Tutu was the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity in 1995 to help South Africans come to terms with their unjust and violent past. It was established to investigate the violations that took place between 1960 and 1994, to provide support and recompense to victims and their families, and to compile a full and objective record of the effects of apartheid on South African society. It is a tremendous testimony to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ that apartheid did not end in a bloodbath, but rather with reconciliation and forgiveness.
When Tutu speaks on forgiveness, he speaks from a deeply personal and practical application of this central Christian doctrine.
“When I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too. But the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offense.”
Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central to the Christian message. According to Miroslav Volf, God summons us to repent, forgive and embrace those who have sinned against us. In order to do so, the evil and the evildoer must be named and confronted (what Volf calls “exclusion”). The “embrace” of the one who has deeply hurt us delivers us from the bondage of resentment, bitterness and hostility. Volf writes, “If you are ultimately after justice, you must ultimately be after embrace,” and, “Actions against injustice must be situated in the framework of the will to embrace the unjust.” (Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press, 1996).
Desmond Tutu’s book is entitled, No Future Without Forgiveness (Image, 2000). Forgiveness is a central characteristic of the Christian message. As we live out this in the present, we testify to the promise of the future eschaton of God that is invading into our present circumstance. The Christian gospel is manifested in our willingness to embrace those who have wronged us (whether it is in one-on-one relations, in societal relations, or in international relations) by fully forgiving them of the evil that we have clearly identified as such.
Peace and justice are not found without the removal of the deep bitterness that naturally flows out of being a victim of evil, injustice, sin. We are free to love when we are freed from our hostility toward our enemies.
N.T. Wright says, “When we forgive someone we not only release them from the burden of our anger and its possible consequences; we release ourselves from the burden of whatever it was they had done to us, and from the crippled emotional state in which we shall go on living if we don’t forgive them instead of clinging to our anger and bitterness. Forgiveness, then…is a central part of deliverance from evil.” (Evil and the Justice of God, IVP, 2006)
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