Book Review, Speaking to Reconciliation, by John B. Hatch

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Hatch, John B. Speaking to Reconciliation: Voices of Faith Addressing Racial and Cultural Divides (New York: Peter Lang, 2020) 184 pages. Amazon link.

Reviewed by Annalee R. Ward,
Director of the Wendt Center for Character Education
University of Dubuque

The powerful film The Apology, by Toronto director Tiffany Hsiung, traces the stories of three women, often called “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII. South Korean, Philippine, and Chinese, these senior citizens struggle with shame, seeking the courage to share their stories with family, and have been pleading with the Japanese government for an apology.

By the end of the film, the deep pain throbs. We long for some kind of relief, for a public naming and a governmental owning of responsibility. Perhaps that acknowledgement would have consequences of losing face or of paying damages or reparations. Perhaps, however, it would open up a space for forgiveness, for healing, for dignity, and for truth.  Perhaps new relationships between countries could grow with an eye toward the common good. Public acknowledgement of these women’s experience would contribute to reconciliation with the past and the present and recognize the victims’ humanity.

This is only one situation in the world, one example of brokenness that stymies growth and discourages the low bar of peaceful coexistence, let alone flourishing. As we look at North America, we find ourselves in a deeply divided culture where antagonistic political rhetoric highlights the divide. Into this moment John Hatch’s book, Speaking to Reconciliation: Voices of Faith Addressing Racial and Cultural Divides, springs forth as a roadmap to hope. Taken as a whole, the book—an introduction to the theoretical underpinnings and a collection of speeches with Hatch’s commentary on them—exhibits what Lloyd Bitzer’s classic article, “The Rhetorical Situation,” calls exigence.  Responsive to the times and tones of this world’s discordant and schismatic speech, it points the way toward peace, toward the possibility of reconciliation, all the while highlighting the role of religious motivation. Concurrently, it provides an anthology for rhetorical criticism.

From possibility to practice, the two-part organizational structure first casts a vision for what could be by focusing on “commending, framing, and explaining the work of reconciliation” with speeches that draw from the resources of faith (25). The focus is not the despair or divide as much as it is the horizon of possibility.  Section one, the largest part of the book, includes familiar American rhetors such as Lincoln, Stevens, King, and Obama, but also non-American voices such as Tutu (South Africa), Volf (Croatia), McAleese (Ireland), King Abdullah (Jordan), all of whom remind us that the need for and work of reconciliation permeates the world, not just the United States.

The second part shows reconciliation at work in the speeches of apology, forgiveness, and reparation. The samples demonstrate how much work remains to bring healing. Included here are speeches from Wiesel, G.W. Bush, U.S. Representative Hall, Obama, and the United Church of Canada.  The context of the speeches here dominates the content, and Hatch does a solid job of establishing the background information needed for insightful interpretation.

With clarity and simplicity, Hatch dispenses with objections to the religious motivating principle of the collection by defining religion hospitably. He explains that the fundamental yearnings of religion emerge from the underlying human urges to find meaning, understand humanity’s role in the world, and discover what goodness is (pp. 3-4).  Using this broad definition of religion, the collection includes works that reference God or that reveal a uniquely Christian, Jewish, Native, or, in one instance, Buddhist perspective. Nevertheless, the general tone is Judeo-Christian with an emphasis on both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of reconciliation. One illustration of this appears in Elie Wiesel’s “Address to the German Parliament at the Dedication of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in January of 2000, which exemplifies the religious language and a call for acknowledgement and the possibility of forgiveness that the opening example cries out for (pp. 142-148).

Hatch grounds his approach to rhetorical criticism and this focused volume of works on reconciliation with questions of values alluding to ultimate truths, to ultimate realities, as underpinnings of our deepest sense of being. Fundamentally, reconciliation must begin—as a number of the speakers argue—in respect for the dignity and worth of each human being. Before any aggrieved parties can come together, they must see the other as human first, worthy of being seen, entitled to existence. While this may be central to the process of building peace, Hatch concludes that “reconciliation ultimately demands the spiritual resources of religious faith” (p. 182), for it is faith that provides the terminology for analysis and process, drawing from values that must be a part of reconciliation as they orient one’s moral compass. Miraslov Volf in his prayer breakfast address affirms Hatch’s view on the need for religious perspective, but significantly points to it as a double-edged sword: “Religion can either fuel violence or foster reconciliation” (p. 69). Perhaps more than any of the speeches, Volf’s talk lays out a path for reconciliation built on the resources of Christianity, pointedly, the cross of Christ. Calling for a precondition of “the will to embrace another,” he brings justice and peace together in the search for truth (pp. 74-75). Located in the middle of the collection, this speech acts as a fulcrum for the various authors, centering the key values of the work on reconciliation.

