Published in The Fiji Times, Friday 4th December, 2009 (p12, 15)
In preparation for my sermon for this Sunday (7.30am Dudley Church, all welcome or listen to the broadcast at 10am on Radio Fiji One), I happened to come across some “Off the Wall” articles from the previous year. In an article written for New Year’s Eve 2008, I noted that the United Nations had declared 2009 to be the International Year of Reconciliation, calling on societies that have been divided by conflict to adopt reconciliation processes in order to establish firm and lasting peace.
Last New Year’s Eve, I invited the people of Fiji commit ourselves to playing our part in creating a firm and lasting peace in Fiji. It was a cry for us to renew our trust in ourselves and in others; to forgive and respect others. It was a call for a commitment that required no international monitors; a commitment in which you set the time line. It was a call to a commitment to which only you and God know that you are being faithful. Nevertheless it was a call to a commitment which everyone could make.
Less than a week away from the conclusion of the 16 days of activism for the elimination of violence against women and the commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the saddest realisations remains that the majority of people in Fiji, who consider themselves Christians find themselves struggling to accept their responsibility as agents of reconciliation and peace. Even though biblically, all Christians are called to commit to the message of reconciliation: “All this is from God, who reconciled himself to us through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
On Wednesday afternoon I was walking through downtown Suva, when I noticed a commotion ahead of me. As is our habit in Fiji, I decided to “avorosa” and find out what the fuss was all about. Upon enquiry by those who had witnessed the whole event, I learned that a destitute woman, unkept and unwashed, had been refused entry onto a bus even though she had the required bus fare. Those to whom she turned, for a sympathetic hearing and in the expectation of support did not, in spite of their uniform, enforce her right to travel on the bus. By the time I reached the spot the bus had departed and the crowd was dispersing.
It occurred to me that perhaps we have missed a significant step in our attempts at reconciliation. We have thus far only looked at reconciliation between two major communities in Fiji. We have neglected to reconcile the various factions and divisions within those communities. Divisions based on religion, social status, economic situation, culture and perspective. How can we expect reconciliation between neighbours when there is conflict within the home? How do we successfully inculcate a culture of gender, racial and social equality when we continue to hold on to prejudice that has been ingrained over generations and that we are indirectly passing on to the next generation.
Perhaps we have been conditioned by the use of the word, “Division”. Our country is split into four geographical divisions for government administation. The Methodist Church has 51 divisions, including a Rotuman, a Rabi and an Indian Division. We are constantly divided by ethnicity, gender, age and sexual orientation. We are a people who have well and truly been divided and conquered. What is worse, we continue to divide ourselves.
I have come across a number of interpretations of “Reconciliation.” From the traditional, culturally-based rituals, to special events where groups perform items from a different culture, too often we rush through the motions. Observing protocols and rituals that only hold significance on the surface, with no lasting change made. This underlines the failure of superficial acts of public forgiveness in Fiji in the recent past which had no effect in terms of national reconciliation because the on most occasions groups petitioning for and granting forgiveness did not include wrongdoers, who were unrepentant or victims who were not willing to forgive. The symbolism in cases such as these proved to be empty.
The dilemma of forgiveness and justice is also an important issue. In his book, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics, Anthony Bash makes the point that forgiveness is a moral response to wrongdoing and that it is an interpersonal phenomenon, not possible on a corporate level. From a Christian perspective, understanding forgiveness as a moral ideal rather than a moral duty helps Christians in their struggle to forgive even the unrepentant and to find consolation when after striving to forgive, they find that they are unable to do so.
Forgiveness is an ideal; a moral response to wrongdoing. As a Christian, forgiveness for me is a response to God's grace and in participation of the ministry of reconciliation. Yet I recognise that forgiveness is also a struggle by victims who yearn for justice. After all it is very difficult for the oppressed, dressed in rags and with an empty stomach to forgive the well-dressed, well-fed oppressor. Ultimately, though, forgiveness is a core element of the greater good.
In our context the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation has been compounded by the fact that due to our pluralistic society, often the wrongdoer and the victim have different religious and cultural understandings of forgiveness, repentance, atonement and justice. This raises the question of how interpersonal or even any attempt at corporate forgiveness can take place between people who hold to different theologies and cultural practices.
Reconciliation is about restoration of relationship, not return to the status quo. Reconciliation requires repentance and forgiveness, which in turn requires an acknowledgement of responsibility and generosity of heart.
On Monday and Tuesday this week I was fortunate to attend a Retreat for Ministers, Pastors and Deaconesses working in the Indian Division of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma. Held at Nasikawa Vision College, the Retreat included sessions with Rev. Baek, a Methodist Minister from South Korea and an inspiring speaker. Late on Monday evening, I climbed up the steep hill that leads to the Vision College’s chapel. As looked out to the ocean and watched the waves crashing on the reef in the light of the setting sun, I reflected on the huffing and puffing that it took me to climb the many steps to reach the summit and the resulting view.
The goal of a reconciled and compassionate society of free and equal citizens may seem to many of us like the peak of Mount Everest, far away and seemingly out of reach. But with each step we get a little closer. Our personal commitment to taking a step forward at a time, no matter how difficult the terrain or how steep the climb, is necessary to achieving this goal. It is a goal that must be achieved collectively or not at all. There is no such thing as half of a reconciled and compassionate society of free and equal citizens.
May you continue to be blessed with light, love, peace and joy this Advent season.
Rev. Bhagwan is a probationary minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, serving as Librarian/Assistant Lecturer (Theology & Ethics) at Davuilevu Theological College and as an Associate Minister at Dudley Methodist Church in Toorak, Suva.
All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organization that Rev. Bhagwan is affiliated with. Visit the Blog- http://thejournalofaspiritualwonderer.blogspot.com/ or email email@example.com