Truth and reconciliation and the continuance of celebration

Notes on sacraments and the time to come "When all the stress and all the toil is over"

The last Catholic ritual that I took part in as a child was the sacrament of reconciliation. I was still quite young when we left the church but I can vividly remember lining up in the cold, stone foyer of my hometown church along with dozens of other kids from my Sunday school. We shivered, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other as our teacher patrolled the disorganized line we had created, an index finger to her lips, shushing us while also whispering words of advice.

"Try to think of something naughty you've done lately. Something you can share with the priest once you get inside," she said. "We don't want this to take forever."

"What if we can't think of anything?" one girl asked, nervous.

"I'm sure you can think of something you've done," the teacher said. "Don't worry, Father can't tell anyone. You're just asking for forgiveness."

I can't remember what I said after I slipped behind the dark curtain into the confessional but it most certainly was a lie. To confess the truth of my lie would never come easily; to lie as confession the only way out of that discomfort. Revealing anything personal to a hidden figure said to represent an all-seeing, omnipotent deity felt intimidating. The darkness of the booth, the anonymity did not help any. I did it, though. Forgive me father, for I have sinned, I confessed. I have certainly told a lie. I was assigned the task of reciting a few Hail Marys and went home, wondering if anyone would notice that I actually hadn't committed the prayer to memory well enough to perform the tasks of absolution.

Since then, reconciliation as a concept continues to impress me. It’s one that reappears in theory in nearly aspect of my research. In questions of transitional justice, the understanding is that in order to move forward, reconciliation must take place; in post-genocide justice movements, there is a shift toward truth and reconciliation commissions which suggest that in order to move past the violence, we need to come to terms with the truth of the past experience of it. It goes against the basic understandings of trauma therapy (where you don't want to relive or rehash the violence) but that is beside the point of these commissions, which have as their goal a reaffirmation in the concepts of rule of law, a trust-building exercise that promises closure after wrongdoing.

Most often, however, especially when it comes to gendered understandings of reconciliation, it is not some unknowable deity nor some court system but rather the victim being asked to absolve the perpetrator of their wrongdoing. Even when the perpetrators are neither asking for forgiveness nor showing evidence of shame. This is the crux of the problem with the Catholic understanding of reconciliation. To beg forgiveness for your sins, you have to have the self-awareness to know you've committed them and the fortitude to work to resolve the pain caused by them. The American evangelical understanding throws a further wrench into the machine by weighing the sins of omission, an entirely subjective way of viewing the theoretical consequences of inaction, against the sins of commission.

The act of reconciliation, then, which linguistically could be rendered as a balancing of the books, grows imbalanced as it relies on a moral code and conscience that not everyone possesses. Is it a wonder that questions of transitional justice continue to plague societies around the world? How do we live side-by-side, victim beside perpetrator, after a violent conflict? How do we absolve those who are simultaneously victim and perpetrator? How do we continue to live amidst violence? Who is taught that their sins are wiped away? Who is taught to forgive the trespasses against us?


If this year were like any other year, last week here in Cologne we would have been celebrating Carnival—the festivities that herald the coming of Lent. A Catholic holiday, Carnival is celebrated differently around the world: Parades and costumes in places across Central and South America are recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Heritage. Harper's Bazaar put out a colorful, incredible package highlighting the ways in which it is celebrated across the Caribbean and what we are all missing this year without these celebrations.

Carnival looks quite different in Cologne than those held in the Global South. The weather is usually colder here, the costumes adapted to the freezing temperatures while reminding parade viewers of the regional history of conflict: it is the proud Prussian Funk vs. the comical French Funk, all sides dressed in faux military regalia and curly white-haired wigs. The festivities are headed up by three men, one dressed as a woman (except during the Nazi era, as the NatSocs had harsh views toward cross-dressing). Those not able to become members in one of the dozens of coveted Carnival groups put on whatever identity suits their fancy at the moment, switching costumes every day, every year. Some are dressed as furries, others as Aviatored pilots, others as Pocahontas. The only club they are part of is the overflowing pub they are in at that moment.

