Our supposedly civilized societies have much to learn from some “primitive” tribes and peoples. In certain South African tribes, when someone does something wrong, the tribe brings him/her to the center of the village where all of the villagers surround that individual and for two days they remind the “offender” of their importance in the group and all that is positive about them.

These tribes believe that while everyone makes mistakes, everyone is basically good at heart, and that wrongdoing and mistakes are a cry for help. Instead of shaming and blaming the so called offender, the villagers do everything in their power to encourage the offender to know how deeply they are loved and valued.

Instead of punishing, they choose to affirm the importance of positive interactions and relationships within the tribe. These wise people intuitively know that “Ubunti-unity” is the best motivator for positive change.

In New Zealand, in some of the indigenous tribes, when a child or adolescent misbehaves, the extended family comes together to affirm the many good things about that person. Only after reassuring the wrong doer of the community’s love and concern do they seek to help them create a plan by which they can make amends and develop better ways of interacting with the community. What a contrast to our American concept of justice which has no place for forgiveness or making amends.

Instead, our system is about punishment and neither forgets nor forgives as our justice system continues to judge and punish the offender for the worst thing they ever did instead of allowing them to become contributing members of society.

Step Nine reminds us that God’s way of dealing with wrongdoing is by making amends, not holding grudges. All of us are guilty of insensitivity, thoughtlessness, snap judgments, and being downright rude and mean at times.

As I write these words, I am having a flashback. My husband and I had visited his parents during a period when we were having marital problems. We had both tried to put on a good front, but as we were packing up to head home, he said something that set me off.

I let fly a string of angry profanity that stunned everyone in the room, including me. As we said our goodbye’s, his mother moved past my outburst and went out of her way to let me know she accepted and affirmed me. My initial reaction to her “I love you” was one of shame. Later, when I made my amends with her, she accepted my apology with “never forget you are so much more than any outburst of temper.”

Perhaps one of the best ways we can make amends with ourselves, with those we have hurt, and those who have hurt us, is by taking a page from the “primitive” practice of calling forth the best in each other.

I know my mother-in-law never forgot my ugly outburst of profanity, but she also chose to see me as more than my outburst. Granted, my first response was shame and anger, but her willingness to put my many failures into a loving context modeled a better way.

This, I suspect, is what the Apostle Paul meant in Romans 12:17-31, “If someone does you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers good. Do everything in your power to live in peace with everyone. Never take revenge, my friends...but if your enemy is hungry, feed him.

If he is thirsty, give him a drink, for by doing so you will make him aware of his shame. Do not let evil defeat you. Instead, conquer evil with good.”

Joyce Shutt is the author of Steps to Hope, a veteran 12 stepper, and pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

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