Only Reconciliation Can Cancel Transgressions

In 2014 The New York Times published a photo essay featuring Hutu perpetrators and Tutsi victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The perpetrators and victims are photographed in pairs, alongside testimonies from each. The testimonies and the photographs are personal in nature, because each victim is standing or sitting or even lying beside one of the men who enacted unspeakable violence upon this victim. This perpetrator killed this woman’s husband and children, and burned down this person’s house, and looted this person’s property. With different degrees of strain and tension, these couples have arisen from the past violence that ripped them apart to create what the profilers call “portraits of reconciliation.”

The Hutu men received extensive training and counseling over months and years to rehabilitate them after the atrocities they had perpetrated. Their victims joined them in small groups under the guidance of the nonprofit organization AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent). This rehabilitation culminated in the perpetrator’s formal request to their victims for forgiveness.

The request for forgiveness requires both parties to look squarely at the murder and destruction that one of them brought upon the other one. The wounds are laid bare and they remain inerasable––and yet, the perpetrator places himself at the mercy of his victim to ask for pardon.

What admixture of courage and shame swirls within the man who utters this plea? What empowers one so grievously and so permanently wounded to grant what is requested? How can mere words deal with this kind of suffering? It is unimaginable.[1]

These portraits do not exhibit the mystery of forgiveness so much as testify to the fundamental truth that forgiveness is not complete without reconciliation. Neither the perpetrator nor the victim has forgotten what took place decades earlier, and yet neither forces the other one to stay there. Instead, they occupy the same space together in the present. To do so requires something new and unprecedented: they must begin to build a future together through concrete actions, especially actions the forgiven perpetrator undertakes. He cannot compensate his victim for whom and what he has taken from her. What he can do is pledge himself to her wellbeing in whatever way presents itself heretofore. He makes reparations, by which he takes responsibility not just for the wounds he caused but also for the ongoing work of healing.

As the victim Cansilde Munganyinka says in regards to the man she forgave, Dominique Nbahimana:

After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: “I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?” The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house.

Forgiveness is unimaginable, but the house Dominique built is an image of reconciliation.

Out of the Wounds

If there is a mystery greater than the conversion of heart in the sinner who repents, then it is the mystery hidden in the wounds of the victim who forgives. Those wounds are the mysterious font of forgiveness. The victim does not just say to the perpetrator, “I forgive you for these wounds” but indeed “I forgive you from these wounds.” The victim creates a new meaning from the previously closed and definitive meaning inflicted upon him or her in the offender’s wounding act. These sites of violence are now sites of forgiveness. The peace of reconciliation flows from these wounds.

This mystery of forgiveness is hidden in the body of the crucified and risen Christ. When he appeared to his disciples on the evening of the first day of his Resurrection, he first offered them peace. “When he had said this”––in other words, only then––“he showed them his hands and his side” (Jn 20:20, RSV). They see his wounds. But what are those wounds? Those are the wounds for which they themselves are culpable. Those are the wounds of their neglect, their complicity, their betrayal, their abandonment, and their cowardice. Those are his wounds alone and not wounds they themselves also bear because they were not there with him. And yet, before he showed them his wounds, he offered them peace. Not the peace achieved through suppression and domination, but the peace of freedom (see: John 14:27).

In relation to Jesus, these disciples had been defined by what they had done and what they had failed to do, but now, he offers them a new freedom from what he is doing for them. He is recreating the meaning of his own wounds for them: his words and actions say “these are now the sites of my forgiveness for you.” This gift is the beginning of a new memory; they are made new in relation to him. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). He wraps the wounds they afflicted on him in his peace and then draws them into his mission.

The Father sent him, the Son, to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). There is no “why” to this. God seeks his sinful creatures simply because he wills it. His will is inscrutable. By the Incarnation, the one “who was God” allowed himself to be wounded so as to forgive those who wounded him. This is the deepest mystery and it is unimaginable.

But there is an image for the reconciliation that completes this divine gift of forgiveness: “In my Father house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2). Reconciliation looks like a household where you live together rather than apart. The Father imagines a space like that and the Son’s mission is to make it so. God imagines a new life for sinners even before they repent. God imagines them sharing in his life, together in the house he is building.

As the Risen Christ gives his peace to his disciples who are locked away in the upper room, he charges them with his own mission. They are to give what he himself gives them: the peace of forgiveness. They will breathe the new life of his own Spirit into those who are dead in sin (Jn 20:22-23). For sinners to remain in a state of unforgiveness is to be cut-off from what is built in this new life, but to be forgiven includes the task of learning how to live in one household together: the Father’s household.

