An Incredible Story from Apartheid

I think in our modern time we often confuse the ideas of justice and revenge. Lately I have been reading the latest biography of Desmond Tutu. He has been such an inspiring person to me as someone who truly understands what it means to live a kind of revenge-less justice. The stories that come out of apartheid in South Africa are so often heart-breaking, but with the leadership of people like Bishop Tutu, the ending of the story of Apartheid is much better than one could ever hope. Following the fall of Apartheid, Bishop Tutu began the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that flexed the muscles of restorative justice over and against the oft-used retributive justice.

I wanted to share an incredible story I read about what happened one day at a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Here it is.

A frail black woman stands slowly to her feet. She is about 70 years of age. Facing her from across the room are several white police officers, one of whom, Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and her husband some years before.

It was indeed Mr. Van der Broek, it has now been established, who had come to the woman’s home a number of years back, taken her son, shot him at point-blank range and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby.

Several years later, Van der Broek and his security police colleagues had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then, almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, Van der Broek came back to fetch the woman herself. How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside a river where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words she heard from his lips as the officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, “Father, forgive them.”

And now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confessions offered by Mr. Van derBroek. A member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turns to her and asks, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?” “I want three things,” begins the old woman, calmly but confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”

She pauses, then continues. “My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, therefore, for Mr. Van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining within me.”

“And, finally,” she says, “I want a third thing. I would like Mr. Van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”

I think it’s an incredible story that really speaks to what can happen when we put things like forgiveness and justice ahead of revenge. How do you think we can do this? What might this mean for us in our daily interactions? How can we move past our seemingly insatiable need for revenge and into a place that acknowledges, as Tutu says, that there is no future without forgiveness?


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