Fitting Forgiveness Into Hectic Lives Often a StruggleForgiveness Offers Hope for Healing After National Conflicts

Jan. 27, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*

Wearing an embroidered purple suit, Nohle Mohapi sat straight and dignified as she recounted her imprisonment, the interrogations, beatings and torture under South Africa’s apartheid government.

Placed in solitary confinement after her activist husband died in police custody in 1976, she spoke of electric shocks, cigarette burns and the suffocating hours spent with a sack over her head as interrogators tried to extract confessions of terrorism.

Mohapi’s riveting testimony in 1996 opened a seven-year quest for truth by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has become a model for seeking national healing and forgiveness in a world where no country can claim a flag completely free of stains. While not the first commission of its kind, its process was unique and attracted unprecedented worldwide attention, emerging as a beacon of hope for many nations emerging from brutal civil wars and prolonged conflict and seeking to break the cycle of hatred and violence.

"We knew we needed the truth to build a new nation. Without truth, no healing. Without forgiveness, no future," says the Rev. Peter Storey, a South African Methodist appointed by Nelson Mandela to help form the commission.

"Through South Africa, history is teaching us there is not a single situation on this planet that cannot be resolved through a commitment to restorative justice and reconciliation. It’s about restoring relationships. It’s a totally new way of looking at how you handle national wrongs of the past."

Individuals wronged by a nation or other collective group can certainly find forgiveness through a great faith, determination and awareness of their personhood. But researchers and theologians agree bitterness and anger are often the outcome, leading to hatred that can mar individuals, families and nations for generations.

So what would history teach the Middle East, the Balkans, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Argentina, Colombia and the Philippines – nations and ethnic groups entrenched in war, violence and prolonged conflict? What does it say to the United States, still dealing with the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow laws? At their root, many involve humanity’s inability to repent and forgive wrongs that are hundreds and even thousands of years old. Or society’s inability to turn away from its lust for wealth and power and acknowledge past sins that have oppressed generations of people.

South Africa’s commission was born of political compromise and offered amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for truth. As thousands of victims came forward to speak of unspeakable crimes, the arduous process helped both blacks and whites wrestle with their national demons and publicly acknowledge grief for those wounded, maimed and wronged under apartheid.

It provided opportunity for many families of victims to find out what had happened to loved ones whisked away by authorities and never heard from again. It sought to publicly restore the human and civil dignity of black people oppressed under apartheid and, in the process, discredited the previous political order among white South Africans.

The long-term hope was for reconciliation and forgiveness. The options, however, had been troubling, according to Storey. Should South Africa prosecute and punish, as the Jewish state has done in hunting down monsters of the Holocaust? Did an exhausted country have the energy and resources for this approach? Who was to be punished when the state had been the criminal? And at the end of the process, would there be satisfaction and healing?

Should South Africa just forgive and forget? How could someone whose child was seized, tortured, poisoned and shot be told to forgive and forget? Nobody has the right to forgive on behalf of somebody else.

The third option – to remember and forgive – had seldom been tried in history. But this was the design of the South Africa commission.

"It was an attempt to ensure the nation would not forget, that the nation would acknowledge its history and build a new spirit of reconciliation," says Storey, now a professor at United Methodist-related Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

For any nation, corporation or even a church that has participated in a systemic wrong, the first step toward forgiveness is repentance, says the Rev. Bruce Robbins, former head of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

During his tenure from 1990 to 2003, the commission explored acts of racism among Methodists that caused blacks to leave the primarily white church and start what became historically black Methodist denominations, and that led to the creation of a segregated jurisdiction for black members who remained. The commission’s work culminated at the 2000 General Conference, where the denomination’s top legislative assembly repented for the church’s sin of racism in a special service.

After repentance, the next step is to turn away from the sin through words and actions. Robbins notes that, at the service of repentance, Bishop Clarence Carr of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church reminded United Methodists that he and others would become "fruit inspectors." "What he was saying was that our statement of repentance will be measured by our fruit – by our change in attitude, action and perspective," Robbins says.

A related step is offering restitution or payment – a need United Methodists have affirmed in the tragedy of U.S. slavery. Delegates to the 2004 General Conference voted to support a bill in Congress to establish a commission to study slavery’s effects and recommend reparations for African Americans.

Dialogue and education are other factors in the forgiveness process.

"Much of forgiveness has to do with education, particularly with children," says Robert Enright, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin who founded the International Forgiveness Institute in 1994. "You can’t legislate forgiveness or force it upon people. But you can help people in an education setting understand what forgiveness is (giving up resentment or revenge in favor of compassion or love toward the wrongdoer) and what it is not (forgetting, denial, condoning or excusing)."

The institute is piloting forgiveness curriculum in elementary school classrooms in Northern Ireland, where a power struggle between Catholics and Protestants has simmered for centuries. Enright says the curriculum tries to help children see the inherent worth of every person, even those who have hurt them, and to instruct them on how to forgive. "Forgiveness is a lovely idea but, when we try to do it, it’s often like getting in our car without a road map," he says.

The process also cannot be rushed. The West African nation of Liberia faces a long and difficult recovery following 14 bloody years of civil war that ended in 2003, says Bishop John Innis of the United Methodist Church in Liberia. "(Forgiveness) takes time. It’s a gradual process," says Innis, himself severely beaten during the conflict. "And forgiveness is something real tough."

Where does the church fit in? According to Storey, the church is in the best position to introduce people to a realm where justice and mercy coalesce – an area more consistent with Calvary than the courtroom.

"Who better than the church, whose job it is to change the culture?" Storey asks. "Who better than the church, called to teach, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’? Who better than the church to truly believe in the gifts of grace and forgiveness?"

*Aldrich is a freelance writer in Franklin, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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