The Church as Reconciling Community and Institution in South Africa

[1] This essay tries to demonstrate that the church, as an institution and a community of persons, carries within itself valuable resources for enabling and fostering social reconciliation in South Africa.1 I shall explore in brief some of the ways in which Christian community has been and can be efficacious in the promotion of reconciliation in a divided society.

[2] It is the church’s duty and call to break the walls of division that exist among people of different backgrounds and cultural heritages (Eph. 2:14). The church is called to be the instrument of reconciliation in the world (2 Cor. 5:19). Ambrose Moyo argues,

[3] The message of reconciliation and forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ is at the core of the life and ministry of the Church. The Church is that instrument through which God chooses to be reconciled with creation as a whole, but more so with people, and to reconcile people with one another regardless of race, color, or creed. (Moyo 2002:294)

[4] In the church reconciliation is perceived and practised under the New Testament rubrics of marturia, leitourgia, dιakonia – witness or teaching, celebration or liturgy, and service or practical ministry (Klein 1999:17). Drawing from the church’s Biblical tradition, reconciliation among human beings is a manifestation of the new covenant2 offered by God, a pledge in which God reconciles Godself with the world, and wills the inner reconciliation of all of creation.

[5] In his treatise Of the Councils and the Church (1539), Martin Luther elaborated seven marks of the church. The first is that it is a community based on the proclaimed word of God. The second and third features of the church are the ritual practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The office of the keys (i.e. public and private confession) is characteristic number four, while the ministry to serve on behalf of and in the name of Christ is fifth. Prayer, practical service and catechesis represent the sixth mark. Finally, Luther emphasises “the cross” as a peculiar feature by listing it separately as number seven. Below, I will attempt to outline some of these “marks” of the church, and explicate how they might be useful in the endeavour for social reconciliation.


[6] Within the church community, the ministry of witnessing to God’s reconciliation is manifested in the practice of eucharistic communion (Stückelberger 1988: 442). Many theologians are emphatic about the reconciliatory character of the Eucharist (Klein 1999: 222ff, Ruhbach in Böhme 1986:48, Seitz in Böhme 1986:69-71). Indeed, Holy Communion is frequently deemed the “sacrament of reconciliation” (Klein 1999:226). The communal nature of the Eucharist bears reference to political, economic and social human interaction (see Mt. 5:23, 1 Cor. 10:16ff, 11:20-22, Gal. 3:28), and is therefore a reflection of these dynamics present in the gathered community (Klein 1999:223).

[7] Christians believe that the celebration of the Eucharist entails the renewal of personal and social life (Klein 1999:224). This means, the sacrament actually engenders the reconstruction of social relationships, and builds communio among participating people. According to Luther, the realisation or manifestation (“Werk”) of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the communion of saints – the embodied church, where each member belongs to the others.

[8] Indeed, Holy Communion is the ultimate sign of God’s unconditional acceptance; all – even the “unacceptable” and excluded3 – are welcome.4 Moreover, in reference to Jesus’ parable of the great feast it can be noted that the “symbolism of the banquet of the Kingdom of God is included in the Supper. The full and complete reconciliation of God in Christ with the world is translated as a historical reconciliation between the unreconciled and the excommunicated” (Dalferth 2003:16). Since God invites people to the Table unconditionally, it is the duty and the gift of the church to do just that – go beyond the conditions imposed by human beings, overstep humanly construed boundaries, and share the common gift.

Confession and repentance

[9] It is the church’s prerogative and duty to witness to and enable a process of repentance, confession, and absolution/forgiveness in society. With its office of the keys, and other ways of demonstrating repentance and liberation from sin, the church has a significant task to fulfill. The method and practice of penance as an “act of reconciliation” (Klein 1999:228ff), and the proclamation that repentance is a way of life and a process of turning away from self-involvement and sin to God and the neighbour (Ruhbach in Böhme 1986: 38), are significant offerings of the church to the world.

[10] In terms of what confession and repentance may mean for South Africa’s endeavour to be a reconciled nation, a concrete suggestion is that it helps us South Africans to deal with our sordid past, and the sinfulness lodged in Apartheid. Past injustice needs to be recognised, admitted and addressed – not swept under the proverbial carpet.5 In a process of confession, the confessor (or perpetrator of sin) is given the opportunity to face his/her guilt in a “safe” environment.

[11] Penance enables the community of penitents (and those participating in the event by listening or watching) to remember, and then reveal and know the truth. The church can provide a forum for truth- and storytelling, which implies confession (Moyo 2002:300). The truth about a situation in which sin and injustice happened is brought into the open; it can no longer be denied or silenced. In order to reveal the truth of the past, painful remembrance may be required. To remember is often the first step to healing, and this is why it is deemed by some to be a moral task with great significance for society (de Gruchy in James and van de Vijver 2000). Christianity may therefore assist in determining guidelines and methods for efficacious confession to occur, which in turn is an essential condition for social reconciliation in South Africa.


[12] Proclamation of the Word of God may also be seen as an element of (or medium toward) reconciliation. The most traditional way in which proclamation occurs in the church is through preaching. Preaching repentance has an ancient tradition, beginning in the Old Testament (e.g. some prophets) and strongly influencing the NT (e.g. speeches of John the baptiser, Peter and Paul in Acts, etc.). Preaching peace and love may also be regarded as a vehicle towards reconciliation (Klein 1999:240ff). Both the proclamation of law (i.e. the demand for justice, and implicit judgement) and gospel (i.e. the gift of new beginnings, forgiveness, and healing) – to use the old distinction – are important and efficacious tools in promoting actions towards social reconciliation.

[13] Proclamation does not, however, only involve speech from the pulpit. It also features in Christian teaching and catechism (Ruhbach in Böhme 1986:45, Hay 1998:153), i.e. in church-related instruction which may occur in settings such as Sunday school, confirmation class, adult formation or Bible study groups, or in Christian education in schools (i.e. in form of Religious Studies or guidance counselling).


[14] In many cases, festivities and celebration are ritualized institutions. It may be argued that rituals

hold our lives together, whether they be a simple meal or a national event. They can link us to the past, contextualise our present and show the way to the future. Ritual is a way of acting where an individual and a community celebrate in a cultural and human way who they are through symbol, word, space and gesture. In ritual we remember our story and express our belief about ourselves, the numinous and the mystery of life, so that we can live with meaning, dignity and social cohesion. (Hay 1998:135)
[15] Hay argues that the church, with its emphasis on liturgy and worship services, can contribute much to the development of potently symbolic healing rituals. For example, church communities may become instrumental in cultivating “cleansing rituals” in society (136).6 Or, people may “be helped to complete the rituals around death by holding symbolic ceremonies in communities to remember those who have died” (136). In view of symbolic and ritual celebratory action connected with reconciliation, there is much potential in what the church has to offer.

[16] Rituals will need to be found to help victims and communities mourn, heal, confront the past, exorcise the evil of the past, celebrate forgiveness, etc. Perpetrators will need rituals to express repentance, remorse, contrition, etc. Rituals will be needed to express justice, reparation, reconciliation, hope, human dignity and honour. There will be a variety of rituals needed for use at the national, local and individual levels. The ritual challenge is great. (137)

[17] Through the medium of the church community, and incorporated within the life of the church, reconciliation feasts may become part of a heritage and culture of reconciliation, especially if enhanced by the use of signs, symbols, or meaningful (ritual) gestures, e.g. touch, communal drinking, covenanting signs (Klein 1999:254). In order to illustrate his point, Klein mentions that in church history festivities promoted penance and reconciliation traditions, for example the feast of fools in the middle ages which comprised of a celebration surrounding a mock court case and judgement against evildoers (Klein 1999:258). Once appropriate festivity and celebration becomes, once more, part of the church’s repertoire of practices, it (the church) may well have yet another resource to offer to society seeking social reconciliation.


[18] Although it is difficult to separate the concept of “spirituality” from general church life, and in particular church worship and celebratory practises, I would like to name Christian spirituality as a distinctive resource which could be of value in the service of social reconciliation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that especially in situations of social upheaval and turbulence, the church has a calling to be a spiritual7 community – lead bythe Spirit of God to embody spiritual diversity, spiritual communion, and spiritual unity,8 and cultivate a spirituality that engenders what Christ is all about (Bonhoeffer 1986:100-139). Arguably, if seen as such a spiritual community, the Christian church could be (and is) a bearer and fosterer of “a spirituality of reconciliation” (Hay 1998:152) in society.9 What avenues does the church employ to nurture such a reconciliatory spirituality among its members, and, potentially, within broader society?