Hatch brings great depth to this work, drawing from his first tome, Race and Reconciliation: Redressing Wounds of Injustice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), along with other academic articles on reconciliation. Using that work, he clearly defines reconciliation as “a dialogic rhetorical process of rectifying wrongs and healing relationships between parties, in ways that promote their common good” (p. 3). Mindful of a different, likely more popular or student-focused audience, however, he defines his terms in the first chapter but quickly moves into accessible and invitational language in the introductions and commentary on the speeches. That makes this book good for a variety of courses that might focus on reconciliation, justice, politics, or the obvious, public address and rhetorical criticism. But it does not need to be read as a textbook; it reads well as an introduction to the work of reconciliation in general in addition to the other academic possibilities.

Bringing his research to this project, Hatch approaches reconciliation as “a values restoration project” (p. 6). His primary model, a tetrad or pyramid, is built on a foundation of the four values of agency, truth, justice, and peace. Hatch uses the tetrad in speech criticism to highlight missing values in a particular context and speech, or to identify values that might be overemphasized leaving an imbalance and out-of-focus view of the situation. The values are connected to their religious roots yet hospitably invite non-religious people to recognize their centrality.

Recognizing the potential for over-simplification, Hatch posits a second model for thinking about the values—a compass. While a pyramid points upward, the compass orients the user in understanding where they are standing in the landscape of values. Taken together, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of reconciliation are stressed.  The compass has the added value of nuancing the values so that, for example, a speech might point strictly toward justice or it might also include historical truth as a southwest position between justice and truth rather than only straight west, solely justice-focused.

Finally, Hatch locates the four key values and his approach to rhetorical criticism in general with the work of rhetorician Kenneth Burke. Burke provides the underpinnings for approaching reconciliation as a linguistic, moral endeavor requiring the identification of the values of any reconciliation process. Beginning with human agency and humans’ capacity for language, Hatch reminds us of the moral necessity of one’s own voice in any process, be it that of the offended or the offender. Burke’s influence appears in Hatch’s foundational assumption of humans as beings rooted in language as well as in Hatch’s Tetrad of Values in Reconciliation. This structural language of framing emerges as Hatch’s classification system for the values in the speeches.  Understanding both audience framing of a situation and the rhetor’s framing through their emphasis on one or more of the values of agency, truth, peace, or justice illuminates each particular vision of the way forward.  In Burkeian terms, the corresponding frames are “Romantic—Agency-oriented,” “Realistic—Truth-oriented,” “Tragic—Justice-driven,” or “Comic—Peace-and-harmony oriented” (14). The better the speaker understands the audience, the better they can tap into compelling values that clarify the conflict and point toward peace.

At times, the Hatch’s short introductions of the speeches pull on Burkeian terms in ways that might seem artificial and a bit clumsy, getting in the way of forward movement. Perhaps it is simply that the more one reads, the more inspired one becomes and the more one is caught up in content while Hatch pulls us back to theoretical analysis which slows things down but furthers deeper understanding. The speakers cast a vision and often illuminate pathways toward that objective. While designed to be a collection of a variety of voices, the book takes on a voice of its own in arguing for peace and reconciliation in such a way as to teach key moments in the process of reconciliation and inspire us to be better people.

Several threads run through the book to unite its vision. The underpinning of it all is the dignity and value of every human being—image bearers of God (see Gen 1:26-28). Layered on top of this central belief are key values of justice, agency, peace, and truth. What emerges for me, however, is the absolute necessity of truth-telling, of naming the wrongdoing before any movement toward reconciliation is possible. As James Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed if it is not faced” (“As Much Truth As One Can Bear.” New York Times, January 14, 1962, Book Review section, p 38).  For the comfort women of WWII, the plea for an apology is rooted in naming and acknowledging the truth. Since the publication of the book, more examples of this need to name what happened have emerged as first steps toward reconciliation. President Biden acknowledged the Armenian slaughter as genocide despite Turkey’s objections. More American citizens are learning of their country’s history as the Tulsa massacre of 1921 is finally acknowledged as the racial horror it was. Truth-telling is integral in any move toward justice, peace, and reconciliation.

I encourage you to pick up this book and read it slowly, dwell with it. I feel like I am a better person for having read this—with hope for a way forward—a road map of sorts toward a destination of shalom. To believe in the possibility of reconciliation is to live in the grace of hope. This collection calls us to that hope by rescuing important speeches from short-term memory or from relegating them to an irrelevancy of the past.  If words truly matter, if they bring hope, then this collection leads the way.

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