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Teaching Reconciliation

Catherine Guisan and her students discuss the meaning of the term political reconciliation

Catherine Guisan and students in the classroom
POL 4210, Spring 2007

Surprised by the Politics of Reconciliation

I was surprised that many of my 35 students from nine countries (Ethiopia, Kuwait, Liberia, Palestine, Russia, Serbia, Togo, Trinidad, and the United States) had never heard of the term political reconciliation. Hegel and Marx challenged us to think of history as a dialectical process, of social forces overcoming their contradictions in the rational, or classless, society, eventually reconciled with itself. John Stuart Mill urged us to eschew all final resolution to pursue ongoing debates on controversial questions, from religion to private property's legitimacy, and to adopt the “harm principle" as a response to offensive actions. Because of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin thought anew the recovery from murderous clashes of interest and belief. What did Arendt mean by “forgiveness and promise?" Why did the Socratic dialogue of conscience matter so to political action?

We stayed with these questions as we read Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures with their sometimes contradictory tenor (casting evil men out and turning the other cheek). We explored the link between personal self-transformation and political change in texts by Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu, and commentaries on their actions. We also studied two instances of international reconciliation: the rapprochement between France and Germany in the 1950s and, after 1989, attempts at reconciliation in other parts of Europe. We were struck by the immense sufferings that call for reconciliatory politics, and by the importance of social and economic fairness but also of a rhetoric that taps into the cultural traditions of the peoples concerned (Hegel's Sittlichkeit). We mourned the Virginia Tech shootings.

Queries came up: What is the difference between liberation and reconciliation? Can we trust courts to play a positive role in processes of reconciliation? One student who participated in the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission's investigation in the Twin Cities explained the hopes and doubts it inspires. Another student shared her excitement at realizing that the Bible and Koran tell the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers in very similar terms. Discussing prospects for the politics of reconciliation after 9/11, several stressed that it had to start within the U.S. between classes and ethnic groups before it could travel abroad. One wrote, “I know that people are changed by this class or at least thinking about it." Another said it brought his “dead dream alive," to help reconcile two warring ethnic groups. “Even if I don't see this in my lifetime," he said, “I hope I will share the same knowledge that you have shared with us with the next generations."

By Catherine Guisan