Mitsubishi and three little words that make grown men cry

Most of us would be quick to point out that there is lots of media coverage of the brokenness of our world – stories of corruption, pollution, conflict, wars, extremism, human trafficking, injustice, etc. It is because the world is broken… so the media does their job and shines the spotlight on the ugliness. I thank them for it but even more I thank those who put the spotlight on stories of forgiveness, healing, restoration, humility and hope. For the common knowledge says that ‘good stories’ do not sell.

One of the international headlines that made my day was coverage of an event at Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles last week. Japan’s Mitsubishi corporation made an official and public apology for using US prisoners of war as forced labor during WWII. It was described as the first such apology by a Japanese company.

One of the former US prisoners, who had survived the inhumane and terrible conditions without food and medicine (basically slavery) in the copper mines when he was a young man, was present to receive the apology as a 94 year old man. James Murphy said that he had forgiven his captors but he still wanted to hear an apology.

So, 70 years after the end of the war and even without any offer of money or other restitution, this was a very important event. This was Mitsubishi but also the Japanese government officially apologized to US prisoners of war five years ago.

Why is it such a big deal? Why would someone wait 70 years to hear an apology? Why not “forgive and forget”? And why would the company wait 70 years to apologize?

Sometimes I think what my grandmother would do if someone she knew came to her and said, “Back in 1948, I was working for the Soviet system that took away your family’s farm and sent your family, your parents and grandmother, to the labor camp in Siberia. I was part of the system that sentenced your brother to hard labor in prison camp because he tried to get back the family’s farm. I am so sorry for your grandmother who died near Lake Baikal and was buried there. I am so sorry for your younger brother who perished.”

My grandmother is loving, joyful and creative person. She is not eaten by bitterness and unforgiveness. She has forgiven a lot but she still misses her family. I think she would cry if she heard an apology like that. No, let me be honest – I would cry if someone apologized to her.

Acknowledgment of truth is the first step in reconciliation process but repentance – apology, remorse, sincere regret – is crucial. Without it you cannot have a true healing and restoration of relationship.

There are also times when it is appropriate to apologize on someone’s behalf. I doubt that the Mitsubishi owners, managers or employers are old enough to have been working for the company during WWII. Still, they recognized the stain and guilt of their company and are seeking to deal with its legacy. Often to go forward you have to go back to the past.

It is amazing how difficult it is to say these three little words, “I am sorry”

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Photo from movie “The Railway Man”

I imagine differently than John Lennon

Music is a powerful communicator and musicians have a beautiful way of connecting their message with the audience. There are thousands and millions of melodies that speak without lyrics… Still, I like words. I like musicians who are good story tellers. And I like the ones who use their voice and art for something good.

Sometimes I hear a word and immediately think of a song. Hearing about zombies, makes me think of ‘The Cranberries’. Even though their hit song has nothing to do with zombies, but speaks about violence in our hearts and communities. The official video highlighted the conflict and pain in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It is one of the popular cover songs all around the world but how many people actually pay attention to the deep message inside?!

For me, ‘U2’ is in a category of its own. Often Bono is described as part preacher, part politician, part social activist and musician. And when he hangs out with another Irish musician, Bob Geldof, watch out… the Irish can be very passionate and persuasive.

All this came to my mind when I was watching the movie “The Killing Fields” about Cambodia and the soundtrack included John Lennon’s “Imagine”… People call it the ‘peace song’ but I realized that I actually disagree with his imagined version of peace. John Lennon said:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

So, basically if we got rid of religion, national borders and all possessions, we would become united and loving and selfless. Lennon said that he was not only one with this point of view and he was right… many people feel that way. But their dream has a major flaw – what about the question of human heart? Yes, violence and selfishness and greed can be taught, exemplified and encouraged, but even without any of that – it comes naturally to all of us.

Christians call it the problem of ‘sin’ or missing God’s ideal; Buddhists call it the problem of ‘suffering’ which comes from our desires; Muslims call it the problem of disobedience if people are not submitted to God…

I don’t know of John Lennon’s worldview but it reminds me in some ways of the Marxist ideals. I grew up in a society where we told that all problems come from religion, nationalism and capitalism. So, telling your children about God was forbidden; being Latvian or Armenian was discouraged because we would create a new international person and things were owned by the state. And that was a ‘dream’ that most of us were very happy to wake up from.

I choose to join another dream. Desmond Tutu put it like this: “Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, and vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us.”

South Africa

Greece is on my mind and here is why

So, here I am – living in Asia – and every time I turn on the news, it is a story from Europe that dominates the international headlines. Greece and the debt crisis…

Yesterday Gary and I were on a long bus ride and, with lots of time to talk, I started venting. My poor husband, he has to listen to lots of my speeches! He said, “Why are you talking to me about this? Talk to Europeans!” Exactly my thoughts and hence this blog. Not just for Europeans, but for anyone following this complicated situation.

I am not an economist or a political scientist, but I see a big relational problem. Even if we talk only about the actual topic – the debt and bailout- it is very relational. With borrowing and lending, there are two sides relating to each other. Guy Brandon, Research Director at the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, UK gives this simple explanation, “For the borrower, there is the obligation to repay their debt, to seek to understand the lender’s interests and to secure the best deal for them within the terms available. For the lender, there is the recognition that the world is an uncertain place. Repayment cannot always be guaranteed and default should not be forced unnecessarily.”