All victims who forgive participate in the action of Christ, even if they do so unknowingly. All those forgiven for the sins of what they have done and what they have failed to do receive also the charge to participate in and build up a life of reconciliation, where victim and victimizer live together in peace. Do we want that?   

The Spaces We Create

We have created a society that does not believe in forgiveness because we do not imagine reconciliation rightly. Reconciliation is demanding and costly. It takes a long time. It necessitates creativity. It requires something of both the aggrieved and the offenders––namely, that they commit to striving to live together in the present and towards a common future. There is no incentive to seek or grant forgiveness if we long to live apart.

This is a matter of the spaces we create. In our contemporary media environment, visibility is validity and power is speech. In retribution for real or perceived nonconformity with currently accepted norms, an offending party will soon find that his or her visibility is quickly magnified then summarily revoked, while his or her speech is widely broadcast then permanently squashed. This person has been seen and heard in this way (which offends) and now must be neither seen nor heard from again. We create a space that does not require or account for this offending party who will now be forgotten, only ever to be remembered in light of the offense: they have caused a wound and the meaning of that wound is unchangeable. This is what it means to be “canceled.”

Cancel culture treats living human beings like Confederate monuments: as if the point is to knock them down and forget about them forever. The more we can curate our own public personas as we yield to digital space as the space that matters, the less we are bothered by the disappearance of others from the public eye. It is not just that offenders––real or perceived––are summarily expunged from the media space; it is also that the mob that judges becomes more and more an unthinking reflex that twitches at the whim of an unforgiving zeitgeist. There is something diabolical afoot because it is dehumanizing through and through. There is less and less space for critical dialogue, minimal room for disagreement, and no opportunity for growth, change, or even conversion. What is this space we have created where we are much more comfortable canceling than seeking communion with those who do not conform to our worldview, or may even, in fact, be objectively in error?

What happens in the media environment is a synecdoche for the broader society. The reflexive response to any offense––from espousing the wrong opinion to inflicting actual harm––is to erase the offender. Concomitantly, the customary action of any offender is to deny responsibility and hide the truth. There is neither the possibility of requesting forgiveness at any point, nor is there a desire to offer forgiveness. The main interest is in clearing the space of living from those who offended, who say things that offend, or who are culpable for present or past offenses. The imagination runs ahead to conceive of a space for living where the offender is not.

The difference with the Hutu perpetrators and the Tutsi victims of Rwanda was described by the NYT’s author in this way: “These people can’t go anywhere else—they have to make peace.” Hutus and Tutsis shared the space of Rwanda, but even more, they shared the space of towns and villages and marketplaces. They did not—and maybe they could not—imagine a different kind of space. Because they shared space together, they either had to live apart from each other in enmity or live together with each other in peace. And in that space, those who dared to attempt reconciliation unveiled an oft-neglected truth: peace is constructive. Peace is not the absence of war and violence; it is much more that violence and war are the absence of peace. To live at peace you must build something together, and to do that, you must first imagine that you can.

Rebuilding a culture in which forgiveness is possible demands a conversion of the imagination from all sides. It demands imagining that we share the same space, whether that is the space of a nation, the space of a community, or the space of a household. It also demands imagining that each and all of us share some responsibility for how we will live together in a common space. Longing to live apart from each other whether by force, rivalry, neglect, or even bland “live and let live” tolerance will, inevitably, lead to an increasingly fractured society. Selectively removing “types” or “groups” of other human beings from society—“canceling” them––is its own form of violence: it is hegemonic and demonic. Only if we value reconciliation as a way of life will forgiveness ever be possible.

Healing a Nation

The Rwandan Genocide was not about off-brand tweets. It was comprised of the obscenest acts of violence erupting from systemic prejudice and complicated historical pressures resulting in neighbors destroying neighbors. Even if a victim can forgive her neighbor for the violence perpetrated against her and then build some kind of new life together in the way of reconciliation, how does an entire nation do that? Has does one ethnic group forgive and reconcile with another ethnic group that nearly decimated them? How do you build new communities and a new nation together after all that?

The slow and arduous work of truth and reconciliation may be the only way. This is what Desmond Tutu testifies to when reflecting on the experience of South Africans after the end of apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he chaired had, as its focus, the hope of building a new South Africa in which the victims of apartheid and its perpetrators––both the active and the complicit ones––would share a future together. The nation they would build was their work of reconciliation. But there would be no future without forgiveness, on both a personal and a national level.

