Yesterday, I published an essay about the Facebook fad “The Invisible Children”, a video about Joseph Kony and his murderous terrorist group, that has gone viral in the blogosphere.

I ended the essay with the note that there is a time for war and a time of peace, and that the war to find and punish Kony is being done right now, the next step will be the time of peace, to heal those affected by his diabolic actions, including the rehabilitation of the child soldiers. And I noted wryly that I doubted that videos on this long and painful process wouldn’t find a similar audience.

The western world’s approach to crime is rule of law: to arrest the victim, and then punish him, by fining him, or by jailing him.

But those who see and judge Africa (or Asia for that matter) through the lenses of their own culture are sometimes startled by the fact that cross culturalism doesn’t mean throwing out the rules (as in the moral relativism of much of US academia’s “multiculturalism) but seeing the problem from a different point of view and solving it in a different manner.

So the South African apartheid system was not followed by a massacre of the Boers and other whites, but by panels that sought out the truth, and tried to reconcile the enemies.

 Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution

This amnesty and reconciliation approach seems questionable to western eyes, but is similar to the way tribal courts settled disputes when I worked in rural Africa.

Did you steal? You gave it back. Did you harm someone (assault or rape)? You paid a fine to the family harmed. Did you murder?

We only had one murder (during a fight during a drinking session) when I was there. One man died, the only son of an aging father.

This went beyond murder, since the man’s father now had no son to support him in old age and his wife was beyond childbearing years.

The solution? The agreement to give the father money to replace his wages, and a wife to replace the son. (Aghast, I asked won’t the girl object? But the nuns, wiser than I, pointed out that all families had girls who couldn’t find a husband because they were mildly retarded or crippled, so she might agree to the marriage, where she produces the babies, and the first wife could do the heavy work required of a wife.)

So Africa’s way of seeing these things is different, and far from the Biblical idea of justice and much closer to the New Testament ways of forgiveness and reconciliation than a lot of snide westerners would like to acknowledge).

A recent essay in the New Oxford Review has a passage by an observer of some of the horrors of Africa that always make it into the headlines. He wonders why Rwanda, where a million people were killed, often by neighbors, has now recovered and is prospering in peace. So he asks a Rwandan soldier, a peacekeeper in Dafur, how this occurred. (note: the “Heavenly mother” mentioned refers to the appearance of the Virgin Mary in nearby Kibeho ten years earlier that warned of “rivers of blood” if people didn’t stop hating each other).

“What has happened to my country since the killing ended? When we regained control, did we avenge ourselves against our oppressors? Did we retaliate against our neighbors? No, love enveloped the country. A love and forgiveness that, I like to think, only a heavenly Mother could instill in her children..

“Men asked for forgiveness face-to-face. We deal with our countrymen who committed the atrocities on a village level. If a man killed his neighbor, he goes to the family and asks for forgiveness. The village council will decide a penance; usually the man will work as a laborer for that family for a prescribed period of time. Once the penance is complete, the man is free. In this way, he can see the consequences of his crime by interacting with the family, and the family can see their former oppressor in a state of humility. That humility often softens their hearts and quenches any desire for vengeance. As simple as it sounds, it has worked. None but the worst are sentenced to jail and we have abandoned the death penalty. Forgiveness is granted and old wounds are being healed.

So there is indeed a time of war, and a time of peace.

And with America’s jails full, often full of poor people who unlike the rich who steal and cheat, didn’t know better because they were never taught right and wrong,  maybe a remembrance that there are other ways to heal those who only have known greed, drugs, hatred and violence: By acknowledging their crimes, by asking their victims for forgiveness, and by being accepted in a community that helps them live that repentance.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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