The Role of Reconciliation

Photo by D. Clark on Unsplash

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Pope Francis’s visit to Canada in July was a lesson in the importance of acknowledging and accepting responsibility for past missteps as part of moving into world of a new possibilities.  As has been widely reported, Pope Francis’s visit was seeking to address the abuse of indigenous/first nation groups at the hands of Christians generally and Catholics specifically.  Though news reports earlier this year of the discovery of nearly 170 unmarked graves on the grounds of a residential school for first nation children might have been the catalyst for this specific visit, the history of Christendom’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples (in the Americas, but also in many other parts of the world including Africa) is undisputed.  Many Christian colonists and explorers terrorized and subjugated those with whom they came into contact, and often committed these terrible acts on the basis of now-discredited theological ideas. 

Now, to be clear, Pope Francis did not directly do the things for which he apologized, nor did the Catholic church over which he now presides.  He did not authorize the colonization of Canada by Catholic adherents. He did not dedicate funds to the building of the now-closed boarding schools where the graves were found. All those actions were before his time.  And yet Pope Francis still sought reconciliation?  Why?

The answer is, I believe, found in the Sermon on the Mount. 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is recorded as saying “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  In these few phrases, Jesus upends common thinking about how we should prioritize religious obligations.  Jesus is not saying that ‘sacrifice’ is unimportant—i.e. Jesus is not saying that individuals should stop participating in the designated religious practice of offering animal sacrifices at the altar of the temple—rather Jesus seems to be saying that reconciliation with those who “hath ought against thee” should be done before we do anything else.  Reconciliation with our “brother” should precede other religious obligations. 

This is what Pope Francis was trying to do in Canada.  Rather than just continuing on with the Church’s ‘sacrificial’ efforts (e.g. all the good it does for its parishioners and the good achieved through its variety of charity arms), the Pope recognized that indigenous/first nation people had “ought” against the Catholic Church for the Church’s previous actions.  And instead of dismissing these concerns as a relic of the past and encouraging those who voiced concerns to just “move on” (or to “stop being so easily offended”), Pope Francis sought reconciliation.  But not just for himself—he sought institutional reconciliation on behalf of the whole church.  The Pope openly acknowledged the Catholic church’s complicity in those heinous acts and accepted responsibility for all of it.  Part of a prayer he offered made this clear: “In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children” (emphasis added). 

Pope Francis actions in this instance brought to my mind Croatian-born theologian and philosopher Miroslav Volf’s description of what reconciliation looks like among people.  Volf says reconciliation is an event between human beings, that is divine in nature, which moves individuals from conflict to peace.[1]  According to Volf, reconciliation must include the inward and outward acts of repentance, restitution, and reparation.[2]  I believe these principles equally apply to institutions. Institutions, through their leaders’ acknowledgment of past missteps and acceptance of responsibility for them, can begin a movement toward reconciliation. Then, by following through with institutional actions geared to remedy the damage that institutional missteps have caused, real reconciliation comes within the view.  

To be clear, I am not saying that the Pope nor that the Catholic Church has done everything right in this instance. And, as just noted, the Pope’s visit is only a first step in true reconciliation—nice words that are not followed by real action ring hollow.  Time will whether the Catholic Church can make real peace with this part of its past.  But it is laudable that the Pope has started the process.

Turning towards our faith, we saw a good example of institutional reconciliation in the LDS church’s efforts to address the wrongs committed by LDS leaders and member in the 1857 “Mountain Meadows Massacre.”  Like Jesus commanded, the LDS church took time away from other ‘sacrificial’ activities to begin reconciliation with those who “hath ought” against the LDS church because of its members’ role in this tragedy.  President Gordon B. Hinckley’s frank recognition of the incident and the LDS members’ roles, the LDS church’s building of a monument to those who were murdered, and the subsequent Church-funded research and perseveration efforts that followed have helped to bring some healing to those impacted by this terrible incident.  The LDS church has taken steps to move toward reconciliation.

