By Hannah Brandt
For years, American college campuses have lulled themselves into a complacent slumber regarding political activism and social justice. The decades of ambivalence among American youth have saddened parents and grandparents who protested injustice in the United States and around the world in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The theater department at Fresno Pacific University (FPU) took a quiet step onto the path of social justice this fall. A committee of theater students chose to put on Truth and Reconciliation, an award-winning but obscure contemporary play that dives deeply into real life issues of political turmoil, oppression and human rights abuses.
In the play, a young American doctor, Ben Montgomery, volunteers to work in a fictional country in Central America named Cartuga. Believed to be part of the CIA, Montgomery is subsequently murdered. Three years later, his parents agree to go to Cartuga to be part of a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission based on those that Bishop Tutu organized in South Africa.
Instead of retribution for their innocent son’s death, they discover how and why he was killed and gain an understanding of the conditions that led to it. The student committee liked the play’s themes of truth, justice and forgiveness; its roles for people of color; and its small ensemble cast that shines a light on how political conflicts devastate individual lives and relationships.
This is according to Kate McKnight, guest director and adjunct professor in the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree completion program at Fresno Pacific University. We spoke after I attended the show’s matinee performance and the panel discussion following it on the concept of forgiveness with members of FPU’s Conflict Studies Department.
She told me that, as a production, students and faculty researched the political issues addressed in the play, including U.S. economic and military involvement in civil wars in Central America in the 1980s and the potential for reconstruction of war-torn nations through truth and reconciliation commissions. These commissions began as a way to help heal South Africa’s deeply divided society after apartheid fell in 1994. They have also had success after the horribly brutal civil war in Rwanda.
To convey the complex realities of these large-scale geopolitical atrocities on real people, the plot revolves around the relationships between the fictional characters. Based on past and present realities, each character reflects a point of view within the play’s conflict. Familiar to all actors in rehearsal, she asked her student players, “What is truth for your character?” But in this case truth is in the title, and the complexity of its meaning drives the plot.
The truth appears different for Montgomery’s grieving parents than it does for the local bishop convening the commission or for the villagers living through years of violence and turmoil brought on, in part, by American policies. By the play’s end, however, there is more commonality between the various characters’ understanding of the truth. This leads to the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The Conflict Studies panel from FPU included Dina Gonzalez-Pina, Gregory Zubacz and Peter Smith. They highlighted how difficult it is to strive for forgiveness instead of vengeance.
Forgiveness without retribution in kind does not feel like justice. Perhaps this is why peaceful resistance falls out of favor, not only in the United States but also around the world. We often believe we will feel a sense of closure and satisfaction once a person is indicted for their injustice. However, many family members of murder victims whose killers receive the death penalty are astonished to discover they do not feel a sense of closure.
There is always the possibility of a wrongful conviction or a series of unknown events with unknown wrongdoers that led to the victim’s death. As the United Nations has warned the Pakistani government, hastily reinstating mass executions after the recent killings by Taliban fighters of 139 schoolchildren and nine teachers will only ensure a cycle of revenge killings.
For FPU, and Mennonite institutions in general, this concept is not new. Mennonites have historically refrained from participating in the military or law enforcement for that fact. During the American Revolution, George Washington hesitated to allow Mennonites to immigrate from what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany because the people of this faith refused on principle to fight in any war. They had also publicly denounced slavery.
The modern church also denounces subjugation and occupation, long recognizing, for example, the rights of the state of Palestine. When the Vietnam War broke out, my father—a student at FPU—was the president of the peace club and prepared to move in with a family in Canada if drafted. In my eighth-grade class debate, I was the only Mennonite and the only student who spoke out in opposition to the death penalty.
I asked McKnight if any of her FPU students made connections to their college’s history of nonviolence while they examined the play. She said that some did realize the advocacy involved in the production and the meaning the play held. They were empowered to know that their performances could affect thought and have influence.
Students acknowledged that playwright Etan Frankel was “indicting our government to lay down its weapons,” whether while inserting itself into political conflicts in other nations or responding to those on the home front. As educators, we discussed that the concept of truth and reconciliation extends into classrooms at all levels of education through restorative justice programs. These programs teach children the skills to talk through their problems with one another instead of resorting to violence. They have been more effective than zero tolerance policies at schools with a history of violence, like Columbine High School.
At a nearly sold-out finale, audience members told McKnight the play “will stay with me” and that it “makes me more aware of political and global issues.” She believes the portrayals of personal stories humanize the conflicts and make people care about global issues. McKnight hopes that people came away with an awareness that “there is still too much rhetoric of retribution” and that “killing only leads to more killing.” She also wants people to “grab onto the theme of healing.” She considers this play “a love note to peace and to all people who have suffered great tragedies and are still capable of great forgiveness.”
Hanna Brandt is a freelance journalist who has previously published in the Community Alliance and the Fresno Bee. She posts her work at https://medium.com/@hannahbp2. Contact her via Twitter @HannahBP2 where she runs @FresnoAlliance.