[19] Through resources for spiritual formation (especially to be gleaned from the Catholic tradition), the church can help its own members to establish a personal piety and religiosity which emphasises the values of reconciliation and peaceable co-existence and communication. In general terms, the church has a task of nurturing the “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), i.e. forming persons with the will and ability to establish and maintain wholesome relationships. Furthermore, Col. 3:12-14 lists characteristics of a Christ-like lifestyle.10 True Christian spirituality is by nature conciliatory and peace-loving, relationship-building and rift-healing. If the main tenets of such a spirituality could be shown in word and deed through the community of the faithful, this would indeed be a powerful witness, and a real contribution to any social reconciliation process.


[20] Church ecumenical work can be argued to be reconciliatory in nature and purpose (Stückelberger 1988:512). Ecumenism and co-operation among the various Christian denominations has been a driving force in the establishment of structures, institutions, programmes and forums for dialogue and reconciliation (525), also in South Africa. Indeed, a “particular challenge to the churches is promoting vigorously a lived social teaching and action towards ecumenical unity and inter-religious respect, dialogue and cooperation,” because this would empower members of the church to be agents of reconciliation (Hay 1998:62). Part of the task of ecumenism is the rethinking and reformulating of theology (147) in order for it become more inclusive and welcoming of diversity. Similarly, steps toward inter-church dialogue would also open avenues for inter-religious dialogue, and the willingness to learn from believers from other confessions and faith traditions (150).11 Certainly, such lived openness to “the others” is a strong witness for social reconciliation which the Christian community could offer.

Political engagement

[21] According to Luther’s two kingdoms/regiments theory both the “spiritual” and the “worldly” realms of existence are placed under God’s authority. God acts as the world’s lover and redeemer not only in the spiritual domain of ecclesia, but also in the secular domains of oeconomia and politia. This is why Christians ought to see themselves as active instruments in both domains. Indeed, since the two realms are under divine sovereignty, the Christian may not in good conscience neglect either one of the two, but must take his/her role in both seriously.

[22] It follows that Luther’s political idea involves critical participation (Altmann 1992:82-83), thereby closely relating12 the spiritual with worldly kingdom and admonishing both to stand in line with God’s struggle against evil (Moltmann 1984:134). Indeed, Luther spoke of service and worship within the world (“weltlicher Gottesdienst”), and included prophetic diaconia of the poor and weak – creating a just social economic order – under this rubric.13 Luther’s two-kingdoms teaching could provide a sound basis for the church’s involvement for the establishment of “efficacious social welfare policies” to name but one example (Lindberg 1933:127, see also Theissen 1999). By building an equitable society, the grounds will be laid for reconciliation among the ethnic groups in South Africa.

[23] Effectively, the church cannot take a neutral stance in issues impacting the social reconciliation debate, such as redistribution of wealth (Moyo 2002:298). It, and religious leaders, may, for example, have to “realize that it is their duty to call upon those who have acquired riches through the exploitation or impoverishment of others … to voluntarily return some of the wealth they control to its rightful owners” (Moyo 2002:298), and thereby contribute to the creation of a reconciled society. And if, as is to be expected, the rich do not follow the church’s call to “voluntarily return” the unjustly acquired wealth, the church may have to exert pressure on political authorities to implement such just action in policy and politics. If justice cannot be achieved through the gentle coercion of the gospel, i.e. God’s right hand, then God’s left hand rule though law and order, state and policy will have to be employed. Even and especially here the church’s prophetic “watchdog” role may become a crucial one in the endeavour to “create an environment where reconciliation is possible” (Moyo 2002:299). Indeed, the church’s prophetic duty in the world of politics and secular policies may have to include admonitions for “restitution or reparations by supporting different initiatives such as debt cancellation” (299) and other issues that infringe on the wellbeing of society.

[24] The church possesses direct and indirect methods or instruments of power which can be helpful in political processes of reconciliation. Stückelberger lists some direct assets as being economic/financial abilities (1988: 531), the number of church members and helpers (i.e. “manpower”),14 organizational structures that are already in place, location of churches within the given contexts of need, and the strength of its being community-based, and a grass-roots level organisation (i.e. in touch with the basic experiences of people) (532). Indirect tools for reconciliation which can be employed in the secular realm may include proclamation, conscientization or conscience-building, and ethical formation (533). The latter would involve education for democracy, petitions, demonstrations, protest actions, public hearings, rallies, opinion polls and other initiatives (534), solidarity (536), and opposing injustice through vocal and public partisanship (541). Moreover, the church community has resources for practically assisting victims of human rights abuses (Hay 1998:154), e.g. by helping them through bureaucratic processes, and providing material stability for those in destitution. Finally, political or social involvement of the church in South Africa could mean to actively support the ongoing work started by the TRC (Hay 1998:158) and other secular or religious reconciliation and truth-telling initiatives or programmes.