There were crimes for which many were responsible over the decades of oppressive rule in South Africa. These were the crimes of political leaders, law enforcement agents, business leaders, and ordinary citizens. The government itself was responsible. The perpetrators were almost always white; the victims almost always black. It was tempting and, in many ways, desirable to seek to put each and every member of the offending party on trial for their crimes. Tutu’s group did not follow this route because the offenders were too many, the offenses often too hidden, and the cost of prosecuting these cases would absorb all the resources of the nation, leaving nothing for the work of rebuilding civil society, thus hurting those who now needed help the most.

It was also tempting and, in many ways, desirable to pursue a kind of national amnesia, whereby the sins of the past were disregarded in an attempt to forget what had been. But as Tutu and his team knew only too well, “The past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately.”[2]

The path South Africans chose in hopes of someday reaching the work of true reconciliation was one where victims were given the time and space to tell their stories, while the persecutors were given amnesty in exchange for telling the truth. This was a path that sought personal and communal rehabilitation, which, in this case, meant forgoing the possibilities for legal retribution. It would not be wrong to say that this way was, in significant respects, unfair and unjust. The perpetrators who confessed to their crimes would be released from further punishment. The victims would not regain what they had lost; they would not be fully compensated and they could not be made whole. Instead, the victims would receive some form of reparation, part of which would go to individuals and part of which would be directed through civic reconstruction to redress the inequalities in housing, education, employment, healthcare, and the like.

There was a cost to the victims to pursue this path. It is the cost of forgoing righteous vengeance and the chance of seeing their oppressors justly punished. It is the cost of not seeking as much compensation as they might have been able to demand on an individual basis, and thus settling for less than what they certainly deserved.

What did it cost the perpetrators? Truth. They had to tell the truth: that was the price for their amnesty. That is what it cost for being able to contribute to a new society that they must build together with those they formerly oppressed.

Is that enough? No. But as Tutu contends, it is what was necessary. It was necessary for pragmatic reasons, but it was also necessary to pursue the great good, the great truth that underlies the “African Weltsanschauung––what we know in our languages as ubuntu.”[3] This is a fundamental conviction that we first of all belong to each other not that we are first of all separate from each other. Tutu attributes the unlikely success of truth and reconciliation in a country as ravaged by injustice and human rights violations as South Africa to this essential belief. Victims could hazard forgiveness because their imaginations were conformed to this social identity. Far from making forgiveness easy, it only made it possible as an alternative to vengeance or canceling out even those who most deserved to be cut-off from society.

The victims had the power to create the possibility of a new society, one in which even the perpetrators could contribute and be part of the process of healing. Tutu not only believed in this power but he and others throughout the world marveled at its fruits. South Africa did not descend into violence when violence looked most likely, when the victims could finally strike back at their oppressors. Instead, they began to build a new nation, and that construction was the condition of peace.

The wounds the oppressed in South Africa bore were not just the wounds of clearly noticeable acts of violence. As Tutu recalls, “It was not usually the big thing the awful atrocities, that got at you. No, it was the daily principles, the little discourtesies, the minute humiliations, having one’s dignity trodden underfoot, not always with jackboots––though that happened too.”[4] These are the indignities suffered by those who were being systematically and culturally removed from the space of society. In Tutu’s vision, though, they were not the only ones who were being harmed. “In a real sense,” he says,

We might add that even the supporters of apartheid were victims of the vicious system which they implemented and which they supported so enthusiastically. This is not an example for the morally earnest of ethical indifferentism. No, it flows from our fundamental concept of ubuntu. Our humanity was intertwined . . . In the process of dehumanizing another, in inflicting untold harm and suffering, inexorably the perpetrator was being dehumanized as well.[5]

The healing and rebuilding of South Africa was therefore attempted on the basis of vision of humanity in which the erasure of some meant the diminishment of all. The wounds of victims were immeasurably important, and the duty of the whole people was to heed and tend to those wounds. That required first listening to victims’ testimonies. Conversely, the responsibility of perpetrators mattered immensely, so much so that their responsibility now was to confess to their crimes and their sins. They owed everyone the truth. The future of South Africa would begin to build from these acts of honesty, with the hope that some would heal and others would be rehabilitated together in the same space. This is what Tutu preached to Rwandans when he visited their country in the mid-90s. “I told them that the cycle of reprisal and counterreprisal that had characterized their national history had to be broken and that the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice, to move on to forgiveness, because without it there was no future.”[6]

Like Mother and Child

When Mary sings in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth that God “has put down the mighty from their thrones . . . and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52, 53), dare we consider that this is good news for the rich and mighty? Have they not been trapped by their power and indulgence while the lowly and the least have been trapped by their oppression and hunger? This idea is impermissible, unless you consider that persecutors are dehumanized by their own sins because we are responsible for each other and we only become fully human together. Ubuntu.

