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Forgiveness Revisited

Jan 10, 2014 — Categories:

In the aftermath of the death of Nelson Mandela, many speeches and articles have celebrated his generous heart and forgiving spirit. In fact the media has consistently framed Mandela as a kindly, forgiving grandfather as he neared the end of his life. But this snapshot betrays a lack of appreciation for who Mandela was and for what we can learn from him about forgiveness.

In the aftermath of the death of Nelson Mandela, many speeches and articles have celebrated his generous heart and forgiving spirit. In fact the media has consistently framed Mandela as a kindly, forgiving grandfather as he neared the end of his life. But this snapshot betrays a lack of appreciation for who Mandela was and for what we can learn from him about forgiveness.

It is our notion of forgiveness, particularly within a Christian cultural context, which continues to confound our collective understanding of ethics and social change. Just as many people confused the practice of nonviolence used by Dr. King and many in the civil rights movement with passivity in the face of evil, many people still view forgiveness as the obligation of victims and survivors of harm absent any larger context of responsibility on the part of the victimizers.

We must remember that Mandela led the anti-apartheid movement and organized the armed resistance to the brutal oppression of the South African government. This is why he was sent to prison. He refused offers of conditional release from prison until the apartheid government was ready to abandon apartheid and move toward universal suffrage and democracy. He did not “forgive” anyone or anything while he was a prisoner. Once he was free and elected President, he wanted to guide the nation through its transition without bloodshed. Then as a survivor and as someone who had achieved some measure of power as a leader, Mandela chose to forgo vengeance in order to move on. Forgiveness was a strategy which no doubt required great discipline from him. Vengeance would have been easier but would never accomplish his vision of freedom and democracy. Beginning to experience justice freed Mandela to lead with a generous and forgiving heart.

It is justice that brings forth healing possibilities like forgiveness. In post apartheid South Africa, a key to justice-making was the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The TRC was established as a mechanism whereby people could confess their participation in human rights abuses during apartheid and receive amnesty. The most important dimension of the TRC was the public truth-telling which prevented the truth about apartheid from being buried in the past.

The reviews on the TRC are mixed, some arguing that particularly those responsible for the policies of apartheid should have been held criminally liable. The wisdom of this effort will probably only be measured by the next generation of South Africans, the “born free” generation which works now to build a new society.

The Shakespearian advice to "forgive and forget", too often directed at victims and survivors of violence, was not the path Mandela chose nor should it be the panacea we employ in the aftermath of sexual and domestic violence. The kindly grandfather, Madiba, was a courageous freedom fighter who demanded justice, truth-telling and remembering before forgiveness. This is the lesson in forgiveness that he leaves us.

Forgiveness does not come from a position of powerlessness but from a place of empowerment and a degree of safety; forgiveness is never about forgetting the past, but in remembering the past in order to strengthen our efforts not to repeat it. Justice, imperfect though it may be, makes forgiveness possible. The wound may heal even if the scar remains. In this healing, the body survives and may thrive, in spite of the scars and memories.

Whether for a nation, a neighborhood, or an individual who has suffered trauma at the hands of an aggressor, justice is the key to healing and to a future.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org 
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P.S. These two articles also challenged the superficial treatment of forgiveness in the discussions of Mandela’s life and legacy:


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Marie Fortune on Mandela, Justice and Forgiveness

Posted by Christie Stephens at Jan 10, 2014 09:54 PM
Amen!

Forgiveness

Posted by Toby Myers at Jan 10, 2014 09:54 PM
Forgiveness is not something that is given complimentarily, but should be earned and deserved. Definitely, it should be attainable by restitution, repentance, and reformation.

Forgiveness

Posted by Diane Darling at Jan 10, 2014 10:04 PM
Marie, once again I extend my thanks for your ability to be so clear and concise, especially about a topic that continues to be so confusing and mushy to so many.

Forgiveness

Posted by Judy Callahan at Jan 10, 2014 10:05 PM
AMEN SISTER WOMAN, AMEN. Thank you for this very timely reminder of the way things were and are. I was in So. Africa a couple of years after Mandela was released. Amazing times, but to continue in this mode, progress has to be made. There is no "other cheek" here.

Forgiving...........

Posted by Rose Garrity at Jan 12, 2014 09:17 PM
Thanks so much for this; the concept of "just forgiving", which is preached to so many survivors of horrific abuses, has always seemed very hard to wrap one's mind around. THe concept of justice first, then forgiving makes infinitely more sense. THis I can embrace; the other, not so much!

Forgiveness Misused

Posted by Shirley Fesse; at Jan 12, 2014 09:18 PM
Thank you so much for addressing one of the most common concepts misused to keep victims feeling guilty for wanting relief. Jesus' words about forgiving "70 times 70" are often used to convince battered spouses that they should put no limits on the number of times they "forgive" their abusers, and urging them not to hold their attackers accountable for their behavior or encouraging them to take them back after merely saying they are sorry without any other evidence of changes that would make the relationship safer. Abusers don't want to lose their victims and will promise or say anything to get them back under control.