Indigenous Africa offers examples of alternative ways to reach peace. It is the way of truth, social forgiveness, and integration. A reflection from Laurenti Magesa, a Tanzanian theologian.
Peace does not mean the absence of conflict. Except in fables, recorded history offers no credible examples of societies that led perpetual, totally idyllic, tension-free existences, either internally within themselves or in relation to their neighbours.
Conflict is part of human nature. It arises from such emotions as selfishness, anger, revenge and desire for power and control. Every person and society somehow shares in some of these conditions. To transcend conflict constitutes the call to peace and security. But this is not an automatic endeavour. Peace must be constructed on an on-going basis at various levels of society through deliberate procedures.
The question is therefore how, in any given situation, can individuals and communities consciously manage conflict situations that are bound to arise in relationships so that differences do not degenerate into violence? How can human beings contain destructive passions that, in the absence of processes of self and social control, inevitably lead to bloodshed? More positively, how can people transform negative emotions into positive attitudes of forgiveness, concern and care for one another?
There have been several approaches to these perennial questions. Some people and societies still advocate physical force as a way of ‘solving’ conflict situations. This approach is expressed in such philosophies as, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’ (by the 4th century Roman Publius Flavius Renatus), or ‘Peace can be achieved only by the edge of the sword’, (a maxim of the Swahili people of East Africa). This conviction has formed the dominant stuff of global history. Yet history also shows that the approach has never succeeded in fostering lasting peace.
In the 20th century alone, the world witnessed two major wars. The first (1914-1918) was touted as ‘the war to end all wars’. It did not happen. Soon afterwards, another major global confrontation occurred (1939-1945). Since then, numerous regional and civil wars have created only resentment and desire for revenge between combatants. Nations have, therefore, resorted to manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, ostensibly ‘to keep peace’ by threatening to wipe out the ‘enemy’. But the arms race has not brought the world any nearer to real peace. On the contrary, it has resulted in such horrors as the atomic bomb strikes against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, eventually killing over 200,000 people and, currently, the atrocities in Syria and elsewhere. Thus, the arms race should be described as a form of ‘balance of terror’ where violence is prevented only by ‘fear of mutual annihilation’.
Solidarity as a dynamic spiritual force
Though dominant, violence is nonetheless not the only way towards the management of conflict for the sake of peace. Indigenous Africa offers examples of alternative ways towards this goal and at a much deeper, more permanent level. It is the way of truth, social forgiveness, and integration. The method is intended to lead to human solidarity as the ultimate goal. True peace, in this perspective, comes only through the activation of these combined processes, step by step. Solidarity as a dynamic spiritual force is meant to create all-embracing common interests through the formation of communion of mind and heart between and among previously antagonistic perspectives.
Establishing the relative truth of a conflict situation is a prerequisite of the process. The goal here is to establish accountability for a ‘mistake or crime committed, whether pre-meditated or accidental.
Admission of a mistake, from the least, such as disrespect, to the gravest, such as murder, happens either by ordinary procedures (voluntary confession) or by supernatural means (divination). It helps the perpetrator to ‘see’ with the eyes, mind and heart the problem created and resolve not to commit further errors.
Confession is necessary because harmony can be rebuilt only if moral responsibility and accountability for breach of social order are accepted. The parties in a situation of conflict must be made to understand that things are not as they should be, and that this affects not only their lives but extends to disturb the entire existence of society by causing physical, moral and spiritual disharmony, an enemy of life, since everything is connected for better or worse.
For life to continue, disorder must be healed, and healing comes through confession and forgiveness. These are demonstrated through established signs, symbols and rituals. The structure of forgiveness usually calls for an offer of compensation to the victim as a sign of repentance on the side of the wrongdoer. Reparation (often symbolic) also serves as a symbol of readiness to re-establish broken harmony and order.Archbishop John Baptist Odama affirms with reference to the Mato Oput ritual among the Acholi of Uganda, for example, that when an offender demonstrates genuine repentance, the offended “would have no option but to forgive in good faith”. A symbol of repentance must not be rejected at the risk of reversing responsibility for chaos from the original offender to the recalcitrant victim.
Rituals of reconciliation are here not intended for retribution but for the desired creation – on a permanent basis – of unity, harmony and solidarity. For this is what peace is understood to be. Anything less is a failure in reconciliation. For successful conflict resolution and peace, rituals must see to it that the offender is re-integrated into harmonious relationships as was the case before their breakdown so that together again the life of the community in question is stronger. All rituals are intended to say one thing to all parties concerned: “we are one community”, and if so, no one should harm oneself.
Again, awareness of this fact by all concerned constitutes the concept of peace in indigenous Africa. Being on constant watch to preserve the ritually re-established social harmony is the duty of everyone in the community. Any intention, word of deed that leads yet again to the breach of solidarity becomes both criminal and blasphemous.
Integration implies total, unreserved acceptance of the other, without suspicion or fear of their intentions. That is why this ultimate goal is invariably sealed by a ritual meal and/or drink by everyone collectively. Only people brought together by bonds of mutual love, understanding and respect, who are, therefore ‘relatives and friends’, do share meals in indigenous Africa. The act indicates purity of intention towards one another. Eating with enemies cannot happen while the hostility lasts because it can be dangerous to life; but sharing a meal, the source of life’s sustenance, is life itself.
The road towards sincere Christian social and spiritual reconciliation and peace follows exactly the same logic. If, as James writes in his Epistle, the cause of fights and quarrels among people are their internal desires that are not properly managed (James 4:1-2), then this fact needs to be acknowledged and deliberate action taken to prevent murderous violence from ensuing. From scriptural teaching, peace is a question of practical, existential spirituality where the attitude of forgiveness and acceptance is indispensable (e.g., Mt. 5:39-48, 18:21-22, Lk. 6:29-30). After all, mercy is what God continually shows toward errant humanity, constantly inviting human beings to communion with God.
For Catholic Christians, the supreme symbol of integration into divinity is the Eucharist, in other words, the Christian Mato Oput ritual. Holy Communion is holy precisely because it is compassionate, integrative and unitive. The Eucharistic ritual is not a naive exercise but truly the way to genuine and lasting peace with God and neighbour.
Peace is achieved through awareness and acknowledgment of the truth of conflict, readiness to ask, give and receive forgiveness, and genuine integration of the repentant other into the integrity of ‘human’ togetherness. African indigenous reconciliation perceptions and rituals provide a window towards global peace understood and not merely absence of war.