Influencing moral culture

[25] Closely related to the above deliberations concerning church political activity is the Christian community’s ability to influence and shape society morally and ethically, and promote a culture of reconciliation in society (Klein 1999:18). An investigation by Helga Dickow (1996) has shown that the church is indeed a force in the formation and cultivation of a culture of a certain caliber. It has an influence on South African society’s evolving self-consciousness and identity. The gospel urges and empowers Christians to have an alternative vision for life – in contrast to, say, some current secular visions of the world which are based on pessimism, anxiety and apathy, or self-preservation, domination and exploitation. The church is a community which bears – and struggles to embody – the message of hope in seemingly hopeless situations, healing in broken situations, joy in situations marked by despair, peace in situations of war and enmity, and of course unity and reconciliation in situations of mutual suspicion, hostility and division. This message and its communal manifestations are a strong force for the positive shaping of social culture.

Some examples of reconciliatory practice

[26] The reconciliation process has a history in South Africa. According to Wolfram Kistner, it started in the 1960s with initiatives of church leaders such as Beyers Naude and other resistance leaders (in Voß 1999:38). In 1968 the South African Council of Churches (SACC) drafted a document calling for reconciliation (39), and in 1985 the famous “Kairos Document” was drawn up (40). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission represents the most recent national endeavour for reconciliation, and was indeed supported strongly by churches and church leaders.

[27] In the aftermath of the TRC, several new initiatives have been formed for the promotion of reconciliation in South Africa. Certain churches have, for instance, started undertaking healing seminars. These seminars generally fall into one of three categories: 1) They may seek to bring together victims and perpetrators in order for them to encounter one another in a spirit of openness and fellowship; 2) they may aim to provide a “safe place” for survivors and other traumatised persons, and facilitate the establishment of support groups, or 3) they may target the former beneficiaries of the apartheid regime by guiding them toward recognition of guilt and repentance through education and conscientization (Kistner in Voß 1999:55-56).

[28] A number of churches of evangelical denominations have united in establishing a fund for the support of survivors. CARI (the “Christian Anti-Racism Initiative for Gauteng and Beyond”) is a group in one of the provinces that organises seminars on racism and how it can be combated, with the aim of working toward an egalitarian, reconciled community. Institutions exist that develop ideas and strategies for just distribution of land (e.g., “The Covenant and Land Programme of the SACC” initiated in 1998). ESSET (the “Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation”)15 is an organisation that attempts to promote economic justice, which it is hoped will contribute to the building of peace and reconciliation. (Kistner in Voß 1999:56, 62)

[29] These are some concrete examples of how the church in South Africa is working to foster social reconciliation in a country burdened by a past of injustice, inequality and separation. Nevertheless, the need for reconciliation persists; the healing process must be continued (Kistner in Voß 1999:50). The church’s task remains great, and the challenge to use her assets is increasing rather than diminishing. It is up to the church to recognise the rich resources she has, and offer these with vigilance, diligence and joy.


[30] A TRC commissioner poses the challenge:

[31] So what role do we as Christians and Christian leaders see for ourselves? … Are we reaching out to each other in a spirit of true repentance – understanding, forgiveness, love and restitution within the church itself? Is there an active programme within the church to build bridges, to open windows, to ventilate the house through constructive debate? Is the church building bridges across racial barriers, language barriers, status barriers, wealth barriers, sexual orientation barriers, gender barriers, age barriers – to name only a few? Is the church really becoming a non-racial model that we can show to secular society? (Finca in Denis 2000:18,19)

[32] In this essay I have tried to suggest that the church community has potential to be a force of healing and reconciliation in a divided society. Through its practices of the Holy Supper, confession and forgiveness, proclamation, celebration and liturgy, as well as through its ecumenical work, its involvement in politics and secular issues, and its influencing of civil culture, it has much to offer. However, being simultaneously justified and sinful, it has to struggle constantly with its own depravity and corruption. At no time have I wanted to imply that the church has any claim to being perfect or “better” than any other group. However, owing to its foundation upon the gospel of good news in Christ the Reconciler, I have argued that in terms of its eschatological vision and thrust, it may have some possible pointers for the reconciliation of the world at large, and among human beings in South Africa in particular. The ministry of reconciliation is at the very centre of its being, which makes it a special instrument of God’s mission to heal and reconcile creation.

