‘Working on reconciliation is realising God’s dream for humanity’
In the category ‘solutions for everything’ there are two concepts that have brilliantly withstood the test of time and are more relevant than ever: forgiveness and compassion. Planet (autumn 2003) takes stock of seven years of forgiveness in South Africa. In March, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission officially closed its doors and although the suffering has not ended, after over 20,000 declarations and 7,000 requests for amnesty, it is time for an evaluation.
Truth commissions are being established in other countries, such as recently in Sierra Leone, Peru, Ghana and East Timor. Indonesia, Bosnia and Congo are considering adopting the idea and there are increasing calls for a truth commission in Iraq. A good idea? Planet isn’t sure. Under the motto ‘Revealing is Healing’, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission also raised a number of questions such as: is it really fair to give offenders amnesty in exchange for their statement? Do victims have the right to financial compensation? Is it healing to discuss murder, rape and torture openly and in detail? To what extent do other norms apply for murders that were committed by ‘freedom fighters’?
Despite these difficult and often irresolvable questions, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission certainly appeared to be more decisive than conventional court procedures. In Rwanda, judgement of the genocide that took place in 1994 was left to an international war crimes tribunal. Ten year later only 10 cases have been tried. A lack of funds and logistical problems in transporting the offenders to the International Court of Justice in The Hague or its office in Tanzania have caused endless delays. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was clearly able to avoid a number of mistakes made by other countries. For example, they learned from the commission that was set up in 1986 in Uganda, which failed to set a deadline and consequently had to watch as its funds dried up and public attention waned before its work was completed. Chile’s truth commission compromised its authority by failing to remove ‘guilty’ high-ranking officers from the armed forces.
Planet realises that it is an illusion to think that a commission can resolve the pain of the past, but observes that in line with the motto ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger’, most people still choose a complex truth over tense silence. This doesn’t guarantee true forgiveness. Not because people don’t want to forgive, but because not everyone knows how to forgive.
Someone who does know how is Fred Luskin, the chairman and co-founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. Luskin and his team have set up a forgiveness-training programme and have collected extensive data on the effects of forgiveness. In Noetic Sciences Review (September/November 2003) he explains what forgiveness is and how you can forgive: ‘I define forgiveness as the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment. You forgive by challenging the rigid rules you have for other people’s behaviour and focusing on the good things in your life as opposed to the bad. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or denying that painful things occurred. Forgiveness is the powerful assertion that bad things will not ruin your present, even though they might have spoiled your past.’
Luskin distinguishes four steps in the healing process: the first is to recognise the pain, the anger and the loss. The second is the realisation that the pain doesn’t feel good. You start to worry about your mental and physical health. In the third phase you remember another moment in your life when you were able to forgive. You remember how good that felt and that how long you postpone forgiveness is in your own hands. In the fourth phase you become a forgiving person, not only in a specific situation but also as a lifestyle. You take every opportunity to forgive.
In this final phase you reach the level of the modern saints such as the Dalai Lama or the monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In Shambhala Sun (November 2003) the latter is quoted as saying: ‘The root of all conflicts is fear and ignorance. We must recognise that those who do us harm are also victims.’ Thich Nhat Hanh has seen lots of people heal, by ‘listening to them deeply, you offer them the opportunity to empty their hearts.’
Desmond Tutu, the spiritual father of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the man that spent years listening to confessions, tells Noetic Sciences Review: ‘Working on reconciliation is the attempt to realise God’s dream for humanity. Then we remember that we are all members of one family, connected to one another in a delicate network of mutual dependence.’