US Catholic Faith in Real Life

No forgiveness, no future: An interview with Archbishop Desmund Tutu

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In an interview from our archives (August 2000), Archbishop Desmond Tutu shares the lessons learned from chairing South Africa's Turth and Reconciliation Commission.

In late 1995 Archbishop Desmond Tutu was looking forward to his retirement when South Africa's President Nelson Mandela appointed him chairperson of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "Who could ever say Mr. Mandela nay?" Tutu recalls. "My much-longed-for sabbatical went out the window, and for nearly three years we would be involved in the devastating but also exhilarating work of the commission."

A key leader in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. He has served as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and as president of the All Africa Conference of Churches. For the past two years Tutu has been a visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta, while also lecturing throughout the world. He is the author most recently of No Future Without Forgiveness (Doubleday, 1999).

For Tutu, the South African experience is a sign of hope to the world. "The death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt," he says: "Ultimately goodness, laughter, peace, compassion, gentleness, forgiveness, and reconciliation will have the last word and prevail over their ghastly counterparts. The victory over apartheid is proof positive of this truth."

In your work with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission you were confronted with accounts of horrendous atrocities. What were some of the worst excesses?

There were many instances when you were just devastated by what you heard. Sometimes the killers appeared to have no feelings at all.

For me, one of the worst was when a police officer, who was applying for amnesty, spoke of how they abducted a young person, gave him some knockout drops in a cup of coffee, and then shot him in the head. Then they burned his body, and because it takes several hours for a human body to burn, they had some drinks and a barbecue next to the fire.

It just makes you wonder what had happened to their humanity that they could do something like this.

But the hearing that more than anything sent shivers down my spine came toward the end of the commission's life when we heard testimony about the apartheid government's Chemical and Biological Warfare program. With the other instances you might have said that people acted on the spur of the moment, that things got unexpectedly out of control. But this program was executed by people wearing white lab coats--it was clinical, quite deliberate. It reminded me of the experiments conducted in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The scientists said they were looking for germs that would target only black people, and they were trying to poison black leaders. For example, they made--and botched--several attempts to poison Frank Chikane, the former general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. And they also planned to put untraceable poison into the medicine of Nelson Mandela, while he was in prison.

In a way, it was easier for me to forgive something that someone did on the spur of the moment and a great deal more difficult to feel charitable toward somebody who had acted so deliberately.

How did you deal with that?

God's grace is something that one has to take very seriously, because your immediate reaction is revulsion and anger--you almost want to spit in the face of someone who could descend to such low levels. But then, because people were praying for us, as people continue to do, you receive an excess of grace that reminds you that no matter how awful this person may be, he remains a child of God.

Can you really picture them as children of God when you are confronted with evidence of such atrocities?

Some of the perpetrators showed not even the tiniest bit of remorse. Just now there is a trial going on in South Africa of the man who ran the chemical program I mentioned. The media has dubbed him "Doctor Death," but through it all he has been very nonchalant. He came to our hearings mockingly wearing what we call "Madiba shirts," named after Nelson Mandela, who loves to wear these outrageous, bright-colored shirts.

He frequently behaved very provocatively and was really cocky, without giving even the remotest sense of being sorry for his actions. You just have to remind yourself that he may have done diabolical things, but he's not a demon.

When you listen to the accounts of some of the awful actions, it is indeed appalling and it is easy to say that those who committed them were monsters or demons. But theology prevents us from doing that. Ultimately no one is irredeemable and without hope. God does not give up on anyone.

You have said that sometimes, as you were listening to the testimonies, you caught yourself wondering whether God must not have second thoughts about having created humanity.

God took an incredible risk creating us. And when I look at the awful wrecks that litter human history, I imagine God surveying it all--seeing how his children treat their sisters and brothers--and weeping over his creation. Certainly there is a great deal of evidence that might make God rue his decision.

Although as humans we are all formed by nurture and by nature, in the end we still have a choice to make. The killers could have chosen differently. They didn't, and the glory of our God is that God does not step in to stop them. God just has the pain of a parent who sees his child go badly wrong but must respect the child's free will to choose.

But there's also a great deal of evidence that makes God say it was worth it. As God looks at people like a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, or a Nelson Mandela, he must rub his hands in divine satisfaction and say, "Don't you think it was worth all of this pain and anguish to have produced wonderful people like these?"

And I was really surprised myself that, at the end of the wrenching process that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, there was an incredible sense of hope. Because of the nobility of the human spirit and the marvelous magnanimity of nearly all the victims who testified, we also got the sense that, yes, we humans are capable of a great deal of evil, but we are fundamentally good.

