The accused, who has often admitted guilt and asks for grace, is placed in the middle of a large circle. The villagers, some of whom are victims, gather about him.
One by one, those in the outer circle remind the guilty person in the middle of something good he has displayed.
“And that’s the punishment. Over and over and over, people tell you how good you are in trying to bring you back into the community,” says Sara Terry, a former correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and currently photojournalist and documentary director who specializes in examining the invention of a new culture of forgiveness in post-conflict societies.
The documentary, featured via a partnership with the Little Rock Film Festival, the Clinton School of Public Service and Second Baptist Church, focuses on forgiveness and conflict resolution that occurred in the aftermath of civil war in Sierra Leone.
“Fambul Tok” (“Family Talk”) is based on a tradition in many African cultures that long-term peace can best be established by recognizing the whole of community and exercising the concept of forgiveness by gathering all parties (the victims, the accused and the entire community) under a tree, often around a bonfire, and resolving conflict through conversation.
It’s based on the courage and grace of ordinary people, after a war or conflict, to attempt to restore community.
One of the stunning scenes in the documentary is a villager approaching the community and saying, “The man that killed my father is here.”
“Forgiveness happens when the person who did it goes to the victim and says, ‘I did this; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?'” Terry said in a presentation at Second Baptist Church’s “Sweet Justice” summer series.
“War tells us over and over about our humanity and how we continue to destroy ourselves by retribution,” she said. “Sometimes, we don’t understand the culture of forgiveness. We are stunned by the simple wisdom of saying, ‘It stops here.'”
Foundational to the process is the preservation and development of community. It is more important than the perpetuation of individual agendas and goes against the grain of some Western concepts of blame and retaliation.
It is based on the need, developed through African traditions – many that were stung by the effects of colonialism – to emphasize the need for a community to be made whole with every individual playing a role.
“It’s a concept that says that people should be reconciled, rather than isolated from community, because that person, even if he has done wrong, may have part of the solution,” said Terry.
She said the problem with many post-conflict programs and organizations is the tendency to apply quick fixes, then move on to the next crisis.
“To make programs work, they have to be owned by the community,” she said. “They have to be ready to reconcile rather than have programs from the outside come in and tell them, ‘We’re gonna do reconciliation and these are the steps people need to follow to do it.'”
She continued: “We need to ask, ‘What do you learn through your culture? What do you want to do to solve the problem, and how do you sustain it?'”
“We have lost our ability in our society to think reflectively, which is the key to resolving those conflicts long-term,” said Terry. “If you don’t have a population educated about the price of peace, you’re never gonna have the continual support for the ways we need to think in the world to sustain peace.”
Terry has seen, and portrays in the documentary, some bright spots in the aftermath of brutal conflict in Africa, where the resolution by community conversation results in no jails in some areas.
“People call Africa a ‘dark continent,’ but people there have the wisdom to say I want peace and I’m willing to forgive in order to have it,” she said. “They understand that the community must be whole for individuals to be happy, which is the reverse of what is happening in the West. I see the overflowing prisons in the U.S. and repeat offenders and repeat conflict. And we’re gonna tell Africa how we do it?”
Terry maintains that concepts of forgiveness and community should be foundational to faith communities and followers of Jesus.
“If a person of faith tells of a relationship with God, how do you live it?” she said. “The concept of forgiveness is not foreign to people of faith. People of faith know about love and forgiveness. The question is whether we want to live that way.”