I write this as Nelson Mandela’s life hangs in the balance. His has been a long life of struggle for freedom from oppression but from that place of freedom, exercising forgiveness.
He once said, ‘The feeling of freedom that infuses every South African heart at last liberated from the yoke of oppression underlines the fact that we have all in one way of another being victim to the system of apartheid.... In no activity is this more lucidly captured than in the heart rendering evidence being led at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission... It is only natural that all of us should feel a collective sense of shame for the evils that as compatriots, we have inflicted upon one another. But even in the few days of these hearings we can all attest to the cleansing power of the truth. It is to this that this Commission is committed. We are committed to the truth so that we can all be free. We are committed to the truth that we can all become reconciled one to another. There is a very long road ahead. We are only just starting...’
In the forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, ‘We have been privileged to help to heal a wounded people, though we ourselves have been, in Henri Nouwen's profound and felicitous phrase, ‘wounded healers’. When we look around us at some of the conflict areas of the world, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them without forgiveness, without reconciliation. God has blessed us richly so that we might be a blessing to others. Quite improbably, we as South Africans have become a beacon of hope to others locked in deadly conflict that peace, that a just resolution, is possible. If it could happen in South Africa , then it can certainly happen anywhere else. Such is the exquisite divine sense of humour...’
Very powerful words reminding us that forgiveness is not just to be given and received between individuals, but if brokered carefully can be for the benefit of all, for the greater good of all, and freeing for all concerned into the future.
Jesus teaches that forgiveness is something that must come from the heart - it must be freely given - over and over again. It is not just a matter of forgiving or loving those whom we like, because even ‘sinners’ do that but forgiveness must extend to those whom we object to. We must not judge or condemn, but forgive and we will be - not by our enemies - but by God. Much of the time when Jesus talks of forgiveness he does so in relation to sin. Sin being the things that we do and say that build barriers between us, God and other people. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection breaks down the barriers that we build between us and God once and for all. Forgiveness for Jesus it seems is about receiving assurance of that fact, repenting, and living this new way.
Forgiveness is sometimes very hard to give. We cannot do it under our own steam even though we know we should. In the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, where he offers her living water springing up and giving eternal life. The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks, must flow from us like streams of living water - the new life of God. In that sense forgiveness is not ours to give, but God’s forgiveness flowing through us because of the presence of the Holy Spirit given in the living waters of Baptism. Living the new way that Jesus inaugurates and allowing God’s forgiveness to flow through us is freeing and liberating for all.
An inability to forgive rests like a yoke on us, as individuals, as a community. Yokes are used on animals and people in traditional communities when working the land. They are heavy, and their burden restrains and directs us to walk one way or another. The power of forgiveness is to lift those burdens from us - and if you have ever been forgiven you will know what a relief that feels like.
The forgiveness that Jesus offers - God’s new life - frees us from the oppression that divides us. In Matthew 11:28ff Jesus offers to the weary, the sinful, those feel that they are unforgivable, another yoke in exchange for theirs - a light one - of love for ourselves and others. This yoke of forgiveness, of new life, frees the wearer. Instead of being bowed down with the weight of our burdens, only able to focus on them, constantly dwelling on their impact on our past and present, God’s forgiveness in Jesus liberates us to focus on God, and on our present and future with each other and Him.
We are all a work in progress - Christ’s forgiveness, his new life in us, enables us to be Christlike - to be reconcilers and to use Desmond Tutu’s words: ‘to help to heal a wounded people, though we ourselves have been, in Henri Nouwen's profound and felicitous phrase, ‘wounded healers’. When we look around us at some of the conflict areas of the world, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them without forgiveness, without reconciliation. God has blessed us richly so that we might be a blessing to others.’