Works Cited

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Chapman, Audrey R. and Spong, Bernard (eds.). Religion and Reconciliation in South Africa: Voices of Religious Leaders. Philadelphia and London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000.

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Dalferth, Silfredo Bernardo.”Beyond Eucharistic Hospitality: The Holy Supper, Society and the Kingdom of God” Unpublished paper presented at The Future of Lutheran Theology: Charisms & Contexts conference in Aarhus, Denmark, January 2003.

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End Notes

1 It is beyond the scope of this study to investigate how the Christian community in South Africa has in the past demonstrated reconciliatory engagement. For an overview of this, see for example Kaiser (1996). Other scholars who have elaborated this topic are Balcomb (1993), de Gruchy and Villa-Vicencio (1994), Nicolson (1990), Nürnberger and Tooke (1988), Prozesky (1990), Cochrane (1987), Mbali (1987), Villa-Vicencio (1987), Alberts and Chikane (1991), Mosala (1986).

2 The first testament/offer of reconciliation is narrated in Gen. 6:18, 9:8ff. Subsequent offers of reconciliation occur in Sinai (Ex. 34:27), with Joshua (Jos. 24:1), in exile (Jer. 31:31), and then finally in the NT Lord’s Supper texts.

3 Among these must be included even people who by social standards are outcasts, e.g. murderers, torturers, traitors.

4 This means that at base Holy Communion is not primarily about judgment and exclusion, but about forgiveness and inclusion. Luther declares that the Lord’s Supper is not meant to torment consciences, but rather console and make content those who partake of it (WA 15, 498, 23f).

5 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission endeavored to uncover the past. Yet the task is not completed, and it is under the auspices of the faith communities that continued truth-telling, healing of memories, and confession ought to be encouraged. For further discussion on the need for truth- and story-telling, see Krog (1998), Tutu (1999), essays in Denis (2000), and essays in James and van de Vijver (2000).

6 A “ritual developed by B. Tlhagale, who used some Catholic ritual resources, is a ritual cleansing from the evil of apartheid. It is a powerful and deeply moving ritual which leads the community through an inculturated African cleansing ceremony. During apartheid many South Africans used the ritual of toyi-toying as a ritual of protest and resistance.” (Hay 1998:136)

7 “Spiritual” not meaning “other-worldly” in terms of being divorced from human reality and daily life, but meaning being motivated by the Holy Spirit to become engaged and committed in the world.

8 Geistvielheit, Geistgemeinschaft, Geisteinheit.

9 Arguably, such a spirituality of reconciliation is already present in the African indigenous concept of Ubuntu, which pronounces that every person’s humanity is intricate bound up with that of all other people. Virtues of an Ubuntu anthropology include co-operation, hospitality, mutual respect, social harmony, solidarity with the downtrodden, self-sacrifice, etc., all of which correspond closely to a Christian ethic.

10 See also, for example, the Matthean version of the fruits of a life in Christ (Mt 7).

11 Indeed, the existence of the Southern African Inter-Faith Peace Conference has shown that religious dialogue and cross-fertilization can offer new and exciting opportunities for social reconciliation. The last meeting of the Conference held in Johannesburg in October 2003 bore witness to this fact.

12 Distinguishing, but not separating, connecting, but not collapsing.

13 Luther’s radical attack of unjust socio-economic structure can be traced for example in his works, Brief Sermon on Usury (1519), Trade and Usury (1524), Admonition to the clergy to preach against usury (1540).

14 The results of a survey done in South Africa on people’s religiosity and its effect on political thinking show that in the mid 1990’s 90% of the population confessed religion, while only 5% had “no religious affiliation”. The majority of religious persons were Christian. African Initiated Churches account for 15% of the figure (Dickow 1996:237). Of the population, 60% are deemed “very religious”, 30% “religious”, 5% “inactively religious”, 5% “non-religious” (258).

15 Its offices are located in Khotso House, Johannesburg, and it was established in 2000.