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Forgiveness

This blog is based on Archbishop Tutu’s contribution to a debate hosted by the Forgiveness Project. He was joined by Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, who lost over 50 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Jo Berry, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry who was killed in the IRA Brighton bombing in 1984, and by Pat Magee, a former IRA activist convicted of the bombing.

I am a passionate believer in Ubuntu, an African philosophy that says my humanity is bound up in yours. Ubuntu tells us: I need you in order to be me.

So my humanity, my very being, is bound up in Jo’s, in Pat’s and in Mary’s – all of us are still living our journey towards forgiveness and I am still learning what forgiveness means to different people.

In our discussion, Mary challenged us. She lost 50 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide and says that she is not prepared to consider forgiveness; her family’s executioners were determined to exterminate every single one of them and she cannot forgive.

Mary cannot talk of forgiveness because of the deafening silence that accompanied the genocide – the international community stands guilty of inaction. Peacekeepers left because the international community did not value the lives of the Rwandan people enough; the world stood by as nearly a million people were slaughtered. Mary does not believe that forgiving will make sense of what she has seen in Rwanda.

Mary could not forgive because her family’s killers were not brought to justice; even social justice has been denied her as she has seen killers reintegrate into Rwandan society. In this context, forgiveness for Mary is atrocities delayed.

It would be naïve of me to say that the words ‘I am sorry’ and ‘I forgive you’ have never been used lightly – throw-away lines that were shallow attempts to erase suffering or clear a guilty conscience. However, true forgiveness is a weighty, serious and precious concept. Working to forgive is a journey, and as I said to Mary, do not focus on impunity, rather on the journey towards forgiveness. Forgiveness starts with the acknowledgment that Ubuntu, the relationship that binds our shared humanity, has been breached.

Forgiveness is an arduous attempt to restore the relationship that existed beforehand. You may not have had a direct relationship with the person who perpetrated terrible crimes. But those crimes cause a breach of trust that makes you question your whole relationship with humanity. How you interact with others has been shaken; you need to re-engage with the world around you to be all that you can be. In this way forgiveness is not just an altruistic act, but one born of self-interest. Forgiveness helps give people the resilience to survive and remain human in the face of all efforts to dehumanise them.

Listening to Jo was humbling. Her father was killed in 1984 by an IRA bomb, planted by the very man she sat next to, Pat Magee. Jo and Pat have met over 60 times and their meetings have not have become any easier - each meeting has been painful for both. Jo told us that she needed to meet Pat because she wanted to see his humanity; she wanted to hear his story.

Jo epitomises the spirit of Ubuntu. She sought Pat’s humanity and has experienced his vulnerability. She has come to understand his story but is insistent that violence can never be justified. She is still angry and is constantly challenged within herself as to which side of her will rise to the surface: the anger and pain at her father’s murder or the acknowledgement of the humanity of victims and perpetrators alike.

Pat too is on a journey. His community was neglected and he grew up feeling ignored. It is not surprising that he became deeply disenchanted. He made a conscious decision to commit a crime, fully aware of the consequences of his actions. Yet he has taken off his political hat and come face to face with his personal obligation to people like Jo. He has tried to be more open to the position of others and to understand why they feel the way they do. He describes this understanding as a process at the end of which, perhaps, lies forgiveness.

No one can force Jo and Mary to forgive or Pat to say sorry. Personal forgiveness cannot be legislated. You feel as you feel and it is wholly natural. That is all the more reason why I am astounded by the capacity of human beings to face their feelings and to give their whole being to the painful process of forgiveness.

I think back to my time as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A hearing that will forever be imprinted on my memory was an investigation into the shooting of unarmed demonstrators by members of the armed forces. The hall in which the hearing took place was packed to the rafters with a crowd who were justifiably angry; the tension was palpable. Four soldiers entered and their commanding officer admitted delivering the instruction to open fire. He turned to the crowd and asked: “Please forgive me.”

The crowd then did something that none of us could have predicted: they broke into wild applause. When the applause subsided I turned to my fellow members of the commission and said: “Let us be quiet because we are in the presence of something truly holy.”

Forgiveness is never easy or cheap. It isn’t something you can demand of others. Forgiveness is a deeply personal journey to reconnect with the whole of humanity around you, and therefore reconnect with yourself. It is essential because it reveals how we are inextricably bound to each other. As I have said before, there is no future without forgiveness.

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