I am just about the last person who should be lecturing on the subject of forgiveness. I’ve always tended to savor the little niggling injustices in my life, holding onto them and working them over the way you worry a sore spot in your mouth with your tongue.
I’ve noticed that my children are constantly denying responsibility for wrongdoings. Or, to state it more accurately, they are always claiming innocence and then laying the blame on someone else. All three of them will pipe up with “I didn’t do it! It was (fill in the blank)!” in response to questions about who left the door open, who spilled the milk, who left gum on the floor, who threw that bread at me (just to give some examples from the last 20 minutes).
That says something to me about human nature. Our first instinct is to shift the blame, deny responsibility. Admitting you are wrong is one of the most difficult things you can do. It’s so much easier to deny or make excuses or pretend like you didn’t know what was going on. And while it takes a lot to acknowledge blame, it takes even more to ask for forgiveness.
What does it take to really, truly grant forgiveness to someone who did something that hurt you? My son came home from Sunday School with one of those sheets where you have to decode the hidden message, which turned out to be Colossians 3:13 “If someone does wrong to you, then forgive him. Forgive each other because the Lord forgave you.” “So you should forgive your brother for eating your candy, right?” I said. “It’s not that easy,” he replied.
Houses at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement
No, forgiveness is NOT that easy. But when we were working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia back in 2007 and 2008, I interviewed a surprising number of people who said that they had forgiven the people who had hurt them and killed their loved ones. We made two trips to Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana to take statements. At the time, there 38,000 refugees living there, some of whom had been there for almost twenty years. The conditions on the camp were very difficult. It was hot and crowded, with inadequate sanitation and electricity. All the water for drinking and washing had to be purchased; most people didn’t have enough money to do both and a lot of people only ate one meal a day. There weren’t a lot of job opportunities in Ghana, so most of the refugees relied on remittances from relatives in the U.S. or Europe. Educational opportunities were also limited.
Also, as in many refugee situations, there were ex-combatants and perpetrators living there along with the victims of human rights abuses. Many of the people we talked to had encountered the perpetrator their on the camp. One woman I interviewed told me that she saw the men who had raped her every single day. In spite of the harsh conditions of daily life at Buduburam, however, I saw firsthand not only the possibility of forgiveness, but the necessity of forgiveness.
|A kindergarten class at Buduburam|
The TRC asked us to gather information about how statement givers felt about reconciliation so, unlike most of my work in documenting human rights abuses, I was asking questions about forgiveness in addition to questions about what happened. Not everyone was ready to forgive and only a handful were willing to meet with the perpetrators, but many said that they had in their hearts already forgiven the perpetrators. As one woman told me, “I had to forgive him, once I realized that if I didn’t, I would never move on with my life.”
Forgiveness does not in any way minimize the gravity of the wrong that was done. It does not mean forgetting what happened or ignoring the need for justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.” Forgiveness, at its core, is a choice to take action. It is something that you do for yourself, because you cannot be happy and healthy if you hold on to the anger and bitterness. It’s kind of like eating your vegetables – sometimes you have to force yourself to do it, but you know that you are better off in the long run if you do. Forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process, but it is a process of change that takes you out of the role of victim and puts you in control.
|Listening to refugees tell their stories at
a skills training school at Buduburam
Recently, a woman told me this story about forgiveness. During the war in Liberia, she witnessed the killing of her – by a neighbor who they had known for many years. She had so much anger for him for long, long time. Years later, after much praying, she decided that she needed to try to forgive him. Eventually, again with much praying, she began to feel as if she really had truly forgiven him.
Last year she returned to Liberia for the first time. She wasn’t sure how she would feel if she actually saw the man, but when she did, she went right up to him. This is how I recall her describing what happened next:
“I gave him a big smile and I said, ‘Mr. ___, do you remember me?’ I want you to know that I saw what you did to my father. But I forgive you for it. I forgive you and I’m praying for you.’ He didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t look me in the eye! After that, if he saw me coming, he would avoid me. Imagine that! An old man running away from me. But now I’m out of it. It is between him and God now.”