Are We Ready to Forgive?

Desmond M. Tutu argues that although the terrorists committed unspeakably evil acts, they are still children of God.

Desmond M. Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Cape Town and the recipient of many honors and degrees, including the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. He chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which made its final report in fall 1998.

May I repeat that our hearts go out to all the people of the United States at this time of grieving and much anguish and loss, praying that God will fill you all with God's grace, comfort, and strength. We condemn unequivocally these and all other acts of terrorism.

Does justice need to precede reconciliation efforts? Or, can one begin a process of reconciliation and forgiveness even as events unfold? Is it too early to forgive the terrorists who attacked the U.S.?

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not cheap. They are costly. After all, they cost God the death of God's Son.

Forgiveness is not to condone or minimize the awfulness of an atrocity or wrong. It is to recognize its ghastliness but to choose to acknowledge the essential humanity of the perpetrator and to give that perpetrator the possibility of making a new beginning. It is an act of much hope and not despair. It is to hope in the essential goodness of people and to have faith in their potential to change. It is to bet on that possibility. Forgiveness is not opposed to justice, especially if it is not punitive justice but restorative justice, justice that does not seek primarily to punish the perpetrator, to hit out, but looks to heal a breach, to restore a social equilibrium that the atrocity or misdeed has disturbed.


In our case in South Africa, the process of reconciliation began long before the perpetrators were brought to book; it began when the victims were able to say, "We don't want to nurse grudges; we do not want to be embittered. We are ready to forgive." So spectacularly embodied in former South African president Nelson Mandela was the magnanimity, the generosity of spirit that helped us to walk the path of reconciliation rather than that of retribution and revenge.

What are you in the U.S. willing to do? Are you willing to consider the possibility of forgiving even when you say that the perpetrators should be brought to justice? Are you willing to believe that even though they are guilty of a diabolical act, they still continue to be children of God, not monsters, not demons, but those with the capacity to change?

Is forgiveness possible at a national level? And if so, how can political leaders support that process?
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Interview by Anne A. Simpkinson
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