The Common Good
May-June 2000

On Both Sides of Forgiveness

by Edie Bird | May-June 2000

Sorting out justice in South Africa.

In a country where Jesus’ words "the truth will set you free" are the mandate of a national commission, where forgiveness and reconciliation are not some vague religious ideals but national policy, it’s difficult to look into the lives of ordinary people and not find faith at work.

David Goodman, who traveled to South Africa in the dark days of apartheid in 1984 and then lived with his family for a year in the newly democratic republic in 1996-97, examines the dramatic changes in South Africa in Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa. He doesn’t set out to write about religion, but the church has left such indelible marks upon the South African landscape that he can’t help but touch on deep questions of faith.

The church played a key role in both the construction and the dismantling of apartheid, with Christians on opposing sides during the struggle. Now, in the process of national healing, Christians stand on either side of forgiveness, as victims asked to forgive their oppressors and as oppressors asked to repent of the crimes.

While the emphasis on truth telling and repentance, and forgiveness and reconciliation, highlights the positive influence of the church in South Africa, the church’s role in perpetuating injustice is central to the story of Wilhelm Voerwoort III. The grandson of H.F. Voerwoort, the architect of apartheid, Wilhelm made headlines when he forsook his family’s legacy of white separatism and joined the African National Congress. This conversion came at the end of a long journey for Voerwoort, who at one time wanted to become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. He realized that apartheid was a brutal and unjust system while studying abroad in the 1980s. When he returned home, he realized his church had supported this injustice and kept silent about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks. He left the church and, consequently, alienated himself from his family.

In telling Voerwoort’s story, Goodman reflects on the tenacious denial of responsibility for racial oppression that is still strong in the white community. During a session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Goodman spoke with two Dutch Reformed ministers who could not believe whites oppressed blacks in their town. Apartheid happened, but it happened someplace else; somebody else is responsible.

Comparing his experiences in the old South Africa with the new, Goodman leads us into the midst of a society that is both flush with the excitement of incredible change and disappointed by the lack of real improvement in the lives of the millions of poor and dispossessed. Goodman’s profiles of ordinary people living in an extraordinary time present questions that are not easily answered.

EDIE BIRD is an Episcopal priest and mother of two who lives and works in northwest Arkansas.

Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa. Goodman, David. University of California Press, 1/1/99.

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