On December 26, 2021, one of my personal heroes passed away. Desmond Tutu was the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and he died at the age of 90. Tutu led the church through a time of intense suffering, and also led the way in offering reconciliation and forgiveness.
Tutu was a leader of the church in South Africa during the time of apartheid, which means “apart-hood” or “separateness.” Apartheid was essentially a racial caste system with the white South African minority at the top and the black South African majority at the bottom. Land was stolen from black South Africans, cities were segregated into rich and poor based on skin color, and the system was enforced through state-sponsored violence, in particular by a brutal secret police force. The system lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1990s.
When the apartheid system fell and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, South Africa was faced with the problem of how to deal with their past. One option would be to hunt down all the perpetrators: those who had upheld the system by passing unjust laws and overseeing sham trials, and those who committed violent acts in order to enforce it. This option was rejected because it would likely hinder reconciliation, and potentially continue a never-ending cycle of retribution.
Another option was to simply move on. To proclaim amnesty for the perpetrators and get on with life under a new and better political system. But this option was also unsavory: it would provide no accountability, no justice for the victims, no repairing of what had been broken.
South African leaders settled on a third option. They formed what was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Desmond Tutu was tabbed to lead it. The goal of the TRC was to uncover truth and foster reconciliation and forgiveness. All perpetrators of apartheid violence, even those who had committed the most heinous acts, were given two options: make a full confession of your crimes before the Commission and receive amnesty, or be liable to criminal charges if they were eventually uncovered.
There was one more important element for those who chose to confess their crimes before the TRC. The confession would be televised live across the country, and families of the victims would be invited to attend in person. In order to be forgiven in the eyes of the new political regime, the truth had to be publicly proclaimed.
When I think about the unfolding war in Ukraine, about the challenges here in the United States that have to do with increasingly clashing worldviews, or how to move forward from the various injustices that mark our own history, I see the principles behind the TRC as an intriguing model.
This is not to say that the TRC fixed all the problems in South Africa. Or that it would be realistic to set up the same kind of commission in the United States. I’m not offering a solution to the problems that plague our country. But I do want to spark our imagination. For reconciliation to happen, the truth must come out. Reconciliation involves both confession and forgiveness. It involves examining ourselves and confessing the role that we have played. And what’s so interesting about the TRC is the role that the church played.
Desmond Tutu was picked to lead the TRC in part because a proper theology, a right understanding of both God and humans, was needed to pursue the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Hear him describe the role of theology in the work of the TRC:
“So frequently we in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such dastardly deeds were monstrous because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, between the sinner and the sin…. If, however, they were dismissed as being monsters they could not by definition engage in a process that was so deeply personal as that of forgiveness and reconciliation….
I realized how each of us has the capacity for the most awful evil – every one of us. None of us could predict that if we had been subjected to the same influences, the same conditioning, we would not have turned out like these perpetrators. This is not to condone or excuse what they did. It is to be filled more and more with the compassion of God, looking on and weeping that one of His beloved had come to such a sad pass. We have to say to ourselves with deep feeling, not with a cheap pietism, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
And mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to the stories of victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive….This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.
Those who had strutted about arrogantly in the days of apartheid, dealing out death and injustice… had never imagined in their wildest dreams that their involvement in machinations and abominations hatched out in secret would ever see the light of day…. Now it was all coming out, not as wild speculation or untested allegations. No, it was gushing forth from the mouths of perpetrators themselves… Those ghastly and macabre secrets might have remained hidden except that this is a moral universe and truth will out.
And the victory was for all of us, black and white together – the rainbow people of God.” (Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 83-87)
The work of reconciliation is costly. It is costly for perpetrators, because it means confessing the truth about what we’ve done, and the harm that we have caused. And it is costly for the victims, because it means revoking our claim on justice and retribution. Oftentimes what is lost can never be replaced.
But we follow a Messiah who bore an inconceivable cost to reconcile us to himself. Who, while hanging on the cross in great physical agony, asked for his Father to forgive those committing the greatest act of injustice of all time (Luke 23:34).
The Apostle Paul tells us that we who trust Jesus are now agents of his reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). May we learn from the humility and creativity of Desmond Tutu and our South African brothers and sisters in Christ as we go about that work in our world today.