Last year, I met a woman called Forgiveness.
What a gentle and sweet-spirited personality to match this poignant name.
Like you, I long to know the story behind her name:
Who had wronged whom, and how? Was forgiveness ever truly granted?
I haven’t had the courage to ask her.
We all wrong someone at some point, and we all hope that if and when we are brought to book, we can somehow avoid the attendant punishment that should follow.
Everyone who offers a sincere apology is hoping for forgiveness.
But is the apology a prerequisite for forgiveness?
And does forgiveness mean you are fully absolved from the punishment for your wrongs?
On a national level, the conversation around healing and forgiveness has often centred on a process where victims and perpetrators have an opportunity to communicate directly concerning wrongdoing; where truth is told, forgiveness sought and amnesty granted.
But there is another school of thought which proposes that we forgive, not because the other person has apologised, but because we recognise the healing benefits of forgiveness for ourselves and we want to move forward.
My mother recently suggested that I could practice true forgiveness without waiting for the other party to apologise.
She pointed out that I should forgive because of who I am and not because of what the other person says (I’m sorry) or doesn’t say.
Simply put, she was saying: forgive because it’s the right thing to do.
This is a noble ideal and I can’t fault it for its character-building capacity; but I don’t know how many Zimbabweans would agree with her!
In Christian faith, the parable of the prodigal son is often quoted as an example of expansive forgiveness.
The son realises he has wronged his father and goes back home to apologise.
The father receives him with open arms, forgives him and celebrates his return.
The critical question here is: when did the father forgive?
Was it only when the son demonstrated remorse?
Or was he already forgiven by the time he got home?
Studies show that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments.
One study showed how forgiveness improves physical health and discovered that when people think about forgiving their offender it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Another study showed that the more forgiving people were, the less they suffered from a wide range of illnesses.
The less forgiving people reported a greater number of health problems.
In research conducted by Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University, it was shown that forgiveness can be learnt.
In three separate studies, including one with Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland whose family members were murdered in political violence, he found that people who are taught how to forgive become less angry, feel less hurt, are more optimistic, become more forgiving in a variety of situations, and become more compassionate and self-confident.
His studies show a reduction in experience of stress, physical manifestation of stress, and an increase in vitality. (en.wikipedia.org)
This study sounds commendable, but begs a lot of questions.
How does one measure levels of hurt?
How do you scientifically assess if one person’s anger is more intense than another’s?
A hurtometer, perhaps?
I propose that perhaps the solutions to questions of hurt and healing will not be answered by science.
After the end of apartheid, South Africa assembled the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission (TRC), under which they set up an Amnesty Committee.
The job of this committee was to consider applications of amnesty from those who applied for it.
This process was unique in that it provided not for blanket amnesty but for conditional amnesty, requiring that offences related to gross human rights violations be publicly disclosed before amnesty could be granted. (www.info.gov.za)
One of the most fascinating highlights of this process is that the Commission failed to foresee the immensity of the task.
In fact they grossly under-estimated the sheer volume of applications for amnesty.
Imagine that, to be overwhelmed by the numbers of people seeking forgiveness.
Both the negative and positive implications of this are enormous.
Firstly, that there were a lot more gross human rights violations than had been anticipated.
Secondly, that those who had committed them were prepared to come clean and seek forgiveness.
According to Wikipedia more than 7 000 people petitioned for amnesty and less than 1 000 received it.
Popular press advertisements against torture declare that torture damages the perpetrator as well as the victim, and I suppose this must be true for confession too: it heals the perpetrator as well as the victim.
Although it faced a lot of criticism, the TRC’s reconciliatory approach won international acclaim for its usefulness in bringing out the truth about what happened during the apartheid regime and engendering feelings of reconciliation. But did it foster forgiveness in the long term?
Last month Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was quoted saying:
“You cannot move forward without forgiving. It is that spirit of working together and forgiveness that is critical for national development and that is what Zimbabwe needs now.” (allAfrica.com)
The questions remain: Can forgiveness be granted without any expectation of restorative justice?
Is an apology the only thing that makes forgiveness possible? Does forgiveness require repentance in the first instance?
The famous biblical quote, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) suggests that forgiveness can be granted even if the perpetrator has not proffered an apology.
In fact the perpetrator may not even be aware that an apology is due.
While this level of grace was certainly worthy of the Son of God, can it be practiced by mere mortals like you and I?
Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to email@example.com