These two examples remind us of the power of institutional reconciliation.  These examples also highlight the reality that there is more to be done. Within the LDS church there have been other institutional missteps, now in our rearview mirror, for which full reconciliation has not yet occurred.  The most obvious example is the LDS church’s treatment of members of African descent via the priesthood/temple ban.  The “Race and the Priesthood” Gospel Topic Essay and the 2018 “Be One” event were a start to reconciliation.  But we have yet to have LDS leaders acknowledge that the temple/priesthood ban was wrong.  One day, I hope to hear an LDS leader say of the LDS church’s difficult history on race: “In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.” This kind of direct acknowledgement of missteps and acceptance of accountability will continue to move us down the road of reconciliation.  And we can apply the same model to other issues, including recent reports of apparent missteps in the church’s handling of child sexual abuse.

Where will these reconciliation efforts lead? According to Volf, reconciliation leads to “embrace” or what he calls the “dynamic peace” that we experience when we are able to fully, and without hindrance, connect with each other and God.[3]  Said another way, reconciliation is synonymous with the kinds of conventional relationships that are central to LDS doctrines and practices (2 Corinthians 5:18).  This kind of embrace/covenant relationship does not come from forgetting past missteps or simply moving on; rather it is the outcome of a healing process that starts when we (individuals and institutions) acknowledge and accept responsibility for past missteps as part of moving into a world of a new possibilities.


[1] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Revised and Updated. (Abingdon Press: Nashville TN, 2019): 332-333.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Revised and Updated. (Abingdon Press: Nashville TN, 2019): 340-342.

[3] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Revised and Updated. (Abingdon Press: Nashville TN, 2019): 332.

The Role of Reconciliation

The Role of Reconciliation

Comments

  1. Thank you, truly.
    It’s starting to feel to me that the whole “the Church doesn’t apologize” is more of a “we don’t want to change”
    The notions of “people would lose faith”, “it would hinder the work”, and “it would encourage false reporting” are piss poor excuses.

  2. I tried to imagine the Church starting an apology for the Temple/Priesthood ban with “In the face of this deplorable evil …” and realized that it would have to be amended to “In the face of this policy of undetermined origin …”. And then I remembered that while we can’t manage to come out and condemn the Temple/Priesthood ban, we can declare that using the word Mormon is a “victory for Satan”.

    Man, are our priorities messed up.

  3. Doctors are advised by their lawyers that if they make a mistake, that they should not apologize, because then they are likely to be sued. But research shows that when the doctor apologizes, that they are less likely to be sued. Funny. But maybe lawyers are too worried about evidence in court to understand people’s feelings. It is angry people who sue, so the best policy is to diffuse anger with an apology. Maybe people want doctors who care more than they want doctors who never make a mistake.

    I think the Mormon (victory for Satan) church has a similar misunderstanding of people’s feelings. They seem to think that members want infallible leaders and an apology would be an admission of a mistake. But what if people want righteous loving leaders instead of infallible ones. Given the choice between projecting a perfect image and actually caring about members, church leaders seem to always opt for the image of perfection. But maybe members want leaders who care more than they want leaders who never make a mistake.

    Did people follow Jesus because he was sinless or because he loved them? If our leaders want to have the members follow them, maybe they should stop pretending to be sinless and prove they love the members. Jesus didn’t perform miracles to get 100 billion dollars in the bank, but to feed the 5 thousand. As Dave above says “Man are our priorities messed up.”

  4. Anna — I’m going to be thinking about that “Did people follow Jesus because he was sinless or because he loved them?” sentence for a long, long time.

  5. Anna, that’s an amazing comment. “What if people want righteous loving leaders instead of infallible ones?” Perfect.

  6. purple_flurp says:

    I can’t imagine that the Pope’s efforts at reconciliation will go beyond acknowledgement, because it doesn’t require him or the Catholic church as an institution to actually do anything.

    It’s the same with land acknowledgementments which are steadily becoming more of a thing in the US and Canada (wouldn’t it be amazing to see that at the BYU’s?), sure, they’ll acknowledge that the land that X institution is built on was stolen from indigenous group(s) X, Y, and Z. But that’s about as far as it goes, in essence: “yeah we killed your grandma and stole your wallet, we’re not going to give it back, but we’ll admit we did it”

    a university might go an extra step and hire a ‘dean of decolonization’ or something, (and there’s a 50/50 chance it’ll be a white person pretending to have indigenous ancestry), but the fact is there are no plans or desires on the part of institutions such as churches, universities, and governments to actually do anything to improve the material circumstances of the people most affected by colonization, because doing so would require changing the status quo in a such a way that some fraction of people with money, power, and property would lose it.

