Review of John W. De Gruchy’s Reconciliation: Restoring Justice

[1] Is there a place for Christian insights about reconciliation beyond the realm of the personal and private? Even more, is it possible that these same insights can help pave the way to a more deeply reconciled national identity in South Africa? John W. De Gruchy has charted a difficult and courageous path indeed in his book Reconciliation: Restoring Justice, a path literally surrounded with peril on all sides. If De Gruchy’s project is to contribute to a “public theology of democratic reconstruction and transformation” (67), on the one side he is chastened by the fact of Christian complicity in the development and enforcement of apartheid; and on the other side, committed to sensitivity regarding gender, and diversity of culture, ethnicity and religion, he must beware Christian patriarchalism, exclusivism, supersessionism and triumphalism. His goal is ambitious: to take categories of Christian atonement theory, thinking and practice beyond the realm where they tend to dwell in contemporary experience, that is, the individual and co-personal, into the heart of political life in South Africa.

[2] Why bother with Christian categories at all, given such dangers? Anthropologist Judith Singleton, in her August 2003 review of this book in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics is suspicious of De Gruchy’s attempt on a number of counts. Christianity is an irredeemably “western instrument,” an externally imposed tool for reconciliation in a society comprised of many diverse African societies, as she writes, “Why should Christianity with its long legacy as a partner to colonialism, capitalism, inequality and apartheid in the South African context become a collaborator in the question for reconciliation and healing?” According to Singleton, talk of reconciliation must be preceded by an honest confrontation of “inequality and its violent legacy of the past and present.” She analyzes the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa less as a “space in which victims, perpetrators and benefactors could come together. . . for the sake of personal and national healing” and more as a “nation-building project predicated upon the creation of a culture of human rights in order to foster the transition from the repressive regime of apartheid to a liberal democracy.” I question Singleton’s reason for pitting these two interpretations of the TRC against one another. Surely the work of the TRC embodied multiple dynamics simultaneously, and no doubt the work of the TRC continues to have a multivalent impact on South African society.

[3] Nevertheless, given the painful history of Christianity in Africa, Singleton’s suspicion is not difficult to understand. Yet De Gruchy wants to dig into the wisdom that Nelson Mandela drew upon when he named Archbishop Tutu as Chair of the TRC; and wants to probe the language of covenant in Mandela’s inaugural address. De Gruchy, in short, is convinced that Christian understanding and practice have an important role to play in South Africa’s continuing journey toward a more just and reconciled national identity. As he writes, “Reconciliation. . . is a human and social process that requires theological explanation, and a theological concept seeking human and social embodiment” (20). It is “. . . an action, praxis and movement before it becomes a theory or dogma” (21) “a journey from estrangement to communion”; “an ongoing process to establish a community of love in which the conflict and injustice, though still present, are actively being addressed, and the eschatological goal of cosmic communion in love being definitely achieved” (76).

[4] De Gruchy’s goal is not the only ambitious aspect of this book; equally impressive is the sheer amount of material he strives to bring together: a brief history of Christian acquiescence and resistance to apartheid; an overview of atonement theology’s breadth, primary metaphors, problems and limitations; a juxtaposition of Christian understandings of reconciliation with Jewish and Muslim perspectives; and a constructive outline of the “art of reconciliation” as it applies to the present in South Africa.

[5] Clearly, De Gruchy’s answer to the question, “Does Christianity have anything to offer to support deeper, fuller reconciliation in South Africa?” is a resounding YES! However, as he works out the implications of his yes, various emerging issues suggest the need for further investigation and development.

