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Issue Date:  November 18, 2005

In Uganda, religion can help reconcile a shattered people


If the business of God is redemption, then the business of religion is reconciliation. God’s people are all over the conflict in northern Uganda, where 1.6 million people have left their homes, 100,000 have died and about 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose members brutalize them into little fighters. Their leader, the charismatic if deranged Joseph Kony, says he wants to cleanse northern Uganda of sin and restore the Ten Commandments.

Church leaders venture into the bush to meet renegade rebels. Bishops fly to Geneva to petition the International Criminal Court. Religious volunteers and charities feed, shelter and treat victims of the insurrection. But when it comes to the specialty of religion -- reconciliation -- the faithful are curiously absent.

This is odd, considering history, tradition and scripture. Joseph in Egypt forgave his 10 treacherous brothers, Jesus absolved his crucifiers and Muhammad taught acceptance of nonbelievers. But in the modern world, congregations rarely welcome back in public those who have strayed. Sin and forgiveness, when they are even acknowledged, are private matters and often left to therapists.

In northern Uganda, therapy won’t suffice. For 19 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army has killed, maimed and marauded among their fellow Acholi, the predominant tribe. Of those kidnapped and often forced to kill their own neighbors and relatives, half have escaped to communities that receive them warily. That so many do embrace their children, who yesterday wielded machetes and AK-47s, is inspiring. The Acholi are known for their forgiving nature. Local civic groups, tribal chiefs and relief agencies all try to repatriate these traumatized kids. But despite a population that is one-third Catholic, one-third Anglican and a fifth Muslim, congregations don’t deploy their most powerful medicine -- the doctrine, rituals and sacrament of reconciliation.

“Churches don’t have a clear idea of how to handle trauma,” Fr. Ali Ocan Onono, an Anglican priest active in northern Uganda, told me. “Churches deal with you as an individual who needs counseling,” said Fr. Onono, who works for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. “They think first of a psychiatrist.”

Two facilities in the Gulu district house and treat returned abductees with some success but rely largely on a psychosocial approach. “They train you how to live and tell you to forget the past,” said Dennis Okello, 17, who went through one program after six years with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Even when such treatment succeeds with the individual, it often ignores the community’s role.

“How to reintegrate these children, it’s mission impossible,” said Stig Hansen, who directs a U.S.-funded peace initiative. His follow-up interviews of returnees reveal that suspicion, rather than welcome, is common. As one returnee told Mr. Hansen, “When we laugh, we are told that we are mad. When we are silent, we are told that we are controlled by demons.”

What has worked for Dennis Okello and many others is a traditional welcoming-back ceremony, or “Jolo,” sponsored by the Ker-Kwaro, a council of chiefs from the 50 Acholi clans. The council has been revived, with help from Catholic Relief Services, to help fill the need.

In it, Dennis Okello and 40 other returnees stood at the edge of a village or settlement while several thousand watched. Each returnee stepped on an egg, symbolizing reborn innocence, then over a pobo tree branch, indicating that the rough will become smooth, and a forked stick used to open a granary. “This means that the children will be fed by their parents,” said Chief Justo Obita. Returnees report that flashbacks and trauma often ease or vanish after Jolo.

Traditionally, Jolo removed evil spirits that possess an estranged person and pledged the community’s welcome. Today, a chief implores the assembly to take back their children, the returnees may express contrition for violence they were forced to commit and all share a feast.

“It’s similar to what’s in the Bible with the prodigal son,” said Albert Acire, an assistant to the Ker-Kwaro. “Those who bear the Bible need to help out with their own reconciliation rituals.”

Fr. Onono said, “There could be a group service and then you all have a cup of tea, or holy Communion or some other sacrament of the church.” The early Christians routinely welcomed back sinners who confessed publicly to the congregation. Such rites disappeared after private confession began in Ireland and spread across Europe.

Today, while denominations dither, other groups have confidently created their own social rituals of healing and forgiveness. In drug treatment programs, addicts detail their misdeeds to peers who respond with hugs, much as alcoholics tell their stories at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to find absolution and confirm sober habits. Truth and reconciliation commissions in Brazil and South Africa have joined victims and violators. Likewise, the Acholi found what they needed outside Christianity. “Jolo allows them to feel free, like children who were never abducted,” said John Samuel Okello, a youth leader.

That’s just what Jews, Christians and Muslims found in their faiths and practices, at least a long time ago or, today, in private. Now they need to reinvent and redeploy these rituals of reconciliation in the real world.

Christopher Ringwald is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., who previously reported on northern Uganda for NCR. He directs the Faith & Society Project at the Sage College and is the author of Faith in Word: Ten Writers Reflect on the Spirituality of their Profession and The Soul of Recovery: Uncovering the Spiritual Dimension in the Treatment of Addictions.

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005

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