When South Africa transitioned to majority rule in 1994 and Nelson Mandela took on the presidency many questioned whether the country could peacefully transition to a post-apartheid state. A main way in which South Africa sought to move forward was the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995. In 1996 the TRC began to hear cases of crimes and human rights abuses committed during the apartheid era to record and bear witness to them, determine reparations, seek rehabilitation, and in some cases, grant amnesty.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu had worked for many years in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1984, he was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote human rights and do so non-violently. When the TRC was established, Tutu was a logical person to serve as its Chairperson. The position taught him much about the value of forgiveness over revenge and retribution. In 2000, Archbishop Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness was published. In it, he outlined the difficult, but most important path of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. The perceived successes of the TRC made South Africa’s approach to conflict resolution one that became a model for other places seeking post-conflict healing.**
The Archbishop Desmond Tutu now has a new book. He has co-authored The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (2014), with his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu. The book is a manual of sorts on the art of forgiveness including why forgiveness is important not only for perpetrators of injustice but for those who have been wronged. The book includes chapter summaries, reflections, meditations, prayers, suggested journal entries and other exercises for readers to fully engage with the material and personally come to better understand how and why forgiveness is valuable.
The Tutus are adamant that the path of forgiveness is not one of weakness, but of great strength. Forgiving another does not mean acknowledging that their actions were justified. Forgiveness can be difficult because perpetrators might not view their actions as wrong or show remorse for them. They may even view themselves as heroes for the actions they undertook. Reconciliation may not be possible in such cases and the person who feels wronged may need to end their relationship with the other rather than seek to improve it. The co-authors believe that a potential path forward is the recognition that no one is born cruel or a criminal or inherently evil. In short, there are no people that only hurt others without having experienced some pain and suffering themselves.
On page three, the authors write, “There is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness…There have been times when each and every one of us has needed to forgive. There have also been times when each and every one of us has needed to be forgiven. And there will be many times again. In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.”
The fourfold path to forgiving includes:
1) Telling the Story: This can be to a trusted person or loved one, to a journal, in a letter that is never sent, or, if safe to do so, the perpetrator of the injustice.
2) Naming the Hurt: “Every one of us has a story to tell of when we were hurt. Once we are done telling our stories—the technical details of who, when, where, and what was done to us—we must name the hurt. Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us.” The authors share the story of Father Lapsley who lost both hands and an eye to a letter bomb and who devoted his life to teaching others how to heal through storytelling because, “we can’t let go of feelings that we don’t own.” (Both quotes are from page 95.)
3) Granting Forgiveness is how we move from victims in positions of weakness and subject to others’ whims, to heroes that determine our own fate and future. The Tutus give the example of parenting and how babies and even older children test our patience, our resolve, and our limits, and may result in us acting in ways of which we are not proud. Nonetheless, we learn to forgive our children and ourselves, over and over again. On a larger scale this is how we can grant forgiveness to others, by recognizing their bond with us, namely our common humanity. In this way we are able to rewrite our stories from ones of victimhood to ones in which we are heroes who have turned our hurt into something positive, such as breaking a cycle of violence or helping others heal through our stories.
4) Reviewing or Releasing the Relationship to finish your journey of forgiveness and create the wholeness and peace you crave. Even if you never speak again with someone that harmed you, never see them again, or never can because they are dead, “they live on in ways that affect your life profoundly…You might think that you are not in a relationship with the stranger who assaulted you or the person in prison who killed your loved one or the cheating spouse you divorced so many years ago, but the relationship is created and maintained by the very act of harm that stands between you (page 147).” Renewing or releasing a relationship is a personal choice. A renewed relationship is a new and different one, not a carbon copy of what existed before the insult or hurt.
The entire fourfold process is simple, but not easy. Archbishop Tutu reveals that for a long time he carried considerable anger over the abusive manner in which his alcoholic father treated his mother. He also held anger toward the murderer of his housekeeper and many others that committed horrible acts in his community and his country. It is not easy to forgive those that have wronged us, but in trying, even if it takes multiple attempts and considerable time, we free ourselves from the burden of our anger, negative feelings, and ties to that person. As more and more people forgive and seek forgiveness we break the endless cycle of pain and retribution occurring globally.
To learn more about what Archbishop Tutu is doing to reduce conflict and promote human dignity, visit the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation’s website.
** Although the TRC is widely viewed as having been successful, it is not universally viewed as such. Many believe that the TRC was weighted in favor of the perpetrators of abuse and that justice is a prerequisite for reconciliation, not an alternative to it. Some believe the proceedings reminded them of past horrors when they were working hard to forget them and that the TRC failed to achieve reconciliation between black and white communities.