[6] For instance, De Gruchy decides very early on to prioritize what he categorizes as a Pauline understanding of reconciliation, based on the Greek alasko, “to exchange.” What is significant about Christian understanding is its emphasis on the vicarious nature of reconciliation, according to De Gruchy:

“The underlying theology here is yet again shaped by the vicarious suffering of Christ, the one who takes the place of the “other” and transforms the wrath of vengeance into mercy of forgiveness” (168).
[7] And again,

“. . . the notion of vicarious representation lies at the heart of the gospel” (51).
[8] Surely this emphasis on the vicarious element in reconciliation is appropriate with respect to atonement metaphors such as imputation, satisfaction, and penal substitution. Other metaphors/theories in Christian theology and history, however, lay weight on different descriptive elements, such as unification in theosis, victory in Christus victor, righteousness in justification, purification in sacrifice, etc. While on the one hand De Gruchy attends to the plural development of atonement theology in Christian history, on the other, I believe his analysis would be improved if he allowed the diversity and conflicting stories of atonement metaphors to stand out more clearly instead of working to categorize so much beneath the one banner of vicarious action in reconciliation.

[9] The problems with a more univocal view especially stand out as De Gruchy narrates the story of Ginie Fourie, whose daughter was killed in a massacre at Heidelberg Tavern on Dec. 31, 1993 by members of the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress. Drawing on Fourie’s experience to embody the power of the vicarious element in reconciliation, DeGruchy tells how Fourie, after her daughter’s death, embarked on a theological journey to explore whether it might be possible to reconcile with her daughter’s murderers. Visiting the four accused in prison during their trial, she helps to initiate a dialogue, creating the possibility for a depth of healing neither she nor they could have imagined before. The openness, initiative and capacity for compassion on the part of Fourie takes DeGruchy’s breath away, and it is precisely this stance of putting herself in the other’s place, finding room for openness to the other, in other words, her own vicarious action, that DeGruchy wishes to emphasize as key in Christian reconciliation.

[10] However, one is struck by the fact that this central narrative nevertheless is the story of a white woman’s outreach and imaginative compassion to vicariously move past her own suffering and empathize with the lives of the four black participants in the massacre. De Gruchy writes, “Just as we cannot force victims to forgive, so forgiveness when it occurs does so because victims, mirroring God’s own forgiveness, take the initiative. . .” (179). Would he, one wonders, invite the same vicarious imagination on the part of black victims of apartheid’s cruelties? What should we recommend to the victims of torture? Would one wish to encourage the victim of rape to the same initiative? I question the wisdom of privileging this story about black-on-white violence, the danger being that the story may almost subconsciously shift the ground under the specific strenuous terrain of reconciliation in the South African context, as if to suggest that white citizens are as much victims in this history as those in black communities, and other communities of color. Though De Gruchy so carefully distinguishes the need for truth-telling as central to the process of reconciliation, and without wishing to denigrate either Fourie’s pain or her courageous action, I wonder if De Gruchy thought about narratively grounding this key notion of vicarious action with a story more in keeping with the actual statistics regarding the atrocities of apartheid. This same narrative, told from the perspective of Fourie, and completely lacking with regard to our hearing the voices of the black assailants, raises the question about a serious imbalance in this book, in that the dominant voices, theology and experience are mostly from a white perspective, while black South African voices, culture and religious practice remain relatively unexplored. Of course, De Gruchy’s hope is “. . . to come to terms with the truth that has been uncovered through the TRC, acknowledge our guilt in ways that heal and renew, and find ways to move beyond the past in covenant with the rest of South Africa” (189). Yet I fear such gaps in De Gruchy’s work only underscore how very difficult, indeed treacherous and costly, this journey may prove to be.

