The passing of Nelson Mandela and memorials remembering his life have caused me to reflect upon the strange act of forgiveness. Why strange? Mandela is a case in point–oppressed and imprisoned because he advocated a better life for black Africans–the last thing you might expect such a one to do upon gaining power would be to create a process of forgiveness and reconciliation for a nation torn apart by apartheid. What would have been expected, and was feared, would be a paroxysm of violence avenging the violence of apartheid. Miraculously, South Africa escaped the brutal civil wars that have torn apart so many of our countries. All because of the strange act of forgiveness.
What makes forgiveness so hard is that it is necessary when we have been truly, and sometimes deeply, hurt by another. Oftentimes, the only compensating satisfaction is to try the offender in our minds, to exact judgment upon them at least mentally, and to dream of that judgment being applied upon them. Sometimes, the hurt begins to so distort us that we dream of the hurt we would do if we have the opportunity, or even act out those dream in acts of verbal or physical violence. As the old saying goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” To live in this place is to become cold, become hard, become cruel–and yet we often feel ourselves incapable of escaping going down this path.
Forgiveness, it seems, begins with deciding to forgo this judgment and revenge “loop” we keep replaying in our minds. That’s what Mandela did in leading South Africa. It didn’t mean pretending that all the evils of apartheid never existed. It meant saying, “this happened and we will not give you what you deserve.” It meant, through creating truth and reconciliation commissions that wrongs could be acknowledged, forgiveness extended, and the fabric of relationships healed. It did mean deciding to turn away from the path of revenge, of wreaking some form of psychic or physical punishment on the other. It didn’t mean everything was suddenly wonderful. It did mean the possibility of a new beginning.
So often I hear protests against God’s allowance of so much evil in the world. Yet I wonder if it could be the case that God could remove evil without removing us. Paul Little, a former leader in the organization I work with once remarked, “if God were to wipe out all the evil in the world at midnight tonight, who of us would be around at 12:01?” And truthfully, in my most honest moments, I recognize that I am capable of, and at times have dreamed and perhaps done evil, that at very least is monstrous in the eyes of God, even if I keep up good appearances.
The wonder for me, that we celebrate in the season of Advent and Christmas is the coming of One through whom God extended forgiveness to the world. Given what we have done to the beautiful world God made and to our fellow human beings as well as other creatures, that’s not what we deserve. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Forgiveness is never deserved. It is a costly gift. It is a strange act indeed. What a gift to the world it is when people like Mandela choose to act so strangely!