Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Doing the Truth

This is an extract from my article Truth and Reconciliation in the Church, published in the most recent number of St Mark's Review (205), 125-36 which contains essays from the Doctrine Commission of the Australian Anglican Church on Sexual Abuse and the Church. The article involves reflections on 'restorative justice' as evidenced in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and on the notion of truth as it is presented in the Gospel of John.

The Word (John 1), who dwells among us and is seen “full of grace and truth” is not only a revelation of God’s truth but God’s effective re-narration of the story of human origin and destiny. As Irenaeus puts it, this is a new version of that ancient history, not only a narrative but a re-enactment: “God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of humanity, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify humankind” (Adv. Haer. 3.18.7). The nexus between truth and reconciliation lies both in the recognition of original relationship and the overcoming of ignorance, but also in the new creation of a relationship that fulfils and goes beyond what was past.

The truth of the Gospel reveals and effects this change, but not as an immediate or instant process, historically speaking. The work of the “Spirit of Truth” is the continued performance of the truth announced and embodied by Jesus, made known particularly in the Church, the community of those being reconciled by the truth to their own truth.

A Christian understanding of truth – the Truth underlying other forms and performances of truth – is central for the ways in which the Church is to “do the truth”, and may also have some significance for processes beyond the practice of the Church such as those of restorative justice.

The telling of truth, in the senses presented by restorative justice, may not be a substitute for the broader reality of “doing the truth”, as John’s Gospel puts it, or the wider ethical imperative that comes from deciding to seek and live truth. Truth may be found when cases of abuse and violence are uncovered, but its pursuit is not merely a fact-finding matter – it must be sought, as a matter of choice and not only of external act.

For the Church, acknowledging that God’s performance of the truth continues through the Spirit of Truth is crucial, both as an affirmation of hope but also as a theologically-informed guard against unrealistic or misplaced expectations for immediate resolution of broken relationship. Contemporary examples of restorative justice and the theology of truth in John’s Gospel both suggest that the doing of truth is a profound and at times painful thing, which cannot be equated with mere statements of fact, or with easy answers to difficult questions.

The revealing of hidden (if at times horrific) truths, kept secret because of oppressive or abusive systems or of the vested interests of perpetrators, has been a prominent feature in instances of restorative justice. Oppression, it has been argued, depends on forgetfulness or on the suppression of truth. Telling the truth in these cases means establishing knowledge where there had been ignorance (enforced, accidental or wilful), and the learning that comes from these revelations may bring with itself an opportunity for re-establishing relationships or at least moving past old hurts.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. It is so helpful. As a lay South African, I had not previously read such a clear *theological* account of T&R.

    In SA (and now in Zimbabwe) it continues to be problematic for survivors that "amnesty" or "reconciliation" are being imposed on them while truth, as ever, remains elusive. This is now a real anxiety in Zimbabwe where there is talk of amnesty before all the bodies have even been counted! And in SA, victims still wait for the promised compensation from the State which now seems unlikely ever to be paid.

    In 1980's Zimbabwe, lack of compensation, rehabilitation and justice for returning soldiers of the liberation movements (especially as compared to the Rhodesian army's pensions and medical aid etc) has been a key component of political melt-down in the country, because the issue exploded at a time when economic tension was already high.

    So failing to do the truth (and the churches have also failed in this respect many times) has very real consequences for our ability to live together and for nation-building.

    Meanwhile the 'restorative justice' conversation goes on, and from what I've heard it is a vital process in Australia as well. But for me as a lay person it is the idea of the Spirit of God "doing truth" through us and for us, that stands out the most for me.

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