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How Can We Reconcile in a Way That Lasts?

The Bible has a lot to say about reconciliation. Christians, for example, are called to be ambassadors for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18–20). Now, a scientific study is affirming what the Bible has taught for thousands of years.1 Three researchers, through a nongovernmental organization in Sierra Leone, conducted a three-year study on residents in 200 Sierra Leone villages. The aim of the study was to help residents recover from the psychological damage of a 12-year civil war.

Reconciliation Can Yield Social Benefits

This civil war (which occurred from 1991 to 2002) was different from most in the past century in that it had little to do with ethnic differences. The war was predominantly fought over the illicit diamond trade. Nevertheless, more than 50,000 people were killed, thousands more were raped, and 65 percent of the population was displaced. The protracted conflict involved torture, atrocities, and war crimes.

In each village where horrific suffering had occurred, the study brought together the victims and the perpetrators of the war atrocities. In these meetings, the victims described their suffering and the perpetrators confessed their war crimes. The researchers discovered that the more truthful encounters resulted in greater social benefits, where individuals were more likely to forgive the perpetrators, engage in larger social networks, and contribute time and money to public goods and welfare projects.

These social benefits affirm the motto of the California Institute of Technology taken from John 8:32, “The truth shall make you free.” Honest confessions set people in those Sierra Leone villages free to forgive one another and to personally invest in the rebuilding of their communities and social networks. However, failure to practice the rest of John 8:31–32 and other Bible passages addressing reconciliation led to significant social costs on behalf of the villagers engaged in the study.

Reconciliation Can Also Yield Negative Psychological Effects

In nearly all instances there was a measurable worsening in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress experienced by some of the villagers. Furthermore, these symptoms remained throughout the three-year study. The authors concluded, “Our findings suggest that policy-makers need to restructure reconciliation processes in ways that reduce their negative psychological costs while retaining their positive societal benefits.”2

The authors also commented briefly on how the negative psychological costs could be reduced. They noted that in each village there were individuals who chose not to testify of the atrocities they committed or experienced. Such omissions left huge holes in the extent of the reconciliation. They also drew an analogy between single-session versus multiple-session therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. They cite multiple research studies showing the long-lasting effectiveness of the latter and the fleeting benefits of the former. Likewise, the fact that the reconciliation meetings in the villages tended to be one-time affairs likely explains why the negative psychological effects persisted.

Reconciliation Needs Christ to Be Long Lasting

Bible passages such as Galatians 5 and 6 and Philippians 2 teach that humility, forbearance, compassion, and a serving spirit are disciplines that must be continually practiced for peace and reconciliation to have any degree of permanency. However, these disciplines can become a way of life only if human beings first submit themselves to their Creator. For the truth to truly set humans free, the entirety of John 8:31–32 must be applied: “If you hold to my teaching [Jesus Christ’s], you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

  1. Jacobus Cilliers, Oeindrila Dube, and Bilal Siddiqi, “Reconciling after Civil Conflict Increases Social Capital but Decreases Individual Well-Being,” Science 352 (May 2016): 787–94, doi:10.1126/science.aad9682.
  2. Ibid., 787.