The power of average people defying all reason

by Kristin on May 6, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Mixed media art by Ruthieonart

One of life’s most fascinating mysteries, to me,  is forgiveness and reconciliation.

I’m not talking about the “I’m sorry I borrowed your shirt without asking and then ruined it” sort of reconciliation, although that’s important. (With three daughters, I imagine it’s going to be very important at our house.) I’m talking the sort of forgiveness that can, but rarely does, emerge out of this pain: “Because of something I did, your life will never be the same.”

I just read an amazing article in The New Yorker, “The Life After: Fifteen years after the genocide in Rwanda, the reconciliation defies expectations.” I already knew about the nearly million Tutsi people who had been massacred in the course of 100 days, starting in April of 1994. But until I read this article, I didn’t know about the reconciliation that has taken place.

Today, the article says, Rwanda is “one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa.” Rwanda is also “the only nation where hundred of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.”

Can you imagine? Can you imagine walking down the street each day and regularly passing by a man who murdered your brother or husband, or raped your sister and killed her baby? It seems impossible.

What has made it possible, though, is Rwanda’s decision to convene a system of outdoor community courts, known as gacaca, for the more than million genocide cases that were adjudicated last year. Here’s how the article’s author, Philip Gourevitch, describes the new court system:

Gacaca was designed to reward confessions, because the objective was not only to render rudimentary justice and mete out punishment but also to allow some emotional catharsis by establishing a collective accounting of the truth of the crimes in each place where they were committed.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. There are stories of corruption, and some people who are skeptical of the sincerity of the confessions and pleas for forgiveness. But still. It’s astounding.

Reconciliation is fascinating—until it reaches into your life

In the first sentence of this post, I used the word “fascinating” to describe the act of forgiveness and reconciliation. I realize it’s an odd word to use, but that’s how I feel—at least if I step back and look at the process as an observer.

What’s fascinating is how counter-intuitive and unnatural it is to go through the process of forgiveness. When I’ve been hurt or wronged, every part of my being tells me to put up walls and protect my wounds. When I’m the one who has hurt or wronged someone else, every part of my being tells me to put up walls and protect my pride. That’s what comes naturally: putting up walls.

But when I manage to live this radical forgiveness and reconciliation, even in a small way, it’s not fascinating. It’s mind-blowing and life-changing. (I’ve written a fair amount about how that’s played out in my life, particularly in the aftermath of my divorce. Here are two posts you can check out if you aren’t familiar with that story: Welcome to another day to practice grace and Two girls with all kinds of parents.)

I grew up singing about “grace” at church, but I didn’t really get what it was about until I was in college. Now my basic understanding of grace—God’s grace—is that it’s complete forgiveness and acceptance that you don’t deserve and could never do anything to earn.

There really is no way to “make it up to someone” after murdering their beloved family member. That’s why John Newton, who was captain of a slave trade ship in the mid-1700s, called it AMAZING grace, and likened it to inexplicable miracles like being lost and then found, or being blind and then suddenly regaining your sight.

Why does the really good stuff have to be so hard?

All I know, is that while it sounds very poetic and lovely, it’s HARD! Actually, it’s almost impossible. Check this out:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. — Colossians 3:12-14

My first reaction? Yes! That’s how the world should be. My second reaction? WAAAH! I CAN’T DO IT!!

But then I see small ways that I have. And I think about the people in Rwanda, living side by side with the very people who devastated their lives. And I know, without a doubt, that there is no more powerful force in this world than the relief and utter freedom that come with true reconciliation. Not only is it powerful, but it’s within our grasp, as average, everyday people going about our lives.  So I will try to live it, once again.

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  • Trina

    Powerful reaction to the grace in forgiveness. Innately we want to protect ourselves to be sure. Moving beyond what’s instinctual takes time, takes desire, takes perspectives such as yours to be absorbed and put into use. Once again, a fabulous connection you’ve offered up. Thank you!

  • Meredith

    What immediately caught my attention was in your first paragraph: “Because of something I did, your life will never be the same.” I felt as if that what I’ve struggled with in terms of forgiveness.

    It is, of course, hard to deal with wanting to be forgiven for something, especially when my guilt and conscience is pecking away at me. But I’ve found, through my own experiences (and maybe b/c of who I am as a person) that it is extraordinarily hard to forgive someone else, even when I want to. You wrote about putting up walls. There’s also the idea of not being able to let go – of the hurt, the pain, the anger, the sadness, or whatever other feelings came about because of the event/incident/etc. It’s incredibly hard to let go, to say, “it’s okay.” Forgive and Forget is a nice idea in theory, but doesn’t usually work out in the real world.

    My two cents – offering forgiveness can only come when you’re ready to forgive. I struggled for years to forgive my father, to accept the decisions he made that drastically changed my life. Even when I wanted nothing more than to forgive him, I still couldn’t do it because I wasn’t ready to really and truly accept what that forgiveness would mean – letting go of all of the emotions. But when I finally got to a point in my life when I was happy with where I was, I realized the holding on was holding me back. That’s when I was ready to forgive and let go. It’s a powerful experience and also very humbling.

    Thanks again for a fantastic post and for making me think. (Seriously – you always have the best posts!)

  • Vered – MomGrind

    I could never do it. Perhaps I’m a lesser person, but I would want to see justice and punishment.

  • Kristin T.

    Trina, this is so true: “Moving beyond what’s instinctual takes time, takes desire, takes perspectives…” I think I often try to imagine doing something hard all at once. When I can’t imagine it, I jump to the conclusion that it’s just not possible. If you have the desire, you need to be willing to give it some time to germinate and become something.

    Meredith, you’re right—not being able to let go of the anger, hurt and disappointment is a very real and mysterious issue. It seems like we’d love to let go of it, but if we’ve used it as a crutch for a while, we grow dependent on it, in unexpected ways. And you’re right about this, too: You can’t force it. It’s really powerful that you were able to turn away from that hurt and create a life you could feel good about, which in turn allowed you to forgive and let go. Thanks so much for sharing your forgiveness experience with us!

    Vered, I hear you. I honestly don’t know if I could it either, especially when I think of how horrifying it would be to live through the genocide in Rwanda, and to face the very people who created the horror. I do know, though, that I’ve been able to take steps of forgiveness that I never would have thought possible—certainly not on the scale of people in Rwanda, but still situations that seemed too enormous to even begin climbing. So it makes me wonder what’s possible, if each time I push myself a little farther…

  • Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Feels impossible today. I used to think I was “good at” forgiving. Ha! Now I know I just hadn’t been hurt in a way that made me feel powerless to restore what was taken from me. Even the ways my parents failed/hurt me were not this devastating; I could and have mostly grown up and away from them, as well as the pain they inflicted. But how is it possible to forgive someone when you are drowning in the pain caused by them? I don’t know if it is. I simply DON’T BELIEVE that a Rwandan woman who was raped and her child was killed could “forgive” the perpetrator in the abstract way this special court system affords. I have trouble believing she could ever really forgive that man, period, in more than an intellectual sort of way (even then!?).

    I think it’s also imperative to distinguish between FORGIVENESS and RECONCILIATION. I believe (by faith, mostly) that with God’s help, forgiving even heinous, humanity-violating acts is possible. People say they’ve done it and who am I to challenge that? But forgiving does not necessitate reconciliation. The Bible makes it clear that God wants us to forgive one another. But going back for more is not “godly.” I think this distinction is imperative and NOT distinguishing between forgiveness and reconciliation is a monstrous mistake that is made, especially in the church. How many women, in the name of forgiveness, have gone back to a “penitent” perpetrator, only to be hurt again, with the blessing of the church and the Christians in her life? I have forgiven my parents…or more accurately, I continue to live in the process of forgiving them, but that does not mean I let them speak into my life. I think the false doctrine of Forgiveness=Reconciliation requires victims to check their brains at the door, expose themselves to possible danger, and remain in the hold that the original offense placed them in. Forgiveness=Reconciliation often means the perpetrator holds their victim in a religiously-enforced prison….”you forgave me, so you aren’t allowed to hurt anymore and if you do you better not make me feel bad.” This so often takes the victim OUT OF the process of pain and takes them emotionally captive, stuck forever between the need to forgive (read: reconcile) and the truth of their feelings. This is of course a double-negative and requires the victim to repress/deny/emotionally die, or become the “bad guy”/unforgiving one by insisting their pain is real.