Also, I think we almost forget that we are talking about a nation here. Country with more than 10 million people in a very difficult, fearful situation. What if it is my grandmother who is afraid to lose her small social guarantees? What if it is my younger sister among the 50% of youth who are unemployed? What if it is my dad, standing in long lines at ATM to get his daily ‘allowance’ of 60 euro?

When the global financial crisis hit the world in 2007-2008, the bailout of banks and financial institutions was beyond ‘huge’. US and European governments spent trillions. We know that the crisis had many roots and complicated global issues, but no denying, that there were systemic and endemic failures and human greed that led to it.

So, yes, Greece needs to reform and there are endemic failures, but those without sin can cast the first stone. There is tax evasion in Greece? Yes, there is (but I don’t think Latvians can be a role model.) There are serious problems in public sector? Yes, very serious…

I will not talk about the current Greek government since I understand them very little. They may be very populist, but again, this is not anything new on European continent when it comes to some other serious issues like nationalism, immigration, etc. Like I said, it is all about relationships. I believe that both sides have made big mistakes  – Greece and the European creditors – and the language used is often harmful and isolating and judgmental. Lots of self-righteousness. This includes many of the Latvian politicians and media.

We are talking about the European Union here. If Greece had to leave euro zone, it basically would mean that they have to leave the European Union and from what I hear, Greek people want to stay in the EU. I cringe when media uses the words, “Greece may get kicked out… Grexit…” This is not some sensational story.  This is a very big deal. It would be a huge relational failure with unforeseeable consequences. There is already much bitterness and frustration between peoples. What do you think this would mean to the relations between nations? I am not talking only about Greeks and Germans. What about Latvians and Greeks? Is Greece ‘our neighbor’ or not?

For those who are interested in a deeper and better economic and political analysis, I will insert a link to an article written by a Christian think-tank Jubilee Center in UK. It was written in 1998 during the debate about joining European Monetary Union or euro. It expressed some of the main concerns which now seem very insightful. Here is what they wrote on the question whether euro will make Europe more peaceful and harmonious, “If a country faces an unsustainable fiscal situation, it may be forced to threaten default on its debt or request help from other members. If a transfer or debt guarantee is granted, those populations in solvent countries may resent their taxes being used to bail out irresponsible governments elsewhere. If these payments have no democratic mandate, resentment of neighboring countries within EMU may result.”

I encourage you to read the article but more than that – I want to encourage all of us, including the main decision makers, to think relationally. It is not about economy or money or even news headlines; it is about people and lives and social harmony in Europe!

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Can we have shortcuts in reconciliation?

I will be honest – I struggle with confession. I struggle with acknowledging the truth that I have hurt someone by my words, actions or attitudes. Even when confronted, I try to minimize, avoid, justify or simply hide the truth.

I guess some things have not changed since I was a little girl who was often fighting with my brother. Two years younger than me, he was also my best friend and favorite playmate, but sometimes my greatest ‘enemy’. While I was bigger and stronger than him, I would usually win the fight (often after instigating it). But when confronted by our parents, I would say the most ‘natural’ things like, “He started it. I only broke his toy because he broke mine first. He bit me harder than I bit him…”

We would face each other while my mom or dad tried to get the facts straight. The tears would come again when the other would not tell the truth. Why was it so difficult? Why was the silence or denial so painful?

As I reflect on the journey of reconciliation, I find that there is a strong consensus. The first and essential step in this process is looking for the truth. Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian and founding director of Yale Center for Faith & Culture, calls it “memory”. He emphasizes remembering rightly and truthfully. Egils Levits, a Latvian member of European Court of Justice, calls it “acknowledgement of truth.” He said that if we don’t believe in any kind of truth, we can just forget about trying to reconcile.

Micah Jazz, an English mediator and spiritual mentor, defines it as “honest acknowledgment of injury.” Forgiveness involves truth. Richard Twiss, a Native American leader and founder of reconciliation ministry Wiconi, called it “confession.” People of faith are very familiar with this term as it is one of the key elements in our relationship with God. We have to be truthful with ourselves and our Creator.

People say, “Whose truth? Everyone has their own truth.” I heard someone suggesting, “Can we first reconcile and then deal with the truth?” It is totally illogical but honest statement of people who realize how difficult this first step is.

Still, to reconcile we need to know what needs to be reconciled. We need to know what are the issues and the roots. Not long ago there was a new political party in Latvia called “United for Latvia” which had a slogan of ‘national reconciliation.’ In my view, it was just that – a political slogan but not a real or focused effort to have an honest dialogue in the society. Reconcile what? With who?

We live in a world where we are familiar with Truth Commissions. Many know about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Its mandate and purpose was to discover and reveal the past wrongdoings of the Apartheid system, in the hope of bringing healing and restoration. Recently the news headlines focused on TRC in Canada. Its mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools. The Commission documented the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience.

So, why is ‘truth seeking’ and ‘truth telling’ so difficult and controversial? And why is it so difficult to listen to someone else’s truth?

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Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada