Monday, March 2, 2009

Apologize, Apologize, Don't Feel Free to Avert Your Eyes


Recently, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said it would be “wonderful if [Mr. Obama] could apologize for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on behalf of the American people.”

Such an act would be an opportunity to submit our nation to the power of forgiveness, which is what Nelson Mandela did when he became president of South Africa.

Clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of South Africa has studied how her nation sought to heal itself from the ghastly crimes of apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC), which Bishop Tutu oversaw. Both victims and perpetrators forgave each other individual by individual and community by community and moved the country forward without violent retribution.

Through her research Gobodo-Madikizela found that forgiveness is a human response aimed at healing the wrongs of the past and going beyond what any law can provide because it calls for care and compassion of both the victim and the perpetrator. Moreover, sustained and truthful dialogue among those involved in criminal acts is the only strategy for a lasting peace.

What occurs through forgiveness is a “transcendence of the heart that begins with a recognition that gross human rights violations were committed,” said Gobodo-Madikizela. 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.

What is most interesting in this dynamic is that the perpetrator has a vehicle for expressing remorse and suddenly finds an opening to his conscience that was silenced long ago because he was driven by something that permitted him to do evil deeds. In effect, he dehumanized himself while trying to dehumanize another! In asking forgiveness, he re-engages himself with those he wronged and thus re-captures his lost humanity.

What is key in this whole process is that the truth is spoken and the perpetrator acknowledges that he did something wrong.

Gobodo-Madikizela illustrated how this “truth of the heart” worked in an American setting. Kim Phuc, an international speaker and an ambassador for UNESCO, was the naked Vietnamese girl in the 1972 photo running down a road screaming from the napalm burning through her skin.

One day Kim gave a speech to 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” and a “turning point of transformation.” Here was a woman reaching out to the man who had done an evil deed against her—and he responded. And “there was no training involved, no 12-step program.”

Gobodo-Madikizela is quick to point out that forgiveness does not mean that the evil done is forgotten. Instead, forgiveness means that “the spirits of vengeance must be transcended.” In this way, a “moral humanity” sets in where care, compassion and empathy free both victim and perpetrator from the past and open them to healing.

“This is the beginning of hope,” she said.

While we can’t realistically expect President Obama to apologize to Iraq, we can take the initiative in asking the people of Iraq their forgiveness through various acts of kindness and outreach. For example, let us adopt various cities in Iraq as sister cities. Let us devise programs to connect with Iraqis. Let us hold public forums, demonstrations, educational programs and show films like “Why We Fight” to understand how and why our government encourages militarism. Let us support our Iraq (and Afghanistan) War veterans in the healing process for the violence they may have committed. (Psychologist Edward Tick, author of War and the Soul, illustrates how he has made a difference in the lives of veterans with PTSD since 1978.)

Maybe, just maybe we could start a movement that would have such an impact that we would compel President Obama to apologize for the invasion of Iraq and stop this illegal, immoral, unnecessary and costly war.

Actually, Candidate Obama suggested this very strategy of grassroots organization and initiative in order to beat the corporations, lobbyists and other power brokers at their own game. We need to take him up on it. We need to recognize that change is not going to happen in Washington until our leaders have an incentive to change. We can give them an incentive to change if we compound all of our small efforts together.

The times are calling us to create a new era where we, the people, take the initiative to do what our government can’t do. Then the healing in ourselves can begin and together we can cut a new path for our democracy.

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