No Future without Forgiveness

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 43, Advent 2007

Jim Consedine

Who will ever forget the sight of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, etched forever in the memory of the world through that remarkable 1972 Time magazine photo, running, screaming, suffering from massive burns to most of her body from the napalm dropped on her village. If ever a picture encapsulated the horrors of war, that one did. Now more than 35 years later, she has long since forgiven those who attacked her and has grown through her pain to become a leader who tours frequently on behalf of UNICEF asking the question ‘why war’ and demanding ‘war never again’. Despite having a deeply scarred body, her spirit is healed and is whole again – because she has forgiven. She is fully human, fully alive because she has learnt mercy and forgiveness.

There are many other well-known stories of public forgiveness for huge crimes committed: Gordon Wilson for his daughter killed in a bomb blast in Northern Ireland, Michael Lapsley who lost an eye, two hands and suffered nearly fatal internal injuries from a parcel bomb sent by the apartheid regime, Camilla Carr who was kidnapped and raped by Chechnyan rebels in 1997 and Cathy Griffin who was abducted as a 12 year old on her way to school. These five represent only a small number of millions of people who daily chose to forgive others who have grievously hurt them.

In many respects forgiveness is probably the most difficult of all human virtues to practise. Yet it remains central to any lasting healing process, personal or collective, though its importance is often underrated and unspoken. On the surface it sometimes seems an unfair thing to attempt, given the pain caused by an injustice. But practising forgiveness is a foundation stone for healthy living. It is the step we need to take to be free of the ongoing negative effects of past injustice. It has transformative qualities not found elsewhere. To decide to forgive is to create a different future from one controlled by events from the past. It doesn’t mean forgetting the past. It means remembering the past in a different way, leaving one free to develop the future. One becomes re-empowered not controlled by events from the past.

For many, forgiveness essentially comes from God and is a divine gift. Specifically for the Christian it flows from an understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ. But, regardless of religious views, forgiveness is among the most healthy mature things we can do as human beings and is a derivative of love. It can be freely offered or sought, given or refused. Forgiveness is a central part of holistic healing and at some time needs to form part of the journey for any party seeking to be fully restored from pain, loss or hurt.

The Essential Forgiveness

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa through which a whole nation came to grips with its criminal past, heard literally thousands of testimonies from victims and offenders during the four years of the commission. He speaks eloquently and passionately about forgiveness as an essential component of healing.

But regardless of religious views, forgiveness is among the most healthy mature things we can do as human beings and is a derivative of love. It can be freely offered or sought, given or refused.

‘I have been bowled over by the incredible humility one has experienced from the victims, both black and white, who have suffered as much as they have. By rights they should have been hate-ridden by lust for revenge. They have exhilarated me by how ready they are to forgive. I have come to see that. Yes, of course you have an acknowledgment by the wrong doer that they have done something that was very wrong, that they owe to us confession so that the victim, the survivor be enabled to forgive. But I have come to believe fervently that forgiveness is not just a spiritual and ethereal thing unrelated to the real world, the harsh world out there. I have come to believe very fervently that without forgiveness, there is no future.’

He points out that to forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude self-hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. As he says, ‘When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person – a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you into a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it within yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on and even help the perpetrator become a better person too.’

Tutu goes on to say that ‘forgiveness is the capacity to make a fresh start. That is the power, the rational of confession and forgiveness. And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, to get up with dignity and begin anew. Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred, which just like self-hatred and self-contempt gnaws away at the vitals of one’s being. Whether hatred is projected out or projected in, it is always corrosive of the human spirit.’1

In relation to crime, restorative justice advocate Howard Zehr points out that the victim’s forgiveness is a letting go of the power that the offence and the offender have over him, while not condoning or excusing that person. It means no longer letting the offence and the offender dominate. ‘Without the experience of forgiveness, without this closure, the wound festers and takes over our lives. It, and the offender, are in control. To forgive a person is to let go. It is to say that I will not define myself by your actions towards me. I will not allow you to have any power over me. Real forgiveness allows one to move from victim to survivor.2

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a South African psychologist who works with the longest serving prisoners sentenced for apartheid brutality. She says it is hard to resist the conclusion that there is something divine about forgiveness, and echoes Desmond Tutu’s observation that when it occurs, ‘we are on holy ground. There is something spiritual, even sacramental, about forgiveness – a sign which moves and touches those who are witnesses to its enactment.’

‘I doubt that, when forgiveness is offered, the gaze is on the specifics of the deed. Forgiveness, while not disregarding the act, begins not with it but with the person. Forgiveness recognises the deed, its impact having been and continuing to be lived by the victim, but transcends it. People who come to the point of forgiveness have lived not only with the pain that trauma and loss bring, but also with the anger and resentment with those who caused the pain.’

She points out that someone who has lived with a gross violation of human rights for a lengthy time, will not move quickly to forgiveness. The sense of pain remains a symbol, often sub-conscious, of what has been taken away or what might have been. Often people are not ready to close this chapter of their lives. Their whole identity has been affected by the trauma and they are not ready to move on. That is partly why forgiveness is not always an attractive option for people.

She warns that one has to guard against prescribing forgiveness for to so cheapens the process. That first step taken, even to consider meeting the person responsible for terrible wrong, is for the victims to take. When forgiveness is granted, it is probably because of the meaning the victim attaches to the perpetrators apology. Forgiveness usually begins when the person needing to be forgiven shows signs of remorse. A remorseful apology inspires empathy and forgiveness. This is done best without justification and any disclaimer. A genuine apology focuses on the feelings of the other rather than on how the one apologising is going to benefit in the end. It seeks to acknowledge full responsibility for an act. It does not seek to erase what was done.3


Forgiveness then is the process of the victim letting go of the rage and pain of the injustice so that he or she can resume living freed from the power of the violation. Though the public perception is the exact opposite, the truth is that the primary beneficiary of forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving. The person forgiven may or may not appreciate what has happened, may or may not benefit from the action. But the one who does the forgiving will always be rewarded with a greater degree of empowerment and personal growth in love and self esteem.

Forgiveness may take time, it may not come easily, it may involve a lengthy struggle. It is often not simply a one-off effort. Because it involves a change in relationships, it needs to be worked at in order to achieve its completeness. But it will come, provided the forgiver is open to its potential and genuinely seeks it with an open heart.

The alternative is often bleak – a vengeful poisoned nature, filled with anger and self-pity, stuck in a timewarp of hurt and pain, unable or unwilling to move on. Forgiveness forms the soul of a healthy family and community life. As Desmond Tutu rightly says, ‘without forgiveness, there is no future’.




1 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, Rider Books, London, 1999

2 Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses, Herald Press, Scotdale, PA, 1990

3 Pumla Gobodo-Mazizela, A Human being Died Last Night, David Phillips, Cape Town, 2003

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