[11] What if we were to compare Fourie’s story with the fictitious narrative of Linda Lurie in South African Nobel Prize winning novelist J.M Coetzee’s novel Disgrace? A white South African woman in her late 20’s/early 30’s, Linda is a lesbian living in rural Georgia, struggling to negotiate the new terrain of neighbor-relations with Xhosa Petrus in post-apartheid South Africa. Theirs is a complicated relationship built upon mutual practical needs. Linda installs electricity in the barn on her land and permits Petrus to live there with his wife while they build a home on the neighboring land; he helps her with bundling cut flowers and taking them to market to sell. Yet Coetzee wants to demonstrate how tentative, complex and susceptible to brokenness even these superficial relations are in post-apartheid South Africa. Far from a covenant relationship, the foundation of this social contract is paper-thin. When three black men brutally rape Linda and rob her in her own home, Petrus turns out first to have been away at the time of the attack; later he refuses to give up the youngest, mentally unbalanced member of the trio of rapists, in fact has provided him with protection, because he is “. . . my family, my people” (Coetzee, 201). Linda’s father demands that Petrus fulfill the demand of justice by submitting the young man to judicial process, but Coetzee illustrates that the old understandings and practices of justice in white-controlled South Africa no longer apply. He will marry Linda, Petrus tells her father, and that will provide her future protection against further violence. What kind of vision of reconciliation is this? Coetzee emphasizes the costliness of redemption/reconciliation/healing in post-apartheid South Africa, and the inadequacy of former meta-narratives that made life understandable and just in white-controlled South Africa. At one time early on in the novel, Linda’s father, David Lurie, imagined that he would like to get to know old Petrus, imagined that Petrus no doubt had a story to tell about his life under apartheid, and he would like to hear it sometime. Yet when the rapists/robbers descend upon the house, David’s immediate mental lurch to colonialist narratives about the savage natives, and Petrus’ eventual instinctive and unquestioned protection of one of the attackers suggest Coetzee’s conviction regarding the vast distance separating members of different communities in post-apartheid South Africa.

[12] It is this same distance that remains to be explored not only theologically, but sociologically as well. What do Christian narratives of reconciliation look like in rural areas as the Georgian lands occupied by characters such as Xhosa Petrus, his wife and extended family? How is “sacramental community” practiced in black South African communities in ways similar to and different from white Christian communities? Though DeGruchy preaches against exclusivism, there is very little in his book that explores the particularities of reconciliation in black South African cultural forms. I would like to know more of the huge reservoir of knowledge and experience regarding reconciliation from specifically Black South African perspectives. Along the same lines, though DeGruchy wishes to avoid supersessionism, and acknowledges disagreements between Jewish, Muslim and Christian understandings of reconciliation, it seems as though these same differences dampen very little his enthusiasm for a Pauline emphasis on vicarious initiatives of forgiveness, a notion that surely flies in the face of Muslim and Jewish beliefs about repentance and justice.

[13] To his credit, DeGruchy is careful about naming forgiveness as “the prerogative of victims”; he emphasizes that victims cannot be forced to forgive, to create the kind of open space so courageously sought by Fourie. However, DeGruchy claims that forgiveness makes reparation, expiation and atonement possible, even going so far as to say that Christian conviction compels embrace of wrong-doers (180). What about the importance of power differentials with regard to taking the initiative in reconciliation, forgiveness and healing? A much more finely nuanced analysis of forgiveness would help DeGruchy navigate these difficult waters. Feminists have written about the need expressed by abused women to reclaim and recover a sense of self in order to move definitively in the world, much less forgive their abusers (Keshkegian, 2000). What of South Africans of color? How did the decades of apartheid (not to mention the centuries of colonialism) denigrate and wound the communal sense of self in ways that have yet to be healed? What will healing look like on their terms? Without advocating separatism, theologian Gregory Jones writes that the “craft of forgiveness” may in fact require some to “. . . separate from the enemies, since their presence may threaten our very identities in relation to God” (Jones, 196). Is too much being glossed over in the enthusiasm to create bridges of reconciliation? When DeGruchy speaks of such difficult topics as the cry for land redistribution in this context, he on the one hand agrees that reconciliation must include social and economic justice; yet he later suggests that token and symbolic restitution may be as good as it gets. One can only wince as DeGruchy speaks in this regard of his hope for reliance on “the generosity of the victim” (208), and in contrast, Coetzee’s unyielding articulation about the costliness of this process for white South Africa is a bracing tonic.

