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Reconciliation and forgiveness:
Looking afresh at an ever-present challenge

By Hugh McCullum (*)

Is reconciliation possible? What does forgiveness mean, and what is needed for it to happen when the offence was a frightful one and the pain seems insurmountable? These and other fundamental questions will be part of the themes treated at the next Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME).

It is an incredible story communicating shock and horror. It is a story of extreme trauma and violence. It is a story of rape.

A young Taiwanese girl was raped and murdered in one of those gut-churning, inexplicable events that leaves parents and friends in deep trauma, demanding more justice than even the law can provide.

The mother was totally distraught and, as the months went by, the depths of her pain grew. But then she learned that the murderer and rapist had been caught, arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The crime had been solved and dealt with, yet the grieving mother was left outside the process. She developed a profound need to confront the killer and, through an organization called Prison Fellowship (PF) Asia, she met the prison authorities where the killer was awaiting death. It was not easy. The authorities feared her revenge in this explosive situation but eventually relented, though the meeting would be behind bars.

The emotion was intense. She repeatedly told the killer of her sleepless nights, her disturbed emotions and the excruciating pain she felt since the rape and vicious killing of her daughter. She was desperate to know: "Why did you do it? How did you do it?" She wanted exact and graphic details. She got nowhere; the condemned man said nothing, his eyes expressionless, lips pressed into silence.

They met several times, each time with a representative of PF Taiwan, a Christian organization, part of New Start Ministries based in Singapore. Something was happening. Why did the mother go back when she was almost torn apart by his cold, uncaring appearance? He seemed so distant, always protected by prison bars. Who knows for sure why she continued to visit the prison? PF Taiwan says it was leading him to repentance and confession.

One day, as the mother stood outside the barred room, she saw tears. Then, an outpouring of regret and remorse. If anything, her torment increased until her church teachings led her to accept his repentance and she, as a believer, knew that she must offer her forgiveness. He was young, an orphan, raised in various homes without love and parental caring.

Soon they were meeting without bars. She proposed to him, and also convinced the authorities, that she be allowed to adopt this murderer and rapist of her daughter as her own son. He agreed, and she reached out to hug her new son. They embraced for a long time and, witnesses say, cried for many minutes. She faithfully visited him every day, bringing him home-cooked food, clothes and personal items. They were genuinely reconciled. On the day after her last visit, he was hanged according to the laws of Taiwan.

Rediscovering the ministry of the Spirit

This is one of many true stories from all over the world that have been fed into the preparations for the WCC's Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), to be held 9-16 May, 2005. The theme "Come Holy Spirit - Heal and Reconcile" challenges the ecumenical movement to be "called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities." The conference will take place in Athens at the invitation of the (Orthodox) Church of Greece.

Preparatory materials - reflections by theologians and missiologists from five continents rooted in their own contexts: Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Roman Catholic - are now being prepared. They all emphasize how seriously the Christian faith must take the two intertwined visions of reconciliation and healing in a world many feel to be out of control. There are several reasons why reconciliation has become so prominent in the world today; among these reasons are globalization, post-modernity and fragmentation.

Globalization has, in some ways, drawn the world together as never before and even "highlighted human commonality," says the conference preparatory paper "Towards mission as reconciliation." The downside to globalization, with its diversity of interests and world-views, involves violent clashes of cultures, religions, economic interests and genders. These clashes have an enormous potential to produce not only hurt and grievance, but also to plunge our planet into an almost perpetual state of war, violence, disease and ecological disintegration, especially for the most vulnerable; the poor, women, children and the aged.

"The economic policies of the richest countries have tremendous and often highly damaging effects on poorer countries," the preparatory report says, leaving "more victims than beneficiaries". Unfair trade laws, extreme debt and structural adjustment programmes pay little regard to local wisdom, "and it is the poor who suffer most… True reconciliation involves the repentance of the rich and justice for the poor."

 

global communication benefits some but widens the gap between rich and poor and threatens personal and national identities, leading to social fragmentation; families and local roots are displaced by migration, and exclusion is widely experienced;
the last CWME conference in 1996 in Brazil pointed up the plundering of the creation's resources as well as denial of the rights of indigenous peoples;
in the climate of post-modernity, there is a resurgence of religions, especially in their conservative forms; a proliferation of new movements and a variety of spiritual experiences provide indications of a thirst for spiritual experience;
within the Christian faith, some churches continue to decline while others are experiencing rapid numerical growth. The centre of gravity of Christianity has decisively shifted from North to South, to the poorer nations, and they are experiencing an increase in Pentecostalism that is remarkable.

These and other issues provide a huge challenge to the church to preach the gospel in all the world, recognizing that the Spirit of God has been present in creation since the beginning. The challenge, argues the preparatory paper on reconciliation, "is to confront the world situation and rediscover the ministry of the Spirit to reconcile and heal."

But it is not only in the analysis and discussion of key theological issues that we experience the need for an "emerging paradigm of mission as reconciliation." It is also found in the struggles of people around the world to live out this idea of reconciliation - as in the case of the Taiwanese mother who was reconciled with a murderer and rapist - in a real life situation. [1130 words]

(*) Canadian author and journalist Hugh McCullum is a member of the United Church of Canada. Former editor of two large-circulation church publications and host of a national television programme in his country, he also lived in Zimbabwe and Kenya. McCullum has had a long association with WCC Communications. Among his books are "The angels have left us: the churches and the Rwanda genocide" and "Radical Compassion: The life and times of Archbishop Ted Scott".

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Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.