Tell me more about the grace you witnessed in the people who testified before the commission.

It was fantastic. One such example occurred in our hearing about an event that had happened in Bisho in Ciskei, where 28 people had been killed by soldiers of the Ciskeian Defense Force (CDF) who opened fire on an African National Congress. We held one of our hearings in Bisho. The hall was packed to the rafters, and many who attended had either themselves been injured on that occasion or had lost loved ones. So you could imagine the tension in that hall.

The first person to speak was the former head of the CDF, who riled virtually everybody by talking in a tone that came across as arrogant and cynical. So the tension rose even further.

Then the next group of witnesses consisted of four officers in this defense force. Their spokesperson said, "Yes, we gave the orders for the soldiers to open fire." You could just feel the audience become really hostile and angry.

But then this soldier turned to the audience and made an extraordinary appeal: "Please forgive us, please. The burden of the Bisho massacre will be on our shoulders for the rest of our lives." He was white and the three other soldiers were black, and he went on to plead with the audience: "Would you please receive my colleagues back into the community?"

It was unbelievable, unexpected. You could sense the presence of grace right there, because that audience, angry as they had been, almost immediately turned around and broke out in incredible applause. Here were people who were limping, who were shot, some had lost children or other loved ones, and they could applaud.

You couldn't have choreographed it. It was just spontaneous. The people could quite as easily have booed him.

It was the many victims whom the system had for so long consigned to anonymity and facelessness--people who had been carrying for 10, 20, 50 years a very heavy burden of anguish--who became the heroes of this process.

There was the woman whose child had been abducted and disappeared and who came forward crying, "Please, can you find me even just a bone of my child so I can at least give him a decent burial?"

And there were countless others who testified, whom you would have expected to be filled with hate and anger, but instead they were just pained. They were getting a chance to tell their stories, to get some answers to their long-held anguished questions, and the flood gates opened. Frequently people broke down crying, but that was a good thing.

At our very first meeting the widow of one of the so-called Cradock Four testified. The Cradock Four were ANC activists who were ambushed by the police and killed quite gruesomely. She described how they had been waiting anxiously for their husbands and not getting any news, when one child saw a newspaper with a picture of a burned-out car and said, "Mommy, this is daddy's car." She then described how she went to the home of her friend whose husband was also among the four, and then she just broke down and let out an unearthly scream.

In many ways that cry, which was broadcast throughout the land, came to symbolize the commission--a cry from the depths of anguish. We had begun this process where people could open their hearts and expose the anguish that had remained locked up for so long. It would cause considerable pain, but it was also going to help people heal.

Then the daughter of one of the Cradock Four told her story, and when she finished, I asked her whether she thought she would be able to forgive the people who had done this to her father. She was quite extraordinary, she was still a teenager, and she spoke very quietly, but with remarkable dignity. She said, "We would like to forgive, but we don't know whom to forgive."

The truth eventually surfaced when the police officers who were involved applied for amnesty before our commission and disclosed the ghastly truth of how they had murdered the four. It's been an incredible journey.

What makes the kind of forgiveness these victims showed possible? Wouldn't a desire for revenge be the more "natural" reaction?

We have to keep reminding people that we are the beneficiaries of a lot of praying. I think Christians are strange creatures, because it seems we pray for miracles, but then we're surprised when the miracles do happen.

The other part is rooted in what we refer to as ubuntu, the African view that a person is a person through other persons. My humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced--whether I like it or not--mine is enhanced as well. Likewise, when you are dehumanized, inexorably, I am dehumanized as well.

So there is a deep yearning in African society for communal peace and harmony. It is for us the summum bonum, the greatest good. For in it, we find the sustenance that enables us to be truly human. Anything that erodes this central good is inimical to all, and nothing is more destructive than resentment and anger and revenge.

In a way, therefore, to forgive is the best form of self-interest, because I'm also releasing myself from the bonds that hold me captive, and it is important that I do all I can to restore relationship. Because without relationship, I am nothing, I will shrivel.

That is also a very biblical understanding: God is community, God is relationship, God is Trinity. God can't exist in isolation.

But, unlike perhaps in African cultures, here in the United States individualism is more the norm. How can you foster this sense of connectedness?

I suppose we should start by reminding people that, actually, God is pretty smart. God created us for interdependence, and God created us different so as to make interdependence essential. One of the differences is that you for your part perhaps highlight individualism, objectivity, and rationalism more, while we on the other hand emphasize more the corporate, the subjective, and the intuitive.

