trust of the community; these compromises invariably affect other people, sometimes making them loose their freedom or even their life;
  • some leaders are tempted to think they are smarter than the ‘enemy’, and try to manipulate the oppressor for the sake of the church, thus getting discredited in the process, absolutely every time – no exception;
  • it gives those leaders the false impression that their supposedly wise approach has ‘saved’ the church from extinction, making them forget that this not their responsibility, but that of Christ himself, who is much better qualified for it (Mat. 16:18);
  • because or real or induced guilt, sometimes following accusations coming from people in the other group, or from society in general, when freedom comes, these people tend to hide their past (often preferring to fall in the hands of a merciful God, than in the hands of their angry brothers and sisters), which makes reconciliation an almost impossible task.

When freedom comes, the heroism (genuine or artificial) and the treason (real or imagined) of the past need to be brought to light, if we are to enjoy God’s blessing. Nevertheless, this process is so complex and painful that most Christians in post-authoritarian contexts tend to avoid it, in spite of the high costs involved. As long as the ‘voice of the innocent blood is crying out to God from the ground’ (Gen. 4:10) there can be no real peace and reconciliation. This may be the reason why none of the churches in former communist countries are really thriving.

Without truth, confession, forgiveness and restoration (the real purpose of any process of reconciliation), the lack of trust and cooperation among members of the Christian community, and of society in general, will continue to undermine any progress, be that spiritual, social, or economic. And, if the Church, the ‘new society of God’, made of people who are called to be agents of reconciliation, cannot be models of restoration, what could we expect from people who do not know God as we claim we do. Even more so, what moral authority we have to witness to them on the transforming power of the gospel, when sometimes unbelievers tend to be more inclined than Christians to clarify the past and lay thus a solid foundation for the future.

Here are a few reasons why I believe reconciliation does not really take place among Christians, and generally in society, in the former communist world:

  • even for those who were the virtual victims of the former regime, the cost appears to be too high (some of them do not have the courage to ask for their secret police files – where these are available to be examined, for fear of the uncomfortable truth they might discover there – like their clerics, close friends or even members of the family having sold them to the police;
  • for the virtual perpetrators of compromises with the former regime (in reality, nobody in those regime is a totally innocent victim or a totally evil perpetrator, which makes things even more complex than they really are), the pain of repentance, confession, (let alone compensation), and, even more so, the fear for the harsh, unforgiving reaction of the other group is really paralysing;
  • the extreme care that church institutions take to preserve their public image, even at the expense of truth and reconciliation, makes any attempts at reconciliation very difficult;
  • the absence in these societies, and the respective churches, of credible, morally and spiritually respected sponsors of this process (like Mandela and Tutu, in South Africa) leaves a spiritual vacuum that is not conducive to peace and dialogue.

In opposition to the ‘ways of this world’, from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and of the upside-down kingdom that he came to bring about, the primary responsibility for initiating the process of reconciliation belongs to the victims, not the perpetrators. Like Jesus himself, they are called to forgive those who, sometimes in spite of their best intentions, and at other times out of own ill will, really ‘did not know what they were doing’. Our willingness to forgive ‘those who have sinned against us’, even without their confessions of wrong doing, is a sign of the kingdom, maybe the best way to fulfill what we ask when we pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mat. 6:10). So help us God!


I have written these thoughts at the request of a friend of mine, for a meeting of missionaries working is such contexts. I would be happy to hear our reactions about it. Thanks.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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