Carnival, as a word, comes from the Latin Carne val meaning something to the effect of away with the meat. The festival as it's understood in German-speaking Europe is one in which all of the winter reserves—of meat and wine and beer—need to be used up ahead of the Lenten fast. In Cologne, this is a billion Euro business. Taken to a satirical extreme, the Fifth Season (as it is called colloquially) kicks off on November 11, in honor of the city's mythological patron virgin saint, Ursula. Months of gluttony, of drunken singalongs and concerts and events climaxes with six days of non-stop partying that begins at eleven a.m. on the Thursday before Lent and ends when an effigy is burned late the following Tuesday night. A straw man said to represent all of the sins committed over the last year goes up in flames and smoke just before the season of repentance begins.

In the name of tradition, people in Cologne have written pre-nups making all affairs held during Carnival null and void. Schools and public offices are closed. While the children are afforded a tiny bit of fun in the midst of the madness, marching in their own neighborhood parades while adorned as fish or reenacting local legends, the Cologne Carnival is no longer a family affair. In recent years, the partying has escalated, grown violent. Glass bottles are forbidden inside the city limits to keep the mess to a minimum. Shops are boarded up and daycare centers erect make-shift walls to prevent passersby from using their playground as a urinal. Street-level trams stop running to avoid hitting drunken pedestrians. Women continue to be groped and assaulted all in the name of good fun, both on-camera and off. It is as if the week leading up to Lent is to be seen now as a dare: how many sins can one commit before begging for absolution. That the head of the city's Carnival committee is also the local undertaker is an irony not lost to many in a country where alcohol consumption is the number two cause of cancer and alcoholism is directly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

Carnival in Cologne is a protected cultural treasure locally, even if it is not officially on any UNESCO lists. Some of the most powerful men in local politics are those who are a part of the Carnival committee; business dealings are made under the auspices of the festivities. There's even a special word in Kölsch for that: Klungel. Although this year the season could not take place, a cancellation of the merriment was something that previously had been considered out of the question by these men. Even last year, when, on the eve of Fat Thursday, one of the worst mass murders of non-white Germans in recent memory took place in Hanau, a suburb less than two hours from Cologne.

The press conference they held to announce that Carnival would not be canceled was a sight, the city's mayor adorned in the faux 19th-century military uniform, flanked by a horde of red-cheeked fellow soldiers packed into the city hall to hold a moment of silence before the revelry began. An absurd image in any other circumstance, this press conference became a ceremony in justification: The show must go on, as a celebration of life, even as those whose lives had been taken may not even have been welcomed at the festivities.

Although Cologne is notably the most diverse city in the country, the Carnival committee and the myriads of clubs are notoriously exclusionary to non-locals or non-whites. Those who died had families with roots in the Balkans or Afghanistan or were part of the Roma minority; as much as those who celebrate Carnival say is it not a religious festival, it is hard to imagine that this celebration would have continued were the victims of the same faith as those dancing. The continuation of these parties, then, in the shadow of mass killing—and as a pandemic began to take hold in nearby cities—felt incongruous.

I've found it difficult to reconcile the excesses with the faith it professes to be in celebration of. The point of absolution is lost when you intentionally behave badly, confident your wrongs will be undone. How do you reconcile hedonism in the midst of so much pain?

It's not a new question but it’s one I'm afraid we'll be asking of ourselves more frequently as the pain and grief continue to grow apace. Yet I'm also not certain who this we will be. Nothing is without nuance; in such a case as the murders in Hanau, it feels easy to place blame or readily identify who are victims, who are perpetrators. For those who work in transitional justice, however, we know that things are never black and white, that there are grays when it comes to questions of power and complicity. The act of reconciliation thus becomes more difficult to perform. Who is asking for absolution and for what sins? For now, with the killer of Hanau himself dead, that answer is no one. But I wonder what it must have felt like to be one of those still dancing, celebrating.

Reconciliation—Margaret Sackville

When all the stress and all the toil is over,
And my lover lies sleeping by your lover,
With alien earth on hands and brows and feet,
          Then we may meet.

Moving sorrowfully with uneven paces,
The bright sun shining on our ravaged faces,
There, very quietly, without sound or speech,
           Each shall greet each.

We who are bound by the same grief for ever,
When all our sons are dead may talk together,
Each asking pardon from the other one
          For her dead son.

With such low, tender words the heart may fashion,
Broken and few, of kindness and compassion,
Knowing that we disturb at every tread
          Our mutual dead.