Eugene de Kock.
Eugene de Kock is one of South Africa’s most infamous death squad leaders. He led kidnappings, tortures, and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists, both inside and outside of South Africa. After he was imprisoned, he asked to apologize to the widows of one of his squad’s bombings. Two of the widows sat across from the man who masterminded their husbands’ murders to hear what he had to say. He offered a sincere apology, acknowledged the horror of what he’d done, and offered no excuses.
They forgave him. One of the widows, Pearl Faku, is quoted in Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night saying: “I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well. … I would like to hold him by the hand, and show him that there is a future, and that he can still change.”
It was a moving display of grace that characterized many similar moments during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) investigations. However, apartheid survivors weren’t obligated to forgive the people who’d imprisoned, tortured, or killed their loved ones. Many didn’t. But those who were ready to grant forgiveness created some of the most moving displays of grace ever seen on the world stage.
People who are surprised at these displays of forgiveness share common misconceptions about it. Forgiveness isn’t something that’s done for the perpetrator. It’s done to bring peace to the person choosing to forgive.
That’s not New Age nonsense. That conclusion is confirmed by research from organizations such as the International Forgiveness Institute. Psychologist Frederic Luskin found that, among other things, forgiveness can reduce depression, alleviate anger, and increase self-confidence.
However, choosing to grant forgiveness is difficult. Archbishop Desmond Tutu characterizes forgiveness as a journey for good reason. It is a journey that includes processing trauma, learning to live in the aftermath of horror, and letting go of anger that must be felt before it can be dispersed. Trauma recovery is complicated and doesn’t proceed in a straight line.
As Tutu writes, forgiving doesn’t mean that victims forget their traumas. It also doesn’t mean that perpetrators should escape accountability. All it means is that victims release vengeful desires against their perpetrators and recognize that their perpetrators can build new futures beyond their crimes. This understanding of forgiveness offers a compassionate, nuanced view of grace.
It also allows the secular community to break the religious monopoly on grace. While many people misunderstand forgiveness, scripture has codified those misunderstandings into a divine mandate.
Many people, both religious and nonreligious, maintain false beliefs about forgiveness. They may rush trauma survivors to forgive their perpetrators before survivors are ready. They may minimize what survivors went through by telling them their suffering is part of a divine plan or necessary to make them stronger. They may even pressure someone to forgive to make the perpetrator’s life easier rather than to help the survivor heal.
But while there are many ways to misinterpret forgiveness, Mark 11:25–26 offers one of the worst: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
On its face, it sounds like a positive passage imploring worshippers to forgive freely. However, it makes forgiveness a moral requirement, and that’s a grave mistake.
It coerces worshippers to forgive their perpetrators whether worshippers are ready or not. It makes choosing not to forgive a moral failing instead of a personal choice on a complicated journey. It also violates a modern conception of forgiveness that’s embraced by secular and religious leaders alike.
In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu outlines the case of one woman who was arrested by state police and repeatedly