"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view....This is from God, who...has given us the ministry of reconciliation."— 2 Corinthians 5:16, 18
Maude lives in a modest home in a senior citizens' complex outside Cape Town, South Africa. Her story is tragically typical. Thirty years ago—when the apartheid government's Group Areas Act declared the best areas of South Africa "white"—police kicked in her door and stormed into her home in the middle of the night. Rifles pointed at their heads, Maude, her husband, and five children were forced out and thrown into a truck. The police drove them miles away to a barren spot of bush and dumped them there, with nothing. This cruel policy of "forced removals" was the start of the vast squatter camps that were patched together by people who had had everything they owned stolen from them.
I asked Maude the question that I asked virtually everyone I met as I traveled throughout South Africa [in the] summer of : "Why aren't you consumed with bitterness and hatred?" She answered, "I don't know if I have forgiven them. But I believe that if I want God to forgive me, I have to forgive them."
I wanted to take her by the shoulders and say something like, "I barely know you. But I can't imagine there's anything that you've done that even comes close to what has been done to you."
But many people in South Africa have chosen not to see it that way. They have come to understand and embrace that difficult passage in 2 Corinthians about seeing no longer from a human point of view, but with the eyes of Christ.
I HAD LUNCH one day with Father Michael Lapsley, a most amazing man who served as chaplain to the ANC (African National Congress) in exile and now for the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture. Several years ago he was sent a letter bomb, which blew off both his arms and also rendered him partially blind. In August he had to undergo brain surgery related to damage from the bomb blast. I asked him the same question I asked Maude. "I feel frustration and grief over what I've lost," he said. "But if we are consumed by hatred, we remain prisoners of the oppressors."
South Africa—which of all nations, it could be argued, has a right to demand justice and seek vengeance—has chosen instead to reach out with forgiveness and mercy. Charles Villa-Vicencio, the research director for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke truth when he told me, "The average white ought to go on our knees every night and thank the good Lord that we're still alive, that no one drove us out of our houses, that nobody put us in townships."
President Nelson Mandela modeled a rare forgiveness when he invited his jailer of 27 years to sit on the platform with him at his presidential inauguration. I rode the ferry one day over to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of his time of incarceration. Just seeing the place made me appreciate that gesture of reconciliation even more. Horribly hot in summer, icily frigid in winter, the prison is bleak. I saw Mandela's tiny cell, and the lime quarry where he and the other political prisoners were forced to do hard labor, many of them suffering blindness from the sunlight off the white stone.
Several people I met talked about whites as victims of apartheid too. One even said, "We're better off because at least we still have our humanity. They tried to dehumanize us and just ended up losing their own humanity." Charles Villa-Vicencio reflected, "There's a little bit of a perpetrator in all of us...and even in the most evil perpetrators there's a dimension of humanity."
There is a lesson here for all the world. Rev. Courtney Sampson, an Anglican priest, pointed out that in South Africa they had forced removals "from one hill to another," but here in the United States we perpetrated forced removals "from one continent to another." He was referring, of course, to slavery. He said that the United States would be a lot better off if we had found the courage after the end of slavery, or during the civil rights era, to tell the stories and confess our racism. We have never told the truth as a nation about our genocidal policies toward native peoples, our enslavement of Africans, legal segregation, and continuing violence and discrimination.
For many years South Africa was considered a pariah among nations because of its institutionalized racial hatred. Now it is shining a beacon of hope our way. Perhaps, with that beacon to light our way, we might find the courage to walk a similar path—in our personal relationships as well as our national life.
Joyce Hollyday was a Sojourners contributing editor and author of Then Shall Your Light Rise: Spiritual Formation and Social Witness, when this article appeared.