One of the remarkable moments in the history of the twentieth century occurred near its close: the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South Africa had been embroiled in decades of horrific racial violence. The Commission’s mandate was to discover the truth about politically-motivated violence, provide amnesty for truth-tellers, and reconciliation for the nation.
This was a very different goal from the one pursued in the Nuremberg trials, held fifty year earlier. In Nuremberg, the goal was to render judgment. In Cape Town, the goal was to facilitate reconciliation. When the philosopher Hannah Arendt reported on the Nuremberg trial of Adolph Eichmann, she famously (and controversially) wrote of “the banality of evil.” Had she been present at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, I can’t help but think she would have commented on the freshness and creativity of good.
Evil is everywhere driven by the same conventional and monotonous motivations: pride, greed, and selfishness. We are sometimes shocked by its brutality but never by its modality—the predictable misuse of power through deceit and the threat of violence. But goodness surprises us. It is original in a way evil never is.
In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, detailed one surprising story after another from the commission’s hearings. Broken people confessed the evil they had done, while family members of victims found surprising ways to forgive.
In one powerful story, a white police officer confessed to the murder of an 18-year-old black man, whose mother sat in the courtroom. He admitted to celebrating with other officers as they burned the young man’s body. A few hours later, the officer compelled the same woman to watch as he and his partners burned her husband alive. His last words to her were: “Forgive them.”
After the officer’s emotionally charged testimony, a silent courtroom listened as the bereaved wife and mother asked for three things from the white officer. The now-elderly woman asked him to take her to the place where her husband was burned so she could gather up the dust and give it a proper burial. Next, since he had taken her family from her, she asked him to come to the ghetto twice a month to spend a day with her, so she could have someone to mother. And, finally, she asked someone to escort her to where he was seated so she could embrace him. She wanted him to know her forgiveness – and God’s – was real.
The officer, overcome by emotion, fainted. At the same time, someone in the courtroom began to sing “Amazing Grace.” And the world got a snapshot of what goodness – what God – is like.
There are two words translated “forgive” in the New Testament, which connote distinct aspects of forgiveness. The one focuses on the evil deed, and has the idea of sending it away, rather like the ancient High Priest confessed the nation’s sins over the head of a scapegoat and sent it into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
The other word does not focus on the evil deed but on the person who commits it. The evil is sent away, but the one who committed it is not. He or she is forgiven. This word is formed on the stem for “grace.” We are to send away the offence, but grace the offender with love and acceptance, just as the Lord graced us.
Sadly, most of us get this turned around. Rather than sending away the offence, we cling to it. We season it with the salt of resentment and feed on it until we poison ourselves. We do exactly the wrong thing: clutch the sin but send the sinner away. Instead of gracing the person who hurt us, we snub and ignore him and refuse to have anything to do with him. And so evil continues unabated.
But goodness, as we see it in God and in his representatives (like the elderly woman in Cape Town), sends the evil deed to oblivion and surprises the one who committed it with grace. And against all odds, “mercy triumphs over judgment” and real people “overcome evil with good.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/20/2017