Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Call to Hope and a Healing of the Past

Some people believe that forgiving the perpetrators of horrendous crimes is letting them off the hook. Victims want revenge. Families of victims expect retribution.

Most people concede that the death penalty or lifetime imprisonment is the only viable way to handle such criminals. Anything less would be seen as acting irresponsibly to society. The assumption is that such punishments teach criminals a lesson and stop would-be criminals from committing crimes. That’s what the criminal justice system is designed to do.

However, the criminal justice system can’t address perpetrators of nation-wide, systemic crimes, which is occurring more frequently in more countries all over the world. While the law might call for justice, which is usually interpreted as “punishment,” such a strategy tends to reproduce an unending cycle of violence. So where can governments turn? What can grassroots people do? The answer is: forgiveness.

The world expected violence to break out in South Africa when apartheid ended in 1994 and four million white Afrikaners lost control over the country’s 40 million blacks and coloreds. However, as Episcopalian Bishop Desmond Tutu, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said: “It didn’t happen.”

Tutu has also pointed out that if peace could come to South Africa where the crimes against humanity were “so ghastly,” it could happen anywhere.

So, how did it happen in South Africa? How was it possible that after so much tragedy, the victims of apartheid forgave their countrymen of heinous crimes that were not only government-sponsored but sanctioned by church theology? How could healing and peace take place among people whose friends and families had been killed and where whole cities were terrorized?

Clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of South Africa has made it her charge to find out. She has facilitated countless encounters between victims and their families with the perpetrators of apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She even interviewed and counseled Eugene de Kock, apartheid’s death squad chief who was often referred to as “Prime Evil” itself. (She recounted her encounters with him in her 2004 best-selling book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid.

Gobodo-Madikizela’s work has led her to believe that a human response aimed at healing the wrongs of the past go beyond what the law can provide because it calls for care and compassion for both the victim and the perpetrator. Moreover, sustained and truthful dialogue about the past among those involved in criminal acts is the ONLY strategy for a lasting peace without a backlash of violence.

What occurs in forgiveness is a “transcendence of the heart” that begins with a recognition that gross human rights violations were committed. This is done by telling—and listening—to stories about what happened to individuals in a particular incident.

“It is only when the story can be heard and integrated into the individuals that the past traumatic events can be worked through,” said Gobodo-Madikizela. Then, an “empathetic repair” takes place as those involved begin the process of working through something that was broken. In this way, both perpetrator and victim are able to encounter each other’s humanity and form a connection. This is possible because each person has exposed him or herself “to the naked face of evil” that is within him/her.

The perpetrator who is able to express remorse suddenly finds an opening to his conscience that was silenced long ago because he was driven by something that allowed him to do these evil deeds. In effect, he had dehumanized himself! In asking forgiveness, he wants to re-engage himself with those he wronged.

Gobodo-Madikizela says that there is something innate in human nature that connects us to others when we are in pain: we want to rescue them because we can feel their pain. This is not a cognitive response but rather an emotional one where victim and perpetrator are present to each other and suddenly mirror each other’s humanity.

What is key in this process is that the truth is spoken and perpetrators acknowledge that they have done something wrong.

It is also significant that the Truth and Reconciliation Committees took place in a public space instead of being hidden in private. Revealing the truth in public “validates” the participants’ horrific experience, said Gobodo-Madikizela.

Likewise, each person became accountable for his/her actions by listening to each other’s story and the “truth of the heart.” Such is the difference between the law and reconciliation.

In law, the perpetrator attempts to deny and escape the truth as his defense. In reconciliation, the perpetrator remorsefully lays himself bare to tell the victims and their families what he did and to ask their mercy for his crimes. In this way the victims, who already know pain, are able to connect with and reach out to the very person who caused it.

Gobodo-Madikizela illustrated how this happened in an American setting she witnessed with Kim Phuc, the subject of the Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War in 1972. Kim was the naked girl running down a road, screaming in pain from the napalm that was burning through her skin. Kim has since become an international speaker and an ambassador for UNESCO.

One day Kim met with a group of U.S. veterans and recalled the napalm incident. She admitted that while “we can’t change history, we can work together to change the future.” She added that someday she hoped to meet the man who dropped the napalm.

Soon after her speech she received a note that said: “I am that man.” He came forward and the two of them embraced with her sobbing: “I forgive. I forgive. I forgive.”

Gobodo-Madikizela noted that this encounter was “a gesture of so much grace.” Here was a woman reaching out to the man who had done an evil deed. And “there was no training involved, no 12-step program.”

After this encounter, other American Vietnam veterans arranged to return to Kim Phuc’s village to meet with the people there, to tell stories and to share each other’s pain.

“This is [an example of] the turning point of transformation,” said Gobodo-Madikizela.

Clinical psychologist Edward Tick who has worked with Vietnam veterans since 1978 (and now is seeing Iraq and Afghanistan vets) relates a similar experience with men who have suffered PTSD in his book War and the Soul. Among his treatments are return trips to Vietnam as well as invitations for the men to participate in Native American sweat lodge rituals.

Gobodo-Madikizela is quick to point out that forgiveness does not mean that the evil deeds committed are forgotten. Instead, forgiveness means that “the spirits of vengeance must be transcended.” That allows a “moral humanity” to set in where care, compassion and empathy are seen as freeing oneself—and a nation—from the past, which is what South Africa has strived to do.

“This is the beginning of hope,” she said, “that the past can be healed.”

As our country moves on to a new presidency and with all the terrible baggage of our history behind us, may we begin this new era with hope and truth, forgiveness and reconciliation.

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