To be stripped of unjust power and undue advantages is the condition of the possibility of being truly free. The converse of this truth is that those who wish to repent and seek forgiveness cannot dictate the terms. Moreover, you cannot repent of the sin and continue to enjoy the benefits accrued through sin.

Hamlet catches his usurper uncle praying for forgiveness, but the repentance is staged. Claudius speaks words beseeching God to forgive him of his fratricidal regicide, while at the same time admitting that he will not relinquish either his throne or his bride, both of which were won through his odious deed. Hamlet is momentarily duped, though the proof is in his uncle’s inaction. Claudius remains upon his throne, filled with his rich bounty.

If victims forgive from their wounds, perpetrators repent by casting off their bounty. They place themselves at the mercy of others, choosing to become poor and relinquishing their claims to sovereign control. At Jonah’s proclamation the king of Nineveh repented; then the king put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. There is no repentance without renunciation.

This was true in South Africa, where the offenders were subject to the task of telling the truth. They could not choose the conditions for their amnesty. They had to listen to the testimonies of victims and they had to tell of what they themselves had done––only then would they be granted pardon. And once they received pardon, they were subject to the laws and customs of a nation that now sought reconciliation and a new order for building up civil society. The persecutors were no longer set above as rich and mighty.

This was true in Rwanda, where the perpetrators made a formal request of their victims for forgiveness, after partaking in the formation and counseling that someone else determined for them. They had to confess what they themselves had done and then ask for pardon. And once they received pardon, they confirmed themselves as forgiven in contributing to the new life their one-time victims were building. In some instances, it meant building a house.

In Rwanda, the humbling and repentance of the aggressors alongside the grace and magnanimity of the victims created something wholly unexpected: a strenuous but intimate way of seeking to live together, at peace. As the forgiven-perpetrator Francois Ntambra testified,

Because of the genocide perpetrated in 1994, I participated in the killing of the son of this woman. We are now members of the same group of unity and reconciliation. We share in everything; if she needs some water to drink, I fetch some for her. There is no suspicion between us, whether under sunlight or during the night.

And as the forgiving-victim Epiphanie Mukamusoni responded,

He killed my child, then he came to ask me pardon. I immediately granted it to him because he did not do it by himself—he was haunted by the devil. I was pleased by the way he testified to the crime instead of keeping it in hiding, because it hurts if someone keeps hiding a crime he committed against you. Before, when I had not yet granted him pardon, he could not come close to me. I treated him like my enemy. But now, I would rather treat him like my own child.

Can you imagine? If we cannot imagine that act of forgiveness, perhaps we can imagine this woman and this man living as mother and child.

This is, after all, what one of those disciples in the upper room had himself become a witness of at the foot of the cross. He was the only one of the Twelve who did not run away, abandoning Jesus in his hour of need. It was to him, personally, that Jesus entrusted his own mother, just as Jesus entrusted him to her. That beloved disciple stood in the midst of his brothers when that same Jesus, bearing his wounds, stood in their midst on the first evening of the Resurrection. He was already the child of Jesus’s mother, already one whom Jesus claimed as his own brother. Maybe he, better than all the rest, could believe the unbelievable deed that Jesus was performing: forgiving these disciples from the very wounds of their sin and granting them new life as his brothers.

Desmond Tutu testified to the Rwandans about what was possible on the witness of what had occurred in South Africa. In 2014, the New York Times brought forth portraits of reconciliation that would be unbelievable if they were not seen (“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed”). What if these are the witnesses in our midst who show us that what we cannot otherwise believe is in fact credible? These portraits of reconciliation stretch our imaginations to the point that maybe––just maybe––we can believe that our society, today, can become one where forgiveness is possible. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).

There is no way to predict what a society such as ours would like if we took this risk. But what is certain is that we will never become better than we are if we continue longing to live apart: to dominate, to exploit, to defeat, and to cancel each other. No one is whole if anyone is erased.

Those of us who have been persecutors––who have transgressed in obvious or in hidden ways––will be free only if we release our grip on the bounty accrued unjustly. Those who have been victims––directly and by heritage––can create the possibility of true and lasting peace from their own wounds. Full compensation is not possible; reparations are necessary. Retribution will not heal; restoration might. Our task––our common task––is to try to desire reconciliation, and reconciliation requires building something together, and building something together requires a forgiveness the likes of which is unimaginable, except that it has already been seen.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard teases out the inexplicability of forgiveness in especially Works of Love (Princeton, NJ: PUP, 1995), 294–99.

[2] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 28.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 96.

[5] Ibid., 103.

[6] Ibid., 260.

Featured Image: Matthias Stom, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1649; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame. His book on death, desire, and the communion of saints is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints.

Read more by Leonard J. DeLorenzo