A cry for truth

From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine
Winter 2017

The work of reconciliation can only begin when you first hear the cry of pain and injustice. 

By Allan Boesak

Allan Boesak: “Reconciliation is not possible without acknowledging the causes of the alienation.”

Her name is Nomonde Calata. She is the widow of one of the leaders of our freedom struggle in South Africa, Fort Calata, one of four young men waylaid, detained, tortured and murdered by the South African Security Police in 1985. In 1996, Ms. Calata testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She had hardly started to speak when she suddenly broke down threw her body backwards like this and opened her mouth in a primeval scream of pain and suffering and grief. It went on and on and on. The TRC and Archbishop Tutu and the people in the hall listened in stunned silence. They were awed.

That indefinable wail that burst forth from Nomonde Calata’s lips was the starting point of the reconciliation. It was the signature tune, the defining moment, the intimate sound of what this process is all about. And ever since that scream was uttered that day, the question is what pathways to peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, justice and dignity does Nomonde Calata open for us.

When we speak of reconciliation now, twenty years later, we cannot do so without first taking the shoes off our feet for it is holy ground. That cry was a cry against the injustices that choked our daily lives against the relentless violence of systems of oppression, of deadly assault and torture that killed her husband, against the helplessness that is the spawn of hopelessness with which oppression always works in hopes of breaking our spirit and our will to resist.

But if you listen well, we will hear that cry, for it is everywhere where people are despised and discriminated, derided and subjected; everywhere where people are oppressed and excluded and exterminated because of their economic status in life or the lack of education or their gender or their sexual orientation or their religion, their race or the color of their skin; everywhere where they discovered that they are powerlessness makes them vulnerable to abuse. Resistance against endless war for endless profits and world domination is such a cry. The cry against the oppression of women and patriarchal violence is such a cry. The cry to end the violence against the LGBT community is such a cry. The cry from occupied Palestine is such a cry. The cry from children of Flint still drinking poisoned water is such a cry.

Nomonde Calata did not cry in an appeal to an Apartheid regime no longer in place. If they could not her 11 years earlier, they could not hear her when she was testifying. And like all oppressors who live off the pain of the victims, they never intended to hear her. And if they could hear her, they heard her in the way of all oppressors, all torturers, all lovers of violence of yesterday and today always hear: As a cry that confirms their power, their control over others and their ability to inflict pain or to end pain. Nomonde did not cry so that those commissioners of the TRC could have sympathy with her—11 years after the death of her husband that sympathy would not have been of much help. That cry was beyond the TRC. She understood that they could not give her justice, not justice as revenge and punishment, wishing the violence visited upon her husband upon her and her children and upon the whole community and the people whose only desire was freedom and dignity, to in turn be inflicted upon the torturers of her husband sitting in front of her. But the justice of violent retribution and of self-gratification was not the justice Ms. Calata wanted.

She cried for justice not for the dead but for the living. Because justice for the dead could only be retribution, but justice for the living is the justice that breaks down systems of oppression; that transform societies; that works towards the restoration of rights and dignity and equity and seeks the healing of persons and community. That justice is able to create a future. Retribution can never do that.

Nomonde’s cry was a cry for truth, but not the legal truth that so easily becomes vulnerable to technicalities in the court of law. Not the devastating historical truth—namely this atrocity actually happened and my husband’s tortured body is the proof of it. Her cry was a cry beyond the factual truth. Neither was she looking for social truth that could be confirmed by those in the oppressed communities who were in the struggle, who were there, who fought side by side with her husband, who recall the prison and the torture and the pain and the humiliation and the fear, who know this to be true because they were there.

No, the cry was for something deeper. For the truth of wounded memories. The man, she was saying, you are talking about was a fighter for justice, yes. He was a leader of his people, yes. He was admired by those who knew his courage and revealed by so many because his love for justice made them strong, yes. But a human being died that night in your chamber and he was also my husband and my friend and my lover and a father of my children. That cry was a cry for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the people of South Africa, and perhaps the world, to understand the true meaning of reconciliation.

The TRC hearings were always in danger of becoming a political theatre with dramatic revelation and acknowledgment of unspeakable things. And with a nation holding its breath: which way this would go, which would win, the very basic instinctual urge for violent retribution or the more difficult reach toward the justice that forgives and transforms and restores, the justice informed and sustained by genuine love for the other.

