June 9, 2009

No Future Without Forgiveness

I don't often post book reviews here. I ordinarily utilize Shelfari for this kind of work. However, in this case I will make an exception. It is not because I consider this piece of writing a towering achievement, or because I believe everyone should read this, rather, it is because I have been profoundly affected and challenged.

This book came along at a kairos moment for me. (For an explanation of kairos see this post.) I have been ruminating on the concept of forgiveness for several months now as I am in preparation for a sermon series on reconciliation this fall. Included in this extended consideration I have read and prayed pertinent scripture while seeking the foundational truths therein and alongside the scriptures I have sought out, and continue to seek, illumination from those who have wrestled, academically or personally, with this all important issue. Few fit this description like Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Reading this book can be laborious as the cast of characters is as big as the nation of South Africa. Combine that with an outsider's diminutive grasp of the historic landscape of this nation and one can easily get lost. While I often found myself mystified by the faceless names and foreign factions, the lighthouse of forgiveness continued to shine clearly.

When confronted with unspeakable evil and personal pain what are we to do? This is a question which haunts us all. All have been wounded by another. In like fashion, all have wounded another. Can such wounds be healed? One solution is retributive justice, an eye for an eye. But where does that cycle stop? As Ghandi famously stated, "An eye for an eye will make the world blind." Tragically, there is already enough blindness in the world, blindness which is often self-imposed. Mr. Leon Wessels, in his testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa stated, "I further do not believe the political defense of 'we did not know' is available to me because in many respects I believe we did not want to know."

Another path is open to us. It is not a path for the faint of heart or for those desiring to cling tightly to their bitterness. Indeed, Archbishop Tutu asserts that, in the end, it is the only path holding any hope for us. As the title of his book proclaims, there is No Future Without Forgiveness. Rather than retribution we must seek restoration and there can be no restoration without forgiveness.

Perhaps here, as in few other places in our world, is the seat at the table that only those with a sound theology can fill. The world has cheapened reconciliation to mean "forgive and forget" when nothing could be further from the truth of forgiveness. "On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again...It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence...Forgiveness means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim...True forgiveness deals with the past, all of the past, to make the future possible." (Chapter 11, No Future Without Forgiveness)

I do not know what the cultural climate of South Africa is today. I do know that for one shining moment, a moment which confounded, and continues to confound, a watching world, the people of South Africa, both the wrongdoers and the wronged, found a way to stand with hands outstretched in welcome rather than with fists raised in anger.

I suppose I am so profoundly moved by this because I realize how petty my grievances are and how desperately unwilling I am to forgive. Like Mr. Wessels I prefer my comfortable, self-imposed blindness to a discomforting clear-eyed view of my neighbor.


Lucy Arin said...

Thank you for an interesting read. A book to put on my to-do list.

I wonder, though; does his Anglican faith/doctrine differ significantly from yours? I don't know anything about Anglicanism, beyond the fact that it is the "official" religion of England.

I have so much to tell you about religion in Sweden; a long e-mail to you is also on my to-do list.

John said...

"does his Anglican faith/doctrine differ significantly from yours?" Well, that all depends...

If you are a believer with a theological axe to grind you would probably say "yes." But for me not so much. Their tradition is much more "high church" than that to which I am accustomed. They affirm the foundational doctrines of Christianity and utilize the classic creeds. So, not a lot of difference on the theology front for the outside observer.

I am always humored by the perception that "deep divisions" exist within the church due to the rampant denominationalism (the last count I heard for baptist denominations in North America was 36) when most of the differences are over secondary issues. That's not to say they are not issues of significant and passionate discussion - note the rampant denominationalism.

I digress. I look forward to the discussion about Sweden. Take your time, just don't forget!