Bishop Ivan Abrahams, the secretary general of the U.S.-based World Methodist Council, addressed a session of the central committee about reconciliation, saying that South Africa shaped his vision.
"I am a South African whose life has been shaped on the anvil of the apartheid struggle," he said in an address to the WCC's governing body, which usually meets every two years.
From 2003-2012, Bishop Abrahams served as presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa–one of the largest Christian denominations in Southern Africa.
Abrahams spoke about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was set up by the South African Government of National Unity in 1995 to help deal with what happened under apartheid and was led in part by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died in 2021.
The plenary was moderated by H.E. Metropolitan Vasilios of Ammochostos, Church of Cyprus, member of the WCC central committee.
Facing the truth
It was "an attempt to face our own truth about the wounds, horrors and enriching of the past," said Abrahams.
"There are many published works analyzing the achievements and shortfalls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who chose restorative justice above retributive justice," said Abrahams.
It took six years for the TRC to complete its work, and he said Tutu had claimed that South Africa would show the world how to deal with post-conflict situations.
The TRC offered forgiveness to those who testified to it honestly, but scholars have looked at the sometimes-ambiguous role of the church in the struggle for liberation in South Africa and was seen as a "quasi-judicial institution.”
"In many ways, the TRC became a public confessional. It was a national and symbolic healing ritual of a very special kind that offered a place for people to tell their stories and exorcise past demons."
He said that although the commission chose to include the term reconciliation in its title, it should be realised that the word reconciliation was not always associated with forgiveness.
"But for others, it meant political tolerance so that democracy could be consolidated," said Abrahams.
"There's so much work to be done in South Africa to bring about healing and transformation. And again, from my experience, I know that reconciliation and true transformation can be a messy business, and you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty," said Abrahams.
Rt Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw of the Anglican Church of Canada, a central committee member, said that the Anglican Church in Canada "came as a tool of the colonizers into the promised land.”
Walsh Shaw said, "We, as a tool of the colonizer, killed the prophets. As a tool of the colonizer, we laid waste to the civilizations that were there, in a land flowing with milk and honey."
She said the church was complicit and participated in benefiting from "the theft of land and in the destruction of language, culture, ceremony, medicine, wisdom, community.”
Children taken from homes
Indigenous children had been taken from their homes.
"Anglican, Catholic, and United Presbyterian clergy baptized the children. As the church, we promised to take care of these precious children of God. In participating in this genocidal structure. We did not. We failed the church. We failed the Jesus way – the way of love."
Walsh Shaw said that churches are building momentum for future work.
"And in our context, both the settlers and the Indigenous peoples need to heal. We have a collective responsibility because we travel this common river of life together. So instead of being chaplains for the empire, let us as churches be the conscience of the people."
Patriarch Theophilos, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said in a video message from the Holy Land that the church is the living witness of the divine-human encounter.
"And we seek to foster the world of reconciliation. In our services, we understand well the constant need for forgiveness, healing broken relationships, replacing justice, and restoring proper relationships between individuals and the community.
"And this work is always at the core of our life. The church is on this spiritual mission for the wellbeing, not just of the Christian community. But for all our people who make up our region's multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious landscape."
Theophilos said that commitment was not shared equally in his area.
"There continue to be radical groups whose sole intent is to bring about the extinction of the official presence in the Holy Land," he noted, explaining the campaign of intimidation or assaults that take place daily and go unpunished.
"Reconciliation requires, for example, the will to reckon with the wrongs that occur. Those who commit such crimes against the Christian community must be held responsible," said Theophilus, with reconciliation requiring responsibilities.
"Those who commit such crimes against the Christian community must be held responsible for their actions by society and the government."