Reconciliation is much more than just a negotiated path towards amnesty. It is—Christians are reminded—a call for Christian discipleship. Reconciliation—the Apostle Paul tells us—is ministry entrusted to us. And therefore it is not an option as if we can weight other options. As if we can consider a feasibility and the risks, take into account the political possibilities and the economic consequences, make decisions on minimalist versus maximalist approaches hoping for the safe middle ground hedging against the shocking demands of the gospel with calculated preempted incrementalism. Reconciliation is a calling; it is the very essence of costly discipleship.

Nomonde’s cry wanted to create a sacred space for true reconciliation. Her cry was saying you cannot understand reconciliation; you cannot begin the work of reconciliation unless you first hear the cry. Hearing the cry, opening your ears and your hearts to that cry, letting your soul be touched by it. Hear with your ears truly open and see with your open eyes, understand with your open mind and stretch out your open hand to undo the damage, your violence, your greed and your lust for power and domination has inflicted upon others. Reconciliation is not possible unless that cry is heard.

If reconciliation is to be meaningful, durable and sustainable, it should be real and radical and revolutionary. It should be real and not a cover for political pietism. It should be radical because it is about much more than harmonious personal relationships. It is about the restoration of justice and rights and human dignity. It is never shallow but it goes to the roots of things and it is revolutionary because it seeks the transformation of persons and societies, their systems and structures. It seeks the transformation of the world.

Reconciliation is not possible without acknowledging the causes of the alienation. It is not possible without confronting the evil of the past and the present including the evil within ourselves that refuses to acknowledge the evil of the past and the present because that evil happens to benefit us. It is not possible without justice. It is only possible amongst equals. It is not possible without remorse and repentance. And it is not possible without forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a word that easily trips off our tongues. Christians use it effortlessly and ceaselessly and thoughtlessly. Forgiveness includes respectful room for righteous anger. In South Africa, we did not insist that forgiveness is always the prerogative of the victim and never the right of the perpetrator. That forgiveness is a gift never earned but always freely given and that forgiveness that follows repentance is a soul restoring, life giving act but without the reciprocity of justice it becomes—in the words of an old African preacher that I met one day—a forgiveness that kills.

We did not understand that there are things that, while they might be forgivable, are never excusable. So we did not understand that only through the grace of God does the inexcusable become forgivable. Her cry was a cry to God. It was also a cry of resistance, not resistance against Apartheid but resistance against the temptation to hate the men in front of her, to inflict upon them the pain they made her husband endure for three weeks, the pain that would never leave her or her children. It was a resistance against the temptation to shun them, to simply turn her back on them, to shame them, to make them feel something of the shame they should have felt in killing her husband but even now seemed incapable of feeling. It was a cry to God because she knew that in that hearing on that stage, in that politically created moment where so much was predetermined and so much was at stake, so much beyond her will or reach, she was powerless.

She needed a power that was beyond the earthly power. She needed from God the strength she would never be able to master on her own. From God she needed the love even for these men to overcome a hatred that would have been completely understandable and natural. From God she needed a power to offer a forgiveness that would bring healing—but not forgetfulness. From God she needed the grace to find a peace anchored in something deeper than the false piece of quietism, of resignation or managed desperation. In that moment such grace produced a peace that provides a spiritual stability that is too deep for violence and therefore it is unshakable.

Like Hannah in the first book of Samuel, Nomonde Calata cried out against the violence surrounding her, pouring out her soul before God, from whom she expected mercy and peace and grace. And like Hannah, Nomonde knew that there is no rock like our God. Like Hannah, she knew that in the face of violence the bow of the mighty are broken while in the face of God she found the strength to endure and forgive, and to love. That is why she cried out and uttering that cry is the beginning of life renewed of hope restored of struggle rejuvenated of sacred wisdom reclaimed. It is a cry to us to listen, to hear and to respond and, having heard, then to walk in the ways of justice, peace and love.

So the men who tortured her husband and walked away that day unrepented and untouched, do they have peace? No. But Nomonde Calata has peace. It is a peace resting in faith—it is unshakable. It is a peace that empowered her to forgive—it is unshakable. It is a peace nestling in the grace of God—it is unshakable. It is a peace inspiring new generations to continue—it is unshakable.

Is it hard?


Is it fragile?


Is it under siege?


But it is now, and forever will be, unshakable.


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