    this is a thing being discussed a lot with the passing of the queen, it is stated that she ‘presided’ over British decolonization for the last several decades, but packing up and leaving alone isn’t decolonizing or reconciliating, it’s restitution, and in this case there’s not even an acknowledgement that what they did was bad

    anyway, sure it’d be great to see reconciliation actually go somewhere beyond apologies and acknowledgements, but I’m not holding my breath

  7. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Great thought, Anna. “Did people follow Jesus because he was sinless…?” I don’t think they had any idea that he was sinless. That’s something that was intimated later. We evaluate the life of Christ through the context of his sinlessness, but that was not the context by which he was evaluated by those who followed him. His love, his compassion… that’s what brought people to him.

  8. Purple_flurp, You seem a little cynical about bodies transferring title to aboriginal peoples. It happens on an ongoing basis in my state. About 2.5 acres in a hectare.

    the transfer of land to 27 Aboriginal land holding entities (holding over 3.85 million hectares of land)the transfer of over 1.52 million hectares of Aboriginal freehold land (without a national park (CYPAL))the conversion of 22 existing national parks to jointly managed national park (CYPAL) – nearly 1.53 million hectaresthe creation of 10 new national parks (CYPAL) – over 799,000 hectaresthe creation of 20 nature refuges on Aboriginal freehold – over 300,000 hectares.

    Yes the church could do better, but?

  9. Aussie Mormon says:

    I tend to agree with purple_flurp.

    Looking at Pope Francis’ full speech https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/july/documents/20220725-popolazioniindigene-canada.html

    The Pope apologised using the word “I”..
    “I am deeply sorry”, “I am sorry. I ask forgiveness”, “I humbly beg forgiveness”, and generalises much of those (and his comments in general) to acts by Christians as whole rather than just the RCC.

    As far as the RCC apologising “In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children”.
    The church itself didn’t ask for forgiveness from the people, only God.

    “An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.
    I trust and pray that Christians and civil society in this land may grow in the ability to accept and respect the identity and the experience of the indigenous peoples. It is my hope that concrete ways can be found to make those peoples better known and esteemed, so that all may learn to walk together. For my part, I will continue to encourage the efforts of all Catholics to support the indigenous peoples.”

    So the RCC will try and help those directly affected by the school experiences, but as far as the indigenous peoples in general, it was essentially just a “let’s treat them better” comment. The Pope can “encourage” people to do that all he wants, but as we’ve seen in our own church, leaders making encouragements don’t always bring full compliance.

  10. Aussie Mormon says:

    Geoff, the problem is, the colonisers took all the land. The bits that are being returned are often places that most of society isn’t going to do a lot with (like deserts), and even then it’s not always exclusive use. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2021/may/17/who-owns-australia

  11. 1 John 4

    19 We love him, because he first loved us.

    20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?*

    21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.

    *Inspired Translation (my edition): Any who preachest against such things is under condemnation and has need of repentance in sack cloth and ashes.

  12. The Pope may have not lead the church back then but he’s leading the church now. This includes the continual fight against lawsuits for the crimes the church has committed. Here in Canada, and from where I grew up, the church fought for over 20 years in the courts. It was only resolved last year. This abuse went on for decades and all came to light in the late 80s.

    The Pope may apologize but the actions of the church under his leadership shows something else.

  13. Lots of good comments here. Though my intent was to use the Pope’s apparent recognition of the issue here as a jumping off point to talk about institutional reconciliation, many rightly point to the many different ways in which such reconciliation is incomplete. I appreciate the varied–often more informed–perspectives.

    I agree with other that, Anna, your point is beautiful: “But what if people want righteous loving leaders instead of infallible ones. Given the choice between projecting a perfect image and actually caring about members, church leaders seem to always opt for the image of perfection. But maybe members want leaders who care more than they want leaders who never make a mistake.

    Did people follow Jesus because he was sinless or because he loved them? If our leaders want to have the members follow them, maybe they should stop pretending to be sinless and prove they love the members.”

    As an aside, here is an interesting podcast takes on the issue of institutional reconciliation from a different angle: https://atlastshesaidit.org/episode-110-we-dont-believe-our-own-stuff-repentance-edition/

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