In 1995, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by the then recently elected President Nelson Mandela. The point of this commission was to begin the process of healing for all citizens of South Africa, under Act 34, which is the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. This commission would have the ability to grant amnesty to those who applied for it, in exchange for the truth of what occurred from 1960-1994 that qualified as gross violation of human rights. Beginning with the first hearing in 1996, through the last of the report being compiled and given to the President in 2003, hundreds of stories were told, and amnesty was granted to people who had committed grievous violations of human rights to dismantle apartheid, or egregious acts in service to the system.
While the commission did not—and really, could not—hear out every story or convince all perpetrators involved in the horrific atrocities committed from 1960-1994 to apply for amnesty and tell their stories in order that some people may be finally able to have closure, the commission still became a point of intrigue throughout the globe. Tutu describes in his book, “No Future Without Forgiveness” his time spent in Israel in 1999. 10 years previously, Tutu had visited the nation and queried, after a visit to Yad Vashem, “When the media asked me for my impressions, I told them it was a shattering experience…”i Tutu’s next words would bring intense condemnation upon him:
“But what about forgiveness?”ii
Following this statement, Tutu was termed by the media as “anti-Semitic” and “a black Nazi pig.”iii In 1999, upon return to Israel, though, it turned out that the work of the TRC had captured the attention of, not only Israel, but Rwanda, Ireland and many other countries as well. This attention was mostly positive, considering a country which had seemed on the verge of civil war for so long had now made a rather peaceful transition to democracy.
But what, specifically, made the TRC’s work so profound? History notes transitions of power in various countries in the past. What made South Africa so different? I believe Tutu pinpoints an aspect of the difference when he says in his book, “True reconciliation is not cheap…Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are…True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth…dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing.”iv
It would seem that the most beautiful aspect of the TRC is that which is often the most difficult. Forgiveness of ourselves and forgiveness of others—particularly before anyone has apologized. A week ago, Christians all over the world celebrated the resurrection of their Savior, Jesus Christ’s, triumph over death. During the life of Christ found in the gospels, one can note the constant theme of forgiveness. From the man lowered into the room where Jesus was teaching, who was told, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”v or the woman condemned to die for adultery but forgiven and saved from death by stoning because of Christ.vi
The question I want to pose, then, is what role does forgiveness play in our lives? Whether we profess faith in Christ or not, what role does it play? Or what role—if any—should it play?
While in South Africa, I have been prompted a number of times to forgive those who have sought my forgiveness. In the majority of these moments, it was a seeking of forgiveness from the whole community, not just myself. The actions done which prompted forgiveness rarely adversely affected me, thus making it easy to forgive. However, there were also moments when forgiveness was asked of me because of actions which had adversely affected me. In my own experience, these moments are the most difficult to come out of saying, “I have done the right thing.” For I firmly believe that the right thing is to grant the forgiveness the asker is seeking, but what does one do when the words, “Yes, I forgive you” are spoken, but the genuine feelings to accompany those words are not there? I find I do not have an answer for this.
The other side of the coin in the act of forgiveness, is what does one do when it is themselves who must ask for forgiveness of another and, along with that, muster the courage to forgive themselves? I remember my encounters with this side of forgiveness more often than the former, and perhaps for good reason. For when I have committed an offense against a fellow human being, I find it takes far more time to ask for forgiveness than to forgive. Perhaps you, the reader, think differently though.
In conclusion, I might challenge those who have reached the end of this article to meditate on their experience of forgiving and asking for forgiveness and the feelings associated with those moments. To what degree has this brought reconciliation into your life? To what degree has it not?
i. Tutu 267. ii. Ibid. iii. Tutu 268. iv. Tutu 270-71. v. Luke 5:24b vi. John 8:1-11