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Part Three: Commentary – Forgiveness: The Mandela Principle

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Nelson Mandela sketch

Nelson Mandela sketch

Rev. Victor H. Carpenter
The First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts

According to the Boston Globe, 25 thousand people attended the convocation at Harvard honoring Nelson Mandela. I was there. I felt blessed. I felt terrific, until I started reading the Harvard produced publication that showcased the occasion. In the midst of all the laudatory remarks about Mandela, there was an article about Harvard’s activities around divestment. It was a short article since there really wasn’t much to say.

I recalled the various protests in which I had participated, urging Harvard to divest its portfolio that supported apartheid. No success. I recalled arguing with then Harvard president Derek Bok, urging him to follow the lead of other outstanding universities. No success. As I listened to the various Harvard dignitaries speak glowingly of what Harvard intended now to do to support the new South Africa, my attitude changed to self-righteous grumpy. And then Nelson Mandela stood up.

Nelson Mandela forgave Harvard. Not in so many words; his presence was better than words. His presence signaled a refusal to be bound by past wrongs of commission or omission. When Henry Lewis Gates spoke of Mandela’s always being a free man, it was the man’s freedom from any need or desire to pay back that shone through him. Nelson Mandela wiped the slate clean acknowledging a new day not only for South Africa but for Harvard as well.

As I listened, I was ashamed of my self-righteous grumpy attitude. Nelson Mandela was liberating me too. If this man who had spent 27 years in prison could be so magnanimous with Harvard, who was I to harbor a lesser attitude.

Ever since his release from prison, Mandela has given the whole world a demonstration of forgiveness. He has shown us that it takes more courage, more stamina, more humanity to forgive than to say “let my people go.” And his attitude can be applied by each one of us.

Think of the deepest hurt you have ever received at the hands of another person; think of the cruelest insult, the most vicious slander, the most embarrassing put down. Now, put that “Unforgivable” moment which is burned into your memory up against being placed in prison for most of your adult life simply for demanding your freedom and the freedom of your people.

Mandela has been able to forgive that injustice which victimized him; what does it take to forgive the injustices by which we are made victims? To forgive is to say to the person by whom you have been wronged, “You have done me wrong! You have done something that is hurtful to me, and because of what you have done, my personal pride tells me that I should turn my back on you. I will carry the memory of what you have done with me. I will not forget it but I refuse to let what you have done stand between us. I refuse to allow it to create a permanent barrier between us. I still want you in my life.”

A council of perfection? I don’t think so. There are people who are capable of that kind of forgiving love—of exercising what I think of as the Mandela principle, people who are able to rise above the bitterness, the alienation, the burning anger and resentment. Prime example: Hillary Rodham Clinton. No doubt she regards her husband as a horse’s posterior—a feeling she shares with most of the rest of the country (including the present speaker). But somehow Hillary Rodham Clinton has been able to give her wayward spouse demonstrable public forgiveness that not only matches but surpasses that demanding definition I supplied a moment ago.

And she is not alone. Who knows how many wounded spouses and partners have been able to summon the moral courage (and indeed it is moral courage) to forgive a philandering loved one. Who knows how many have said, in effect, “you have done a hurtful thing to me, and I won’t forget it, but I refuse to allow it to create a permanent barrier between us. I still want you in my life.”

The only thing that may be harder than forgiving a transgressor is being that transgressor and accepting the extended hand of forgiveness. In order to acknowledge that you are being forgiven you have to admit to and acknowledge that you have done something that requires forgiveness. You have to swallow your pride. The pride that keeps us from forgiving another person is the same pride that prevents us from accepting forgiveness. If forgiveness is so hard—why do it? Why should Hillary forgive Bill? Because when you forgive someone, you are spared the bitterness of wounded pride. By the same token, when you are forgiven you are spared the self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. You create a win-win situation. This is what we try to teach our children; this is what we encourage in our teenagers. We do so because we know that forgiveness liberates people to be their best selves.

On an individual basis I think we understand the power and purpose of forgiveness pretty well.

When we wrestle with flesh and blood, the role of forgiveness isn’t easy but its good effect is easily discernible. It’s when we move beyond the interpersonal relationship that we lose sight of the power of forgiveness. That’s why St. Paul said that we do not wrestle only with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers. Paul is referring to the big social structures like sexism and racism that envelop us and the hurtful social decisions which involve us by virtue of the fact that we are alive in these times and places.

I open the Boston Globe and read the front page story of a South Boston man —a white man—who wants to become a fireman like his father before him but who is passed over in favor of a black man whose scores on the civil service exams are lower than his. How do you explain to that angry white man about the legacy of three hundred years of racial injustice to black people? How do you affirm the justice of the decision to give the black man the post without appearing condescending? How do you encourage an attitude of forgiveness between these two men? How do you forgive this country’s intransigent racism that has led both of them to this moment of inexorable impasse?

Solving that tangle seems like child’s play compared to the situation in Kosovo or Rwanda where in the four months between April and July 1994, 800,000 people were shot, bludgeoned or hacked to death.

