“When this nightmare is over,” Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says, “we need a Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It would erase Trump’s lies, comfort those who have been harmed by his hatefulness, and name every official, politician, executive and media mogul whose greed and cowardice enabled this catastrophe.”
For those who love freedom and those who prize truth and reconciliation, the tone of Mr. Reich’s proposal sends shudders down the spine. I am neither American nor partisan, but it is surely plain to everyone that no current commission in America is likely to issue in either Truth or Reconciliation. The country is too divided, and the very terms truth and reconciliation are in dispute. The outcome would not be what happened in South Africa, let alone Rwanda, but power games and political revenge.
That is not to call into question the proposer, but to focus on the prospects. Truth in American public life is almost dead. If philosophy is the discipline of thinking about thinking, the last 50 years of philosophy have done little to foster any sense of truth, truthfulness, promise keeping and trust. A toxic blend of relativism (so that there is no objective truth), emotivism (so that truth is whatever you feel it is) and constructivism (so that truth is whatever we make it to be) has led to pervasive skepticism and suspicion.
And what is left when truth is dead? Power. Anything is now “true” if you can say it and make it stick. Many in the press and media are as much to blame as the academy, and the “fake news” and highly “selective attention” of American journalism are as bad as the censorship of the hi-tech companies. With such bias and irresponsibility from the “elite,” is it any wonder there is rampant rumor-mongering and conspiracy theories among the “deplorables”?
If truth is in bad shape, reconciliation is no better. The foundations of both have been largely destroyed, and it is time for Americans to ask where reconciliation comes from. This is in fact another place where the West owes everything to its Jewish and Christian roots. In much of the pagan and the classical world — and the world to which we are descending rapidly — the only remedy for offense was either appeasement or abasement.
These two responses are entirely logical when power becomes domineering, and there is no room for reconciliation in the equation. Never in a million years can appeasement or abasement turn an enemy into a friend. Don’t be fooled by the word peace in Pax Romana, the wisest Romans said. Seneca described such power-won peace as “the exhaustion of cruelty,” and Lucan as “the peace of despotism.” In the postmodern world of today, power not only oppresses the weak, it corrupts the powerful and breeds resentment. For the radical left, talk of “truth” would clatter like a tumbril, and “reconciliation” would wreak of the guillotine rather than grace.
How then can enemies be reconciled, and serious wrongs be atoned rather than avenged? One hesitates to state things briefly, for in an age belittling words, clichés are never far away. Yet the Jewish and Christian steps toward reconciliation are as clear and simple as they are revolutionary.
First, there must be truth, a prophetic address that highlights both the wrong and the standard by which the wrong is judged. Second, there must be repentance, and a complete about-turn of heart, mind, and behavior that sets its face against what was once acceptable but now seen as wrong. Third, there must be confession, the rare moral act of going on record against oneself, issuing in a commitment never to repeat the same wrong even if in a similar situation.
Fourth, there must be forgiveness, the dismissal of the right to hold the wrong against the wrongdoer, thus releasing both the forgiver and the forgiven from the burden of the past and freeing the future as the realm of a second chance. Only then, fifth, can there be genuine reconciliation, a remedying of the wrong, and a removal of the barriers between the parties.
So grave are the wrongs plaguing America now that those five truths must not be left as cliches. Just as freedom requires truth, character and a way of life, so reconciliation requires truth, repentance, confession and forgiveness. Neither freedom nor reconciliation are cheap. Both are costly and demanding.
The challenge facing America is tough, but the choice is clear. Will America continue down the postmodern path of unprincipled power politics that leads to wounds, resentments, power conflicts without end, and the peace of despotism? Or will America return to the better angel of its past, rooted ultimately in Yom Kippur and Calvary? As so often, Abraham Lincoln faced similar problems. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Once again, America’s choices in 2020 are far deeper and different than the immediate political decision on Nov. 3.
• Os Guinness, an Anglo-Irishman, lives in McLean, Virginia. He is the author of many books, including “Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Redeeming the Time.”
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