[14] Perhaps the emphasis on vicarious imaginative initiatives is appropriate for white South Africa, particularly given the fact, emphasized by DeGruchy, that many (most?) white South Africans have yet to demonstrate much sense of responsibility or remorse for the horrors of apartheid from which they most definitely have benefited (DeGruchy, 195). Here comparison to the United States may not be avoided, and acknowledgement of the dearth of any communal restitution/reparation for the destruction wrought by slavery in this country. Again, to his credit, DeGruchy outlines a wealth of typologies of justice, understandings of forgiveness, guilt, and more. At the end, however, I find myself wishing that he’d left more ends untied. Though in many places in this book DeGruchy tells us that reconciliation, the process of building bridges, is about allowing contradictory stories to be told in the presence of deep listening and respect, what one inevitably senses is a desire to move past the contradiction to the bridging, when perhaps what is most needed is to stop and allow a deeper penetration of those contradictions in the stories themselves. What will it take to adequately hear, much less address Singleton’s description, “the violent legacy of apartheid’s inequality in the past and present”? Going back to Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, one is finally struck by this story’s multiplicity of images of reconciliation/atonement, all of them exceedingly partial, fragile and questionable in terms of offering much in the way of hope. Petrus’ offer to marry Linda smacks of feudal satisfaction, males offering material bounty to one another as a way of balancing the scales of justice in response to theft, rape or murder. Linda’s resolve to “doggedly carry on” (Boehmer, 348) after her rape, and her resolute silence and refusal to report the rape or confront Petrus about what he knew, suggest a narrative of reconciliation in the format of penal substitution; she will bear the punishment for white South Africa’s unwillingness to face and endure the brunt of the costliness of apartheid’s evils (and it should not escape our attention how frequently women have been placed in just this suffering role). Linda’s resolve has little to do with any belief about a redemptive value in such suffering, but again, practically, what else can one do, the novel suggests, given the realities of post-apartheid South Africa? Finally, David Lurie, Linda’s father, it seems, can only find the way toward reconciliation (and for him this means the possibility of authentic relationship, even love) through a kind of self-emptying, a process of sacrifice, experiencing the lopping off first of this piece of his identity/privilege, then that, until all the artifice and self deceptive utilitarian impulses have been sheared away. And even then at the conclusion of the novel, despite the costliness, the painfulness of this redemptive process, David is only able to accomplish real relation with animals, not yet with any human beings. Not only is reconciliation costly, in Coetzee’s estimation, it is difficult, uncertain, and all too partial in the real world. It’s almost as if behind Coetzee’s pessimism, he is trying to warn against anything that hints of transformation wrought too quickly or superficially, admonishing against any possibility of movement without adequately coming to terms with the cost.

[15] In the end De Gruchy counsels us to hope in “. . . the vision of what we believe our world can and should be” (212). I’m with DeGruchy in hoping that Christian narratives may find their rightful role in encouraging deeper and fuller reconciliation nationally and globally, and appreciative of the path he has charted. At the same time, I’d like him to slow down on his journey, smooth over the sharp edges a bit less and take in more along the way, beginning perhaps with a long sojourn among black South African Councils and rural black women’s collectives, to listen deeply not only to the cries of lament, but also to the intricacies of black South African practices of healing and redemption and consider just how those practices might inform his own Christian convictions. Holding out the promise of genuine reconciliation requires both openness and critical awareness, lest in drawing upon our own tradition we mistakenly reinstate various forms of oppression. Such is the struggle not only in South Africa, but also everywhere in the world with every and any moral code; however much good it may promise, there is an undertow that must always be interrogated. Thus it is likewise clear that this journey also requires continuing captive attentiveness to the narratives of reconciliation in diverse non-Christian spiritual and religious traditions in South Africa; and finally, the very diversity of understandings of redemption in Christianity itself stands almost as a beacon regarding the importance of modesty, openness and flexibility in such a difficult enterprise. Given the painful history of Christianity in Africa, can Christians challenge themselves to any less?


Boehmer, Elleke. “Not Saying Sorry, Not Speaking Pain: Gender Implications in Disgrace,” Interventions Vol 4(3) 342-351, 2002.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. New York, Viking, 1999.

De Gruchy, John W. Reconciliation: Restoring Justice. London, SMC Press, 2002.

Jones, L. Gregory. Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995.

Keshgegian, Flora A. Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Transformation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2000.