What does a just society or community do with its persistent offenders, with those whose behaviour continually disrupts or even destroys the unity of a group? This is an age old question that has no easy answer.
Timor Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), set up to deal with ‘lesser offences’ committed over the period from 1974 to 1999, struggled with this issue and provided the world with an object lesson on how to balance forgiveness with accountability.
The Vatican has recently affirmed its support for the implementation of CAVR’s recommendations. The Timorese recognise that a too easy amnesty is no solution for unacceptable behaviour. Offences need to be named and acknowledged by their perpetrators for the sake of community reconciliation.
The process followed by CAVR in Timor Leste is very close to that proposed in today’s gospel for members of the ‘church’ community. The power to deal with transgression is firmly in the hands of the community members. All care must be taken not to shame a person, but to allow her or him to acknowledge the offence in private. If this fails, the matter is referred to a group of two or three witnesses, according to Israel’s ancient legal practice (Deuteronomy 19:15). The next step is referral ‘to the church’, or in other words to the assembled community.
A person who refuses to listen ‘to the church’ is to be treated as a Gentile or a tax-collector. The meaning here is not at all clear. Some scholars suggest that the Matthean Jesus is proposing exclusion from the community. Others consider that he is advocating the sort of compassionate approach he has personally shown to ‘outsiders’, to those in need of conversion.
The responsibility for maintaining right relationship in the community lies with the community members. If our personal efforts to resolve conflict are unsuccessful, we do well to seek the wisdom of others. Jesus, God-with-us, is present in the assembly. We have that assurance. We also have the assurance that our failure to deal with transgression can leave a person unreconciled. It is very easy to hold on to past hurts. We need to ‘loose’ the sins of those who acknowledge their offences. In other words, we need to forgive them and thus set them free from the burden of their sins against us.
There is much we can learn in this respect from our Timorese neighbours.
Veronica Lawson RSM