Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Wonder, Heartbreak, and Hope (6)

Gideon Strauss


??December 3, 2010
?by Gideon Strauss

(In this series I reflect on my work as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, and try to tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice, looking in particular at a few Psalms.)

"Darkness is my only companion."

Psalm 88:18 is certainly one of the most heartbroken conclusions of a psalm, and one of the more heartbroken utterances in all of the Bible.

As I heard and interpreted the testimony of victims before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many of them expressed a feeling of abandonment similar to that voiced by Psalm 88's poet.

Some mourned the loss of a friend, a husband or a wife, or a child, lost to the violence of the struggle between those guarding the apartheid regime and those seeking to overthrow it. Some mourned a sense of loss of themselves, sometimes because of the ways they tried to cope with the pain and indignity of being tortured. And some spoke of a loss of God, a sense of being abandoned by God in their suffering.

Perpetrators of abduction, torture, and murder, coming face to face with their victims, their deeds, and their darkest selves, also sometimes spoke of a feeling of abandonment.
Sometimes they felt abandoned by their leaders, under whose command they acted, but who often denounced them and their actions, denying knowledge of and responsibility for these gross human rights abuses.  Often they had been abandoned by friends and family, in revulsion, as the horrors they had perpetrated became publicly known.  And sometimes they felt abandoned to their guilt and shame, unable to reach out for forgiveness and absolution.

The staff and contractors of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the journalists who covered its revelations, the observers both from South Africa and the rest of the world—none of us remained unaffected by this sense of darkness, loss, and even abandonment.

"Every week we are stretched thinner and thinner over different pitches of grief," reported the poet Antjie Krog in her memoir of covering the work of the Commission as a journalist, "Country of my skull: Guilt, sorrow and the limits of forgiveness in the new South Africa" (Random House, 2000).

Political life at its extremities demands a spirituality robust enough, honest enough, to have room for the kind of grief, rage and anguish given voice in Psalm 88.

But a spirituality that ends here and stays here is inadequate. Beyond the rage against oppression of Psalm 137 and the anguish of abandonment of Psalm 88 lies a further, even harder reach: admission of our own complicity in the evil and injustice in this world. 

??—Gideon Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”