Each side on its own is inadequate. A proper human being needs to balance both, and so God says, "You see, I made you different so that you may know you're in need of one another," as one of the saints once said.

You have described the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a profoundly religious and spiritual experience. How was that so?

Clearly, when President Nelson Mandela and his cabinet set up the commission, they could have set it up differently, as a completely juridical. They could have appointed a judge as chairperson. I think they intentionally chose an archbishop because they understood that at heart our work was profoundly spiritual.

The members of our commission were very diverse--some were Muslim, some Hindu, you name it. When I asked them how I should appear in public in our hearings, it was a Hindu colleague who insisted, "We want you to be in your cassock."

When we began our work, we first went on a retreat. We also opened and ended our sessions with prayers, and when we broke at midday we'd have a moment of reflection and recollection.

It was accepted that we would speak about reconciliation and forgiveness in ways that made sense to us out of our particular backgrounds. Reconciliation is the result of a process that includes an acknowledgment of the wrong that has been done, a contrition--or at least remorse--on the part of the perpetrator, a confession , and then forgiveness.

But that is not the end of the process, because frequently the wrong has severely affected the well-being of the victim. And that raises the question of reparation, which is crucial to reconciliation.

Sometimes people ask, "Can you forgive someone who doesn't want to be forgiven or doesn't ask for forgiveness?" Using a biblical example, I would answer: Our Lord certainly thought so, for even without the people who were nailing him to the cross asking for forgiveness, he prayed that they should be forgiven. He even found an excuse for them--"for they do not know what they are doing." We, who are his followers, have to try to emulate his example.

But also, if forgiveness depended on whether the perpetrator asked for it or not, it would mean that the victim was forever a victim, ever dependent on the whim of the perpetrator. Whereas when you say, "I forgive you," you are the one who extends forgiveness, but it is up to the other to appropriate the forgiveness by being contrite.



For us as Christians the outcome is not in question. The death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt: Ultimately goodness, laughter, peace, compassion, gentleness, forgiveness, and reconciliation will prevail over their ghastly counterparts. The victory over apartheid is proof positive of this truth.

How have you yourself experienced forgiveness in your own life?

Things like temperament have a very important bearing on how you react in later life. People sometimes find it difficult to believe that I really can't stand confrontation and strife, because they think of my ministry of standing up to injustice and oppression. But it actually goes totally against the grain for me.

I have a very big weakness of wanting to be loved. I can't bear being unloved, and one of the greatest pains for me in South Africa during the dark days of our struggle was knowing that I was being seen as an ogre by most of the white people, someone they really hated. My own temperament is one that is forever seeking to pour oil on troubled waters.

How then did you push yourself?

I was supported a great deal by the deep sense of belonging to this incredible body, the church of Christ, and by knowing that people were praying for me.

I've also been blessed by my training for and ministry in the priesthood in the Anglican Church, which taught me that an authentic Christian existence is impossible without a vibrant spiritual life; it is indispensable. I come out of a tradition of daily Eucharist, of silence and meditation, and of retreats.

From early on I was trained that if you were going to have time for this very important aspect of your life, you'd have to be ready to get up early in the morning to have those moments of quiet and then to pray the Hours. And that has remained part of my life until today. If I stopped praying, if I stopped taking the Eucharist, it would be almost a physical thing like not brushing your teeth. And I just think that without that we would not have been able to survive the awfulness of apartheid and the struggle.

In the book of Zechariah, the prophet relates God's promise that he will be like a wall of fire around Jerusalem. We experienced something like that--being surrounded by a wall of fire that consisted of the prayers of all the faithful around the world, a feeling of being protected by God and almost untouchable.


If God had consulted with me, "Now, Desmond, we are about to end your public life, how do you want to end it?" I couldn't possibly have suggested to God the things that God allowed to happen.

First--and that would have been enough in itself--Nelson Mandela was released. Not only did I live to see that day, but he spent his first night of freedom under our roof.

Then there was April 27, 1994, the day when we were finally able to vote for the first time. If God had said, "OK, you will see your first democratic election," just that would have been glorious. Then to be there to introduce Nelson Mandela as the newly elected president of South Africa and to be there at his inauguration as one of the religious leaders who offered prayers.

And, as if that were not enough, then God said, "No, Desmond, we're not finished with you yet. There's something called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and you will be given this incredible privilege of contributing to the healing of a traumatized people." The last few years have really been incredible for me, an incredible privilege and blessing.

This article appeared in the August 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 65, No. 8, pages 24-28).