The art of forgiveness.

It’s T-minus 10 days until I depart for the continent of Africa … eek!

In the last few weeks, my travel group has been meeting for several pre-trip sessions to educate ourselves on South Africa’s history, culture and current events. At a recent session we watched “Long Night’s Journey into Day,” a documentary about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that began in the late 1990s. The TRC was formed by President Nelson Mandela in an attempt to heal the nation after the era of apartheid, and the commission invited all South Africans, whether jailed for their crimes or not, to come forward and publicly confess to any politically-motivated atrocities they committed during apartheid. They could also apply for amnesty from criminal and civil prosecution. The TRC seems to have a strong faith component as well; it was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called the TRC a “national program of reconciliation.” To read more about the TRC, click here.

The documentary featured the stories of four groups appearing before the commission. Many Americans may recall the 1993 murder of student Amy Biehl — one of her murderers, Mongezi Manqina, is featured as he applied for (and was granted) amnesty. Others, such as Eric Taylor, a white security police officer who killed four black anti-apartheid activists known as the Cradock Four, were not.

I was amazed that South Africans embraced the public airing of atrocities as a way to heal and move past the pain of apartheid. And I couldn’t help but think about the problems in our own country, whether racially-based or not. I mean, we Americans aren’t very forgiving. We want justice. But maybe our focus on justice and “serving your time” for committed wrongs prevents us from truly moving past them. Think about it. It’s been 50 years since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Our Civil War was more than 150 years ago. And the long history with the Native Americans started before that. We still don’t talk openly and honestly about these or any litany of similar atrocities, so I don’t think we actually move past any of it. We talk reparations in some cases, but we never forgive or reconcile … and so we are never truly healed.

I’m not going to sugar coat that everything’s fine and dandy in South Africa now. Just this week, I read this and this. But in the documentary you can see how people needed to lash out in anger and grief at those who harmed them, but then moved into a place of peace, forgiveness … and healing. Amy Biehl’s parents were able to so forgive her murderer that they testified on his behalf at the commission hearing. I can’t imagine the process that led to such forgiveness, but I’m sure that sympathizing with each other’s points of view was helpful. If we as a society were able to look beyond transgressions and try to understand and address the root — whether it’s oppression, the cycle of poverty, the relation between crime and corruption or even the larger, growing issue of income disparity — I wonder if we’d make more progress.

Those of you who know me well are probably snickering that I’m even addressing forgiveness. Yes, I am about the last person to be able to forgive easily, and I clearly need to work on it personally. But something about that documentary made me see that forgiveness and reconciliation in our society are necessary to break cycles and improve the ways we connect with each other.

I don’t have any answers, but I thought I’d start the conversation at least. What do you guys think?

Side note: I started writing this before the news broke about the death of Osama Bin Laden last week. I’m afraid I can’t process or reconcile that yet. I believe unrepentant evil is sometimes just that.

Further reading on South Africa’s TRC:

“No Future without Forgiveness” by Desmond Tutu

“A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness” by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela


5 thoughts on “The art of forgiveness.

  1. H. says:

    I just wrote four paragraphs responding to this, but it turned into a diatribe of a more simple response:

    It would take a really strong movement in humanity to get the American people to accept forgiveness over retaliation. Our country is sort of built on it, hence the revolution. We didn’t forgive Britain for the taxes and oppression on the colonies. We just got our guns and shot at them. I think that sums up America’s approach to many different historical issues and we use that approach as our shield and weapon. So to alter that approach in our society, would be to redefine our culture as a nation.


      • H. says:

        Does it make it right? Nope. But social policies aren’t always put into place because they are right for the people, especially in our country. There are too many opinions that complicate the matter and sway the decisions. Look at social medicine. We fight constantly within our own nation on the best way to help our people by offering fair healthcare. However, what constitutes fair is a matter of opinion and because we live in a nation where our opinions and votes supposedly matter, what is best can be misleading. Our country is built on capitalism, so what is best to support that economic pattern, doesn’t include social medicine. However, it is always suggested that it is the right/humanitarian thing to do.

        On the other hand, if you could find a way to sell forgiveness, you’d probably have a marketable item in the US. Go capitalism! 🙂


      • Oh, I forgot … you and I have very different political opinions. But I don’t think this has anything to do with politics, actually. Self interest and stubbornness, yes. Which might make for a pretty mean, sad, lonely world. Also, be careful about how you define capitalism and socialized medicine — the US already runs two of the most “socialized” healthcare systems in the world. Check out “The Healing of America” by T. R. Reid, which I thought was a pretty “fair and balanced” depiction of healthcare here and in other countries. We can love our country without believing that we do everything right.

  2. H. says:

    Don’t get me started on Medicare and Medicaid…. 🙂

    Sincerely your Republican and fairly stubborn friend, H.

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