The whole world is watching as Nelson Mandela is celebrated, mourned and laid to rest after a dramatic life as the leader of a struggle for freedom in one of the world’s nations. We have heard, over and over, that his most remarkable characteristic was a capacity for forgiveness.
We may be tempted to describe forgiveness on the part of a victim of injustice like Mandela as wrong-headed and too soft-hearted. After all, white racists robbed him of a large part of his life and did everything they could to destroy him. Even so, he publicly forgave them and vowed to work with them to forge a new nation built on ideals of racial justice and equality. Was he too soft on those who oppressed him? We may be tempted to think so if we only base our considerations on the moral principles and normal forms of justice to which we have become accustomed.
Normal forms of justice take the shape of accusation, discovery, proof and punishment. We listen to the victims. We turn to face the oppressor with scowls of disdain and with exclamations of “how could you?” We launch inquiries dedicated to arriving at conclusions about culpability. We demand signs of remorse and we assign labels of guilt. We let the victims have their say. We scrutinize the evidence. We seek sentences of prison or punishments suited to the crimes committed. In South Africa, we watched as Nelson Mandela seemed to side-step this normal process and stepped forward boldly with a forceful expression of forgiveness that shocked the world, and that continues to mystify people.
And many call him a saint. Many call him a hero.
People around the world saw, in this act of forgiveness, something divine. We saw some evidence of a behaviour that was so astoundingly out of the norm that we had to elevate Mandela as a figure who was different. And that he was. Mandela understood the power of forgiveness as political power. His vision seems to have demanded it of him, just as it demanded many other things of him. Forgiveness was a means to the end of apartheid. It was the action that was required to move the situation forward towards resolution and reconciliation. It was a disposition required of him if he was to realize the vision for which he had sacrificed so much.
So often, I believe we see forgiveness as an act of concession. I think we believe that the person “gives in” when they forgive their oppressors. We witness them relinquishing their rights to see their oppressors dealt with harshly, punished, shamed and shunned – perhaps even imprisoned or executed. When we think of justice, don’t we often think in these ways?
Our vision of justice changes when we regard forgiveness as political power that is held in the hands of the victim. The astounding example of the case of Nelson Mandela is that he carried that power through the simple act of publicly forgiving his oppressors. The power of forgiveness evaporates if nothing in the social relationships between victim and oppressor changes after the act. That is not what happened in Mandela’s case. Mandela took advantage of the power that his act of forgiveness provided.
The justice dynamic in South Africa required the world to hear the stories of the victims. It was the victims who “wrote” the apologies of the oppressors by telling their stories, by revealing their anguish, by exposing the suffering they had endured to the light and by telling the truth of what had been happening in their own words. The dominant group – the white ruling class in South Africa – was not given the power to draft their own apology.
Through the Truth and Reconciliation hearings the oppressors were forced to listen to the terms of their apology in graphic detail. They were given new boundaries in their relationships that were drafted with full consciousness of the way things had been before, and they agreed to respect those new boundaries. This is the power of forgiveness in action. It is the only path to reconciliation, because no genuine reconciliation can take place until the apology of the oppressor has recorded the real content of the aggression they have inflicted upon their victims. No genuine reconciliation can come until people who were formerly oppressors hear what it is they have done and learn to abide by new boundaries of decency and respect.
Nelson Mandela’s example of forgiveness was more than a simple movement of the heart and an act of setting aside his desire to punish his oppressors – although it was certainly that. It was a shrewd and supremely intelligent maneuver towards the political cooperation he was seeking in service of his magnificent vision of a united, free and democratic South Africa. There are so many lessons to be learned from this story that it will take generations of dedicated study to describe, explain and analyze the dynamics that unfolded in this particular history.
It will be a challenge to activate this study if we elevate Mandela too far above the human race into which he was born. We risk a great deal if we heroize his history to a place above and beyond human capacity. We can lose the real and practical power he utilized if we sanctify his actions and see them as only the extraordinary spiritual acts of a person “not like us.” Mandela’s story begs of us that we try to understand the political power of forgiveness so that we can move beyond the loop de loop dynamics of aggression and counter aggression that often define our sense of justice.
I hope we hold up the figure of Mandela as a fully human man – a man who did what we are all capable of doing. We are all capable of making forgiveness the means to lasting peace. We are all capable of sticking with the process until the victims have written the confessions of their oppressors. That is the only lasting and viable path to peace, justice and equality among persons.