    This topic is extremely close to home, as you can tell! ;)

  • Breanna

    I am so happy to have found your blog, and specifically, this post. Isn’t forgiveness a challenging concept? We were actually just talking about this last week in the small group that I attend. One of my friends was talking about a situation in which he has been praying for years and years that God give him the strength and ability to forgive one particular person in his life for something that he/she did. After many years, he still isn’t sure if he has truly forgiven the person. We then started to question how you know when you have TRULY forgiven someone. What is the benchmark?? How do you measure forgiveness??

  • Sarah

    I’m so glad to read this post! I read this article over the weekend and have been thinking about it ever since. What I liked most was reading about how ambivalent folks were about it all, and yet how they managed to live with the situation and with each other. No one thought the courts were perfect, or even close, and no one really felt like things were “okay” but they were all still able to live together. I think I focus way too often on making everything okay, and miss the grace that might be present in simply living through a hard situation honestly with dignity and civility. I think it reminded me that forgiveness (at least human forgiveness) might not have to be perfect in order to be adequate.

    And by the way, Cheryl, I completely agree – thank you for raising the issue.

  • PsychMamma

    The Rwanda story is amazing. I’ve seen videos of Gacacas that cover the process of reconciliation and I was floored. Peace IS possible.

    Another great book is Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

    It’s about the Nickel Mines, PA Amish school shooting. The story is another amazing and truthful one about forgiveness, grace and reconciliation. Very thought provoking.

    Thanks for the awesome post!

  • Kristin T.

    Cheryl, I agree, it’s really hard to imagine the people of Rwanda truly forgiving one another. I guess it isn’t about total forgiveness, like you cross some magic line and all is right again. It must be a matter of degrees. When you think of the alternative, having the people who did the horrendous acts face the people who were hurt by them seems much better than taking the out of sight, out of mind route. What you bring up about the important distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation, and what happens when we fail to make that distinction, is SO important and true. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before. Thank you for bringing it into the conversation.

    Breanna, I’m glad you found my blog, too! Forgiveness is SO tricky—especially when you’ve been praying for it, and it seems like something God would want to help you grasp, yet it still seems out of reach. And your question about how to measure forgiveness is a really difficult one. I guess maybe it’s more of a process—a continuum we travel—rather than a line we cross, sort of like I was saying in response to Cheryl’s comment. I don’t know, though. With my ex-husband, I just eventually realized that I wasn’t harboring resentment any longer. The strain between my brows was gone after interacting with him, and I realized I had compassion and understanding for him. It’s not like the process is done, and I get a gold star, but I still think I’ve reached a peaceful place.

    Sarah, that’s a really good point about the New Yorker article—people in Rwanda aren’t raving about things, and claiming they’re perfect. But the fact that they can live together is the fruit of this rather hacked, imperfect tree. This is SO perceptive: “I think I focus way too often on making everything okay, and miss the grace that might be present in simply living through a hard situation honestly with dignity and civility. I think it reminded me that forgiveness (at least human forgiveness) might not have to be perfect in order to be adequate.”

    PsychMamma, the Amish school shooting story applies perfectly—I’m so glad you brought it up! I’d love to read that book and see what the common threads might be. I think one is the idea that in extraordinary circumstances, humans can step completely outside of the realm of our everyday knee jerk responses, into a place that defies reason and understanding. It’s a suspension of disbelief and the act of having blind faith in something better, beyond the pain.

  • Cheryl Ensom Dack

    The whole idea of a “process” or “continuum” of forgiveness, especially when we’re talking about life-altering offenses, makes sense. Forgiveness is so often talked about as an act of will, a choice, or even a spiritual discipline. But the fact is that it is almost always a non-victim who uses this language. To tell a rape victim she should “choose to forgive” her rapist, you might as well be telling her to “just get over it.” But perhaps even a rape victim (waaaaaaay down the line when the pain is not her only reality) could at some point conceivably “choose” to enter into a process of forgiveness? I believe it was in The Shack that forgiveness was described as removing your hands from around the throat of the person who hurt you. But I don’t think it’s always possible to even choose to take your hands from around the offender’s throat; sometimes one might only be able to ask God to pry our fingers off, one by one. But as in so many other situations, maybe it begins by facing in the right direction. It is completely different to stand in the middle of pain, hate and anger, facing in the direction of hopeless, blind hatred, willing the offender to die, than it is to stand in the exact same spot, facing in the direction of someday, somehow, hopefully, maybe forgiving the offender. And maybe that’s really all that we DO choose.