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“There is No Future without Forgiveness”

By Marcus Braybrooke


In talking about ‘forgiveness,’ one difficulty is that people use the word in different ways. Several recent studies speak of forgiveness as a process and various stages in that process have been identified.

First: The natural reaction of the victim and of the victim’s family and close friends is anger. The injured party feels anger and hatred and may want revenge. It is important that this anger is expressed.

Second: If the anger is prolonged it can become imprisoning. As has often been said, the victim becomes twice a victim – a victim of the attack and of an all-absorbing bitterness. This of course may express itself in acts of revenge that renew the cycle of violence. A willingness to forgive may begin from a wish to heal oneself. It may be from a sense of ‘ought’ – arising from a person’s religious beliefs.

Third: The real turning point is when the victim moves beyond his or her own grief and sees the perpetrator as another human being.

Modern studies of forgiveness reinforce the teaching of all religions about the importance of forgiveness: both our need for God’s forgiveness and the call to us to forgive.

The Larger Picture

If ‘forgiveness’ is vital in our personal lives, reconciliation between hostile communities is essential if we are to heal the wounds of conflict.

There is a place for apology. Pope John Paul’s prayer on the scroll he inserted into the Western wall in Jerusalem set a seal on the Roman Catholic Church’s growing recognition since Nostra Aetate of the suffering caused to God’s chosen people by persecution and centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teaching. It was a public and symbolic act that heralded a new relationship between Jews and Christians.

Two years before Bat-Chen Shahak was murdered on her fifteenth birthday in Tel Aviv on March 4, 1996, she had written in a school magazine of the need for Israelis and Palestinians “to be rid of the hatred buried deep inside us for so long…”1

Desmond Tutu – Photo: Wikipedia

Desmond Tutu – Photo: Wikipedia

Is this possible? The poet Edwin Muir wrote:

Revengeful dust rises up to haunt us.
History plagues us like a relentless wheel.
Who can set a new mark or circumvent history?2

Desmond Tutu’s answer, which I believe to be true, is that “There is no future without forgiveness.” Globally, this hope underlies the work of several Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Since 1973, more than 20 ‘truth commissions’ have been established. Some, as in Brazil or Chile, involved a blanket amnesty. This may have been politically necessary if the country was to be rid of the previous regime, but it was unjust to those who had been tortured or whose loved ones were among ‘the disappeared,’ and it left past wounds unhealed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, Guatemala, and more recently in Rwanda, all emphasise the healing power of the truth. As banners in South Africa proclaimed – ‘Revealing is Healing.’ The Guatemala project was based on the words of John’s Gospel, “the truth will make us all free.” (8: 32). Many of those who took part testified to the fact that breaking the silence was the starting point for healing. As one said, “To make things bearable we have to bring them to the light. That’s the only way wounds will be healed.”3

A Rwandan man testifying before a Gacaca court. – Photo: Wikipedia

A Rwandan man testifying before a Gacaca court. – Photo: Wikipedia

The Rwanda gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha) programme is interesting because it was local. President Kagame set up over 8,000 local courts, resembling those formerly run by local elders. Nine judges were selected from the community and given some basic training. Trials took place in public – witnesses could be called, but there were no lawyers.

Punishments of up to 25 years could be given – often in the form of community service. If the prisonerconfessed and offered an apology and maybe compensation, the sentence could be halved. By 2012, when the gacaca process was ended, over a million accused persons had been tried. About 25 percent of the cases led to an acquittal. The whole programme cost $40 million (U.S.) – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda cost $1 billion (U.S.) and tried only 69 cases in 15 years.

One of accused said, “Before gacaca I could not go to my homeland. I was afraid they would kill me. Gacaca helped survivors return to the homelands … we had the courage, because people had said sorry.”4

The process was not without its flaws – there was some intimidation. But as Paul Kagama said, “it challenged every Rwandan into introspection and soul-searching that resulted in truth-telling, national healing, reconciliation and justice.”5

The basic conviction here again was that ‘the truth heals.’ But ‘the truth can also hurt.’ As Willhelm Verwoerd, a researcher within the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said, too much remembering of the horrible risks reviving bad memories. Too much encouragement of forgiveness may come across as insensitivity to the consequences of dehumanisation. “Making too much room for the humanity of perpetrators downplays the horrific and may undermine the restoration of victim’s dignity through vindication.”6

There are crimes that are unforgiveable, and bringing those guilty of war crimes to justice underlines our abhorrence of such evil. But are there criminals who are unforgiveable?

The process is slow and painful, and to some people the emphasis on reconciliation is at the expense of justice. Yes, I believe this is the way to the healing of the bitter wounds of the past, and I hope faith communities together can by their teaching and pastoral care for the victims help free the world from the revengeful dust of past hatred.

1 Bat-Chen Shahak, The Bat-Chen Diaries (2006), p. 107

2 Edwin Muir, Collected Poems by Edwin Mui (1960),Ed by Willa Muir.

3 Quoted by David Tombs in Explorations in Reconciliation: New Directions in Theology (2009), Eds. David Tombs and Joseph Liechty, p. 91

4 Quoted by Colin Murray Parkes in Responses to Terrorism (2014), Ed. Colin Murray Parkes, p. 223


6Explorations in Reconciliation: New Directions in Theology, p. 119