Excerpted with permission of U.S. Catholic.
In late 1995, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was looking forward to his
retirement when South Africa's President Nelson Mandela appointed him
chairperson of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "Who
could ever say Mr. Mandela nay?" Tutu recalls. "My much-longed-for
sabbatical went out the window, and for nearly three years we would be
involved in the devastating but also exhilarating work of the
For Tutu, the South African experience is a sign of hope to the
"The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue
beyond doubt," he says. "Ultimately goodness, laughter, peace,
compassion, gentleness, forgiveness, and reconciliation will have the
last word and prevail over their ghastly counterparts. The victory over
apartheid is proof positive of this truth."
You have said that sometimes, as you were listening to the
testimonies, you caught yourself wondering whether God must not have
second thoughts about having created humanity.
God took an incredible risk creating us. And when I look at the
awful wrecks that litter human history, I imagine God surveying it
all--seeing how his children treat their sisters and brothers--and weeping
over his creation. Certainly, there is a great deal of evidence that
might make God rue his decision.
Although as humans, we are all formed by nurture and by nature,
in the end we still have a choice to make. The killers could have chosen
differently. They didn't, and the glory of our God is that God does not
step in to stop them. God just has the pain of a parent who sees his
child go badly wrong but must respect the child's free will to choose.
But there's also a great deal of evidence that makes God say it
was worth it. As God looks at people like a Mother Teresa, a Martin
Luther King Jr., a Gandhi, or a Nelson Mandela, he must rub his hands
in divine satisfaction and say, "Don't you think it was worth all of
this pain and anguish to have produced wonderful people like these?
And I was really surprised myself that, at the end of the
wrenching process that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was,
there was an incredible sense of hope. Because of the nobility of the
human spirit and the marvelous magnanimity of nearly all the victims who
testified, we also got the sense that, yes, we humans are capable of a
great deal of evil, but we are fundamentally good.
Tell me more about the grace you witnessed in the people who testified
before the commission.
It was fantastic. One such example occurred in our hearing about an
event that had happened in Bisho in Ciskei, where 28 people had been
killed by soldiers of the Ciskeian Defense Force (CDF) who opened fire
on an African National Congress (ANC) demonstration. We held one of our
hearings in Bisho. The hall was packed to the rafters, and many who
attended had either themselves been injured on that occasion or had lost
loved ones. So you could imagine the tension in that hall.
A key leader in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa,
Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. He has served as the
Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and as president of the All Africa
Conference of Churches. For the past two years, Tutu has been a visiting
professor at Emory University in Atlanta while also lecturing
throughout the world. He is the author most recently of "No Future
Without Forgiveness" (Doubleday, 1999).
The first person to speak was the former head of the CDF, who riled
virtually everybody by talking in a tone that came across as arrogant
and cynical. So the tension rose even further.
Then the next group of witnesses consisted of four officers in this
defense force. Their spokesperson said, "Yes, we gave the orders for the
soldiers to open fire." You could just feel the audience become really
hostile and angry.
But then this soldier turned to the audience and made an extraordinary
appeal: "Please forgive us, please. The burden of the Bisho massacre
will be on our shoulders for the rest of our lives." He was white and
the three other soldiers were black, and he went on to plead with the
audience: "Would you please receive my colleagues back into the
It was unbelievable, unexpected. You could sense the presence of grace
right there, because that audience, angry as they had been, almost
immediately turned around and broke out in incredible applause. Here
were people who were limping, who were shot, some had lost children or
other loved ones, and they could applaud.
You couldn't have choreographed it. It was just spontaneous. The people
could quite as easily have booed him.
...At our very first meeting, the widow of one of the so-called Cradock Four
testified. The Cradock Four were ANC activists who were ambushed by the
police and killed quite gruesomely. She described how they had been
waiting anxiously for their husbands and not getting any news, when one
child saw a newspaper with a picture of a burned-out car and said,
"Mommy, this is daddy's car." She then described how she went to the
home of her friend whose husband was also among the four, and then she
just broke down and let out an unearthly scream.
In many ways that cry, which was broadcast throughout the land, came to
symbolize the commission--a cry from the depths of anguish. We had begun
this process where people could open their hearts and expose the anguish
that had remained locked up for so long. It would cause considerable
pain, but it was also going to help people heal.
Then the daughter of one of the Cradock Four told her story, and when
she finished, I asked her whether she thought she would be able to
forgive the people who had done this to her father. She was quite
extraordinary, she was still a teenager, and she spoke very quietly, but
with remarkable dignity. She said, "We would like to forgive, but we
don't know whom to forgive."
The truth eventually surfaced when the police officers who were involved
applied for amnesty before our commission and disclosed the ghastly
truth of how they had murdered the four. It's been an incredible
What makes the kind of forgiveness these victims showed possible?
Wouldn't a desire for revenge be the more "natural" reaction?
We have to keep reminding people that we are the beneficiaries of a lot
of praying. I think Christians are strange creatures, because it seems
we pray for miracles, but then we're surprised when the miracles do
The other part is rooted in what we refer to as ubuntu, the African view
that a person is a person through other persons. My humanity is caught
up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced--whether I like
it or not--mine is enhanced as well. Likewise, when you are dehumanized,
inexorably, I am dehumanized as well.
So there is a deep yearning in African society for communal peace and
harmony. It is for us the summum bonum, the greatest good. For in it, we
find the sustenance that enables us to be truly human. Anything that
erodes this central good is inimical to all, and nothing is more
destructive than resentment and anger and revenge.
In a way, therefore, to forgive is the best form of self-interest,
because I'm also releasing myself from the bonds that hold me captive,
and it is important that I do all I can to restore relationship. Because
without relationship, I am nothing, I will shrivel.
That is also a very biblical understanding: God is community, God is
relationship, God is Trinity. God can't exist in isolation.