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Truth, Reconciliation, and Occupation

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A literal chill has recently settled over the Occupy Wall Street protests even as the movement itself has heated up with general strikes and Bank Tranfer Day. As days have turned into weeks since the protests began, I’ve found myself pondering Martin Luther King’s famous question, “Where do we go from here? chaos or community?”

I’ve been blessed to have recently read God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, a collection of speeches, sermons, and writings of the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Reading this book got me thinking that one demand the 99% could make is that there be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the Great Recession.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a critical and controversial aspect of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, based upon the principles of restorative justice. The work of the Commission included inquiries and hearings about human rights violations, hearing applications for amnesty from those who had committed crimes and told the truth about them, and recommendations for reparations and rehabilitation for victims and their families. Archbishop Tutu explained the spirit of the Commission in this way:

“Restorative justice believes that an offense has caused a breach, has disturbed the social equilibrium, which must be restored, and the breach healed, in a process through which the offender and the victim can be reconciled and peace restored.”

My point here is not that a straight line of comparison can be drawn between the choices precipitating the Great Recession and the apartheid regime. I believe that the spirit and processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could restore social equilibrium, heal the breach between the 1% and the 99%, and encourage reconciliation between the wronged and the wrongdoers.

Imagine if rather than the tragicomic “hearings” following the 2008 financial crisis, Americans were able to witness those who helped cause it tell the truth, ask for forgiveness, and commit themselves on national television to helping those hurt by their actions. Imagine if we all heard and really listened to the stories of those left behind by the Great Recession, broadcast in our living rooms night after night.

Such a process could contribute to the kind of transformative, interclass dialogue my fellow scholar at State of Formation Paul Joseph Greene advocates. It could also help us avoid the dangers of “us” vs. “them” discourses another State of Formation Scholar, Yaira Robison, warns of. Pursuing truth and reconciliation could ultimately represent one form of operationalizing love in a new social order, what the Baha’i Faith refers to as a divine civilization.

Commenting on the relationship between justice and unity, Baha’u’llah (1817-18920), the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:

“The light of men is Justice. Quench it not with the contrary winds of oppression and tyranny. The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men. The ocean of divine wisdom surgeth within this exalted word, while the books of the world cannot contain its inner significance.”

Whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will promote sustainable, life-giving social change based on the spirit and practice of love is as important as the wrongs that gave birth to it. The example set by their brothers and sisters in South Africa is a model the activists and their supports should ponder as they move forward. If white and black could reconcile after the horrors of apartheid, why not Wall Street and Main Street?

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • troll

    …snaps fingers in the air representing significant agreement w/ the sentiment expressed here…good job Phillipe

  • brennan taylor

    Philippe, I had this same idea and was about to write about it when I found your article! so glad to see others have had this idea, too. I’ve been very active in Occupy Oakland (where the police might also have to be involved in a TRC) and want to connect with others who’d like to make this happen. Any ideas?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Interesting idea. I’m afraid, however, the economic divide runs deeper than whatever crimes were committed in SA in the name of apartheid (which, let’s face it, served mainly as means of justification.

    Imagine the execs of the Goldman Sachs at the negotiating table opposite to their victims, or a tribunal calling them on the carpet. Virtually the entire corporate class, including our politicians, would have to be indicted and jailed.

    Only when the Judgment Day comes is some such scenario possible. Until such day, those who wield power will remain unrepentant.