Learning to Forgive

A tribesman and the son of a man he killed forge an unlikely friendship, a story told in 'End of the Spear.'

BY: Nell Minow

 

In 1956, five American missionaries were killed by members of an Ecuadoran tribe called the Waodani. The Americans had been trying to penetrate the tribe's isolated culture, befriend its members, and bring them to Christ, but instead met their deaths at the hands of the Waodani's spears. The story could have easily ended there, another violent clash between disparate peoples. But that was only the beginning. In a decision that would have been unimaginable to most people, the wives and children of the murdered missionaries moved into the Waodani village and helped to care for them, successfully forging a friendship that transformed all of them.



Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the murders, the film "End of the Spear" tells the story of Steve Saint--whose father was one of the murdered missionaries and whose mother and aunt lived with the Waodani--and Mincaye (called Mincayani in the movie), the man who killed Saint's father. Mincaye is now a surrogate grandfather to Steve Saint's children--the grandchildren of the man he killed.

The Waodani live in the eastern rainforests of Ecuador, not far from the Galapagos Islands where Darwin first realized that natural selection is what permitted species of birds to adapt and survive. In the 20th century, the Waodani's inability to adapt to new realities left them on the way to extinction, according to the ethnologists who studied what little information was available about them at the time. A violent people, among whom killings were rampant, the Waodani lacked any concepts of trust, forgiveness, negotiation, even authority. Instead of describing something as good or bad, right or wrong, they spoke in terms of their own response: "I do not see him well" meant "I do not like what he is doing" or "I do not trust him." Linguistic differences like these were among the many things the Waodani and the Americans needed to overcome to forge a relationship.

"In the Waodani language, there is no word for forgiveness," Saint, now 55, said in a phone conversation. "That was kind of a new concept: I forgive you. The way they describe it now is. If someone does something you don't see well, then you forget it and let that go. If someone doesn't do something you do see well, you let that go."

Forgiveness obviously looms large in the story of Saint's life and is a subject he has thought about at length. To befriend his father's killer, he said he didn't necessarily need to understand what happened or why.

"It might be helpful, but I'm a fan of one particular book and in that book, God sent his Son down not when we were perfect but when we were not," Saint said. "God did not do it because we were ready or because we asked for him, but because we needed him."

But on the other hand, he does think that a willingness to forget is essential for forgiveness.

"If someone forgives you but remembers it, it's like ammunition in the back pocket," he said. "When God forgives, He puts it away 'as far as the East is from the West,' as deep as the ocean. So you let it go as though it hasn't happened."

Saint believes that forgiveness is as important for the forgiver as for the forgiven.

"I once heard that 'hatred is suicide on the installment plan,'" he said. "And recently I heard Rick Warren talk about how someone can cut you off in the church parking lot and make you furious so that you're still fuming hours later, while he is happily eating pancakes with his family and has forgotten all about it. The fact that you are upset doesn't hurt him; it hurts you."

So, he continued, you don't wait for an apology in order to forgive.

"To be forgiven, to be able to accept forgiveness does involve apology and remorse, but to forgive and to let it go does not. You can't force me to hold onto it, but you don't get the benefit without remorse."

Saint believes he owes a great deal to his friend Mincaye.

"He taught me the skills I needed to live in the jungle-I'm still alive because of him," he said.

It was obviously not the easiest way to start a friendship: A son facing his father's killer, the killer expecting to be murdered as revenge by the son. But both took the risk. As Saint tells it: "'What's with this kid?' he said to my aunt, 'He doesn't know how to make blowgun darts or spear fish or track animals--who's going to teach him how to live?' 'You being the one who killed his father, who do you think should teach him?' she answered."

"I couldn't imagine I could do anything more to help them..."
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