One Rwanda leader put it starkly, “Let’s say you have a hundred thousand young people who have lost their families and have no hope, no future. In a country like this if you tell them, go and kill your neighbor because he killed your father and seven brothers and sisters, they’ll take the machete and do it. . . . It will require a lot to make sure that these people can come back to society and look at the future and say, yes, let’s try.” (quoted by Philip Gourevich, Stories from Rwanda)

Yes, it will require a lot. Is it not impossible? I would direct your focus on an African people who are engaged in the trying.

South Africa has had three hundred years of racist apartheid and five years of democracy. In the final years and months of the old regime, there were killings and trackings aplenty; there were disappearances, tortures, assassinations; there were car bombs and ambushes; there were unspeakable atrocities. Now, in the dawn of the new South Africa, an attempt is being made to neutralize the blood lust that continues to poison the Serbs and the Tutsis and the Hutus.

The work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recognized is that the truth (when revealed) does not necessarily lead to reconciliation. Only forgiveness leads to reconciliation.

The name most closely associated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not Nelson Mandela but His Grace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission’s chairperson who is referred to in South Africa simply as “the Arch.” Tutu is a physically small man with a high voice and a quick wit. He is fond of telling the story of man who left the Anglican church because of the Archbishop’s political views, complaining, “I used to be an Anglican until I put tu and tu together.”

Time magazine named Tutu one of the ten most recognizable people in the world, but that acknowledgment hasn’t swelled his head or dampened his sense of humor. He recalls being greeted in San Francisco by a woman who trilled, “Hello Archbishop Mandela.” Reflecting on the incident Tutu said, “It made me think that she wanted two for the price of one.”

For all his good humor the archbishop hasn’t forgotten that his country lived in the middle of a catastrophe called apartheid. In response to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report of the work done by a group of scientists employed by the old government, Tutu registered his horror. “Can you imagine,” he asks, “They wanted to poison Mandela. Now we know that these people were not just evil they were diabolical. These white-coated men in laboratories were looking for something that would affect the fertility of black women.”

Tutu is first to say that while the T and R Commission has produced some truth, it has not brought reconciliation; only forgiveness can bring reconciliation. And Tutu is a prime example of that forgiving spirit, supremely manifest on the occasion of Winnie Madikizewla Mandela’s appearance before the Commission. She had been called to answer charges that she had both provoked and condoned the murder of a young man suspected of being a police informer. Winnie Madikizewla Mandela is a proud woman who suffered the unspeakable at the hands of the old regime. She has faced the very worst that her oppressors could mete out and never surrendered to them. She has made terrible mistakes that have been pounced upon by the media; mistakes which she had refused to admit.

Tutu’s pleading with Winnie to apologize for her past actions was broadcast over American TV. Many saw it; most were appalled by it. What came across was Desmond Tutu’s groveling in order to get a poor excuse for an apology from her for Winnie Mandela’s actions. Wrong. What appeared to the heartless and cynical eye of the TV camera a “groveling” was in fact a demonstration of Tutu’s selfless love for his “sister” Winnie. Far from being appalled, I found it a perfect example of how—when motivated by a genuine spirit of forgiveness as Tutu is, one’s pride is not only conquered but banished. One can act as a free person (freed from concern for appearances or for the images that will appear on TV) and, acting in freedom, one can call others out of their self-protective shells to experience their own personal liberation. That was what Tutu was able to accomplish in that commission hearing and, for me, it was his finest hour.

Tutu is not the only person to demonstrate the depth, strength and power of forgiveness. While we were in Cape Town last August, the family of Amy Biehl appeared before the TRC. Amy Biehl, you may recall was the 26 year old Fulbright Scholar from California who had come to Cape Town six years ago to help prepare that country for its first Democratic election. While working in an African township teaching the population how to cope with election procedures, she was set upon by a group of youths shouting political slogans. She was stabbed and stoned to death. No violent death is easy to justify, but the killing of Amy Biehl must rank as one of the most senseless of the politically linked murders in South Africa in the past half-century.

The four perpetrators of the murder were apprehended, tried, imprisoned. With the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they applied to be granted amnesty on the basis that their crime had been politically motivated. On the day of their appearance before the T & R Commission, the mother and father of Amy Biehl were sitting two rows behind them in the hearing hall. Peter and Linda Biehl had refused to condemn those who had murdered their daughter Amy. To the amazement of many South Africans the Biehl’s demonstrated a level of understanding and a willingness to reconcile with the murderers that almost defied belief. Amy’s mother Linda said, “My daughter’s legacy was to reach out to people. I’m not a political person, but if we don’t reach out to people as people what hope do we have?” And Peter Biehl, her father said, “The choice is whether you become involved or sit on the sidelines. Amy is here among you because she cared and because she was participatory.”

“Participatory” comes close to defining the highest good in African society. It is the core meaning of the word “ubuntu” and is enshrined in the Xhasa proverb: “a person is a person through persons.” “Ubuntu” affirms an organic wholeness of humanity: that one realizes one’s full potential only through other people. “I think, therefore I am” is replaced by, “I participate, therefore I am.” Life together is the quintessence of an African understanding of what it means to be human.

“Amy was participating.” Ubuntu.

A person is a person through persons! Ubuntu.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Ubuntu.