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Is There A Future Without Forgiveness?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Anglican cleric and theologian, who is known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist, once said, “there is no future without forgiveness.” Tutu believes, to forgive is not only noble but it is the best form of self-interest. Forgiveness is a process, one that can take years or even decades; it does not negate hate or anger but may require acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator.

Since 1973, there have been more than 20 ‘truth commissions’ established around the globe. In Brazil and Chile, this process involved blanket amnesty. This may have been a necessary condition for a country to move past the transgressions of previous regimes, but it was an unjust outcome to the victims. More importantly, it left the injured with unhealed wounds.

In South Africa, Guatemala, and Rwanda, the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) all emphasized the restorative power of truth. This reality was proclaimed across South Africa on banners proclaiming, ‘Revealing is Healing.’ The subsequent project in Guatemala was grounded in the words of John’s Gospel, “the truth will set us free.” (8:32) Many of the South American victims testified, “to make things bearable, we have to bring them to light. That is the only way wounds will be healed.”[1]

The underlying conviction is ‘the truth heals’. Undoubtedly, truth can also be agonizing. Willhelm Verwoerd, a researcher within the South African and Reconciliation Commission, maintained, the constant recall and remembering of past trauma can revive painful memories. The more we push this idea of forgiveness, the more insensitive we become to the consequences of dehumanization. “Making too much room for the humanity of perpetrators downplays the horrific and may undermine the restoration of victim’s dignity through vindication.”[2] Certainly, in the case of unforgiveable offenses, bringing the guilty to justice underscores our repugnance of such evil.

Forgiveness encumbers the victim and therefore, situates culpability on the “lower power.”[3] Hicks, an expert in conflict resolution, in promoting this idea of reconciliation, noted, “a disproportionate emphasis has been placed on the role of the victim,” and in particular, “on the role of forgiveness."[4] I wrestle with this notion that the victim is expected to stand before their wrongdoer and extend absolution. Furthermore, the response to that gift is completely out of their control. I can only imagine what implications that might have on the victim and their healing journey?

As we use the TRC as a springboard, reflection is warranted given its criticisms. Researchers found, most South Africans felt justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it.[5] By extending amnesty to perpetrators, as a mechanism to uncover the truth, many respondents felt the TRC was weighted in favor of the perpetrators. To the people, the exclusionary practice of not punishing the wrongdoers for past crimes, proved the TRC was being used as a “vehicle to political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice.[6]

Hicks emphasized a need to shift the focus from the victim offering forgiveness to how to address the wrongdoer, or “high power.” What parts of ones’ identity would allow them to commit such acts of violence? More importantly, why do we not talk about this in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation? Hicks invites us to “balance the scales” by focusing on penetrating the psyche of the perpetrator, to examine their denial so that they may eventually come to terms with what they have done in a way that preserves their human dignity.

Humanizing the other, reveals their intrinsic humanity. Take, for example, the Cradock Four, a group of four anti-apartheid activists abducted and murdered by South African security police in June, 1985.[7] The South African government denied ordering the killings. However, years later, a document was leaked to press, revealing something very different. At the second inquest, the judge ruled the security forces were responsible, but failed to name individual names.[8] At a subsequent TRC hearing, the teenage daughter of one of the victims was asked: “Would you be able to forgive the people who did this to you and your family?” The young girl answered, “We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive.” Despite all efforts to dehumanize her, this young girl remained courageously civilized. I ask, at what cost to herself?

To humanize another requires that we come to understand the needs of our offender and anticipate how to assist them to acquiesce to their wrongdoing. When Simon the Pharisee was grumbling that “a sinful woman” was wiping his feet, Jesus asked, “Do you see this woman?” Do we see one another, or the other, as a human being, beloved by God? Before forgiveness can take place, we must learn to see the other with the eyes of love. The Pharisee did not do that, but Jesus did, and we must learn to do so. This selfless act could propel the victim toward a recovery that may have once seemed impossible. For this reason alone, we must consider the idea of humanizing this other. It would also require that we help to facilitate change to the part of them or their thinking that allowed such acts. Finally, we would need to implore them to reconcile the event as a catalyst in their own healing.

The TRC was indeed, a significant measure. Despite our instinctive need to protect our own psyche, we know that to remain cinched in a state of victimhood only makes us vulnerable to our transgressor. We must be able to reach deep within our souls, to justly, mercifully and humbly extend undue forgiveness; only then can we break free from the chains that bind us up. As one who has been traumatized at the hand of another, the human dignity of the other was never in the forefront of my mind. But if I/we can shift the paradigm, ultimately enrichening the overall process, perhaps consideration is warranted.

I interpret Bishop Desmond Tutu’s statement this way: there is no future of peace, healing, or discourse without the victim extending a gift the perpetrator is not owed. If we continue to place a higher value on one process (the act of forgiving), over the other (the act of being forgiven), we continue to perpetuate this unjust cycle. In the end, forgiveness emerges in several ways: forgiveness with reconciliation, forgiveness without relationship, and forgiveness where the opportunity to expressly forgive, or be forgiven, is not possible. So I ask, can there be a future without forgiveness? What is the future; what is your future, without forgiveness?


[1] Quoted by David Tombs in Explorations in Reconciliation: New Directions in Theology (2009), Eds. David Thombs and Joseph Liechty, p.91. [2] Explorations in Reconciliations: New Directions in Theology, p.119. [3] Hicks, Donna. “The Role of Identity Reconstruction in Promoting Reconciliation.” Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy & Conflict Transformation. Edited by Raymond G. Helmick, S.J., and Rodney L. Petersen, 129-149. Philadelphia & London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001. [4] Ibid. [5] Mark R. (2005). The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780742535817. [6] Ibid. [7] “Unveiling the Mystery of the Craddock Four: 25 Years Later.” South African History Archives. Retrieved 2 November 2020. [8] Ibid.

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