Black Lives Matter: Activism for Reconciliation in a Divided Country

In this AGI webinar, DAAD/AGI Research Fellow Dr. Martin Leiner presents his research on the processes of reconciliation in the United States compared to processes in Germany.

Since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, America has experienced an explosion of activism and institutional work for justice, truth, and reconciliation. Who are the actors in that field? What motivates them? Is racial reconciliation conceived as an important and realistic goal? What are the roles of confessions of guilt, recognition of injustices, and forgiveness in racial reconciliation in the United States? The seminar presents the first results of transdisciplinary reconciliation studies research. The research is based on documents and expert interviews. It includes a comparison with reconciliation processes in Germany.

Event Summary

Historic reasons for Reconciliation Studies since the 1990s:

  1. German reunification (1990)
  2. Relative success stories of reconciliation in South Africa (post-1990), Northern Ireland (1998), and Rwanda (post-1994)
  3. “Intractable conflicts,” where leaders can draw up treaties, but the general population does not support a reconciliation process, for example Israel/Palestine (1995).

Definition of Reconciliation Studies:

  • Creating “normal” and if possible good relationships between states, groups, organizations, and individuals reacting against past, present, or preventing future grave incidents such as wars, civil wars, enslavement, genocide, apartheid, and other human rights violations. It is a multifaceted, long-term process that requires transdisciplinary research.

Black Lives Matter: History and Shape of a New Social Movement

  • Beginnings: Ferguson, MO, on August 9, 2014
  • Different from Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
  • Issues: police violence, hyper-incarceration, increasing poverty (during Obama’s presidency, average income of Black Americans fell by 10.9 percent compared to the income of white Americans, which fell by 3.6 percent), bureaucratic and legal violence (examples: discriminatory voting laws, microaggressions and microtrauma, memory culture deficits, and false success stories, for example, Obama being president means inequalities do not exist for Black Americans)
  • Organization: No central leaders, but many activists
  • Different culture: Hip-Hop instead of spirituals, problem with Black faces in high places
  • New connections: The movement includes Native Americans and other marginalized groups and finds inspiration from indigenous groups: Remembering the Native Americans as a ritual, such as ways of communication and new importance of music and dance, as well as common causes like the Native Americans Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs)
  • Goals: Justice, Reparations, Memory and Reconciliation
  • Models: South Africa TRC, Canadian TRC
  • Black Lives Matter is mostly a grassroots movement, sometimes endorsed by localities and states.
  • Truth-telling in protected spaces, ex: Ferguson Truth-telling on Police Violence: First- truth, then justice/reparations and then reconciliation. Trauma Repair is important.
  • Current initiatives in the United States include over 30 active local TRCs. There are also nationwide initiatives.

A Weberian Hypothesis:

  • In most reconciliation processes around the world, different actors have different scripts of reconciliation in mind. Max Weber claimed that religious and confessional patterns can still structure our approaches to parts of our lives even if we are not religious. This can be true for reconciliation as well.
  • For the confessions which dominated Germany (Roman Catholics and Lutherans), Sacrament of Guilt and Confession of Guilt by the perpetrator is the script for reconciliation. Comparatively, the United States’ confessional situation is more diverse. In these more evangelical traditions, victims forgive and seek justice.
  • Scripts for Reconciliation:
  1. Sacrament of Reconciliation/Penance: This script relies on healing for perpetrators, providing truth publicly, and includes reparations. However, problems arise when the initiative is on the perpetrators side and encounter with the victim is not always necessary.
  2. Absolute forgiveness: This script gives agency to the victim and can lead to further processes. However, problems are forgiveness is letting go of anger, wishing for revenge, but what about cooperation.
  • To test the hypothesis, we must find a “victims start forgiveness script” in the United States, especially in Baptist and Methodist groups. We must also find fewer examples of the penance script in the United States, and they must be mainly in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran environment.

Reconciliation initiatives in the United States:

Georgetown University, 2017

  1. Issued a sacrament of reconciliation apology, confession of sins, and reparations for selling 272 enslaved people in 1838 to prevent the university from going bankrupt..
  2. In this Catholic example, the perpetrators asked for forgiveness, confirming the hypothesis.

Charleston 2015

  1. Issued a Script of Absolute Forgiveness and agency of victims after a young white man killed nine African American worshippers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. Forgiveness is part of Christian identity, but does not mean that victims give up their claim to justice.
  2. In this Methodist example, the victims offer forgiveness, confirming the hypothesis.


  • Leiner conducted ten interviews featuring religious and political actors with a mix of Black and white people. Interviews included activists in Ferguson, a member of the Minneapolis TRC, the DC Attorney General, and a Georgetown professor.
  • Beginning of Confirmation of hypothesis:
  1. Necessity of public confession of guilt underlined by 60 percent (including Roman Catholics and Presbyterians)
  2. The benefits of forgiveness were underlined by 40 percent (including 1 Roman Catholic, 1 Baptist, 1 Presbyterian, and 1 Episcopalian)
  3.  Necessity of justice and reparation was underlined by all (all Black people, one white Baptist, and one white Methodist)
  4. Reconciliation was a later goal but also an underlying one.

Conclusion: A case for Transatlantic Learning

  1. The United States can learn Confession of Guilt by the government in Germany
  2. Black Americans are tired of being misrepresented and misleadingly attacked by white victim stories: “Critical Race Theory,” “All Lives Matter,” “Colorblindness,” “Cancel Culture”
  3.  Policy Recommendation for the United States: Leading politicians and elites should apologize and a confess guilt for slavery, racism, structural violence, hyper incarceration, etc.
  4. Policy Recommendation for Germany: In Germany, political activism for victims of discrimination and other injustices could regain agency by focusing on absolute forgiveness, reparations, and reconciliation.

Event summary by Halle Foundation/AGI Intern Jaylin Small

Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF)

November 29, 2021

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership