Magazine article U.S. Catholic

No Forgiveness, No Future

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

No Forgiveness, No Future

Article excerpt


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. …

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