I recently saw a great question posed on the religious dialogue website On Faith: “How can we forgive our enemies? Should we, even if they have committed atrocities?” Well-known religious writer John Shelby Spong gives what I think is an amazing answer, especially in a world where forgiveness is usually tied to the requirement of repentance or apology on the part of the wrongdoer: “Desmond Tutu’s great insight was that there are no conditions on forgiveness. The ‘even if’ part of this question means that the questioner is not talking about forgiveness.” He goes on to describe how the power of unconditional forgiveness-the kind of forgiveness A Course in Miracles teaches-transformed the entire nation of South Africa in a way that can only be described as miraculous.
Spong contrasts the South Africa he visited years ago and the South Africa of today, which he recently visited. When he was there in 1976, the country was deep in the darkness of apartheid, with the minority white government brutally oppressing the black population. Nelson Mandela was in prison, his wife was under house arrest, there were riots in the streets-it was a country literally defined by separation, which is what the world “apartheid” means.
Of course, we all know what eventually happened. Due to a number of factors, including international sanctions and the tireless activism of Nobel Peace Prize winner Tutu, the white government of South Africa relinquished its power voluntarily. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and eventually elected president. Once blacks who had been treated brutally for years were in power, it would have been easy for them to take bloody vengeance on the whites who had kept them in bondage for so long. But instead, the new National Unity Government instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Tutu, which offered amnesty to those willing to tell the truth about their apartheid-era crimes.
Now, the granting of amnesty was not unconditional; in fact, most people who applied for amnesty did not get it. But the process was permeated by the spirit of forgiveness exemplified by Tutu, who wrote (in his wonderful book about his experience on the Commission, entitled No Future Without Forgiveness,) that contrition on the part of the wrongdoer is not necessary to forgive. After all, if the victim had to wait for the perpetrator’s repentance in order to forgive, “the victim would be locked into the culprit’s whim, locked into victimhood, whatever her own attitude or intention” (p. 220). True forgiveness cannot be dependent on the perpetrator’s confession or apology; it is an unconditional gift that frees our own minds from the prison of hatred. Thus, as Jesus did with his crucifiers, we need to forgive even those who “know not what they are doing.”
The results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the spirit of forgiveness behind it were truly amazing. Spong marvels at the difference between the country he saw in 1976 and the country he saw in his recent visit. True, South Africa still has many problems, including poverty, crime, and a rampant AIDS pandemic. “Yet,” Spong says, “I saw a nation emerging and a corporate consciousness developing that embraces all racial differences….I saw little rancor, bitterness or fear.” Separation has, to an extent no one thought was possible, been replaced by unity.
Spong says that “South Africa is a miracle,” perhaps the only example in history in which an oppressive government gave up power voluntarily without bloodshed and then became a cooperative minority in the new government. And he concludes that this miracle is due to the power of unconditional forgiveness:
Forgiveness creates a power that expands the desire to build a new world. It produces an enlightened consciousness. Desmond Tutu understood this, called his nation to act on it and in the process transformed South Africa. Would that national leaders everywhere could do the same.
Would that we all could do the same. Fortunately, we have in our hands A Course in Miracles, a path of truth and reconciliation that unleashes the power of unconditional forgiveness in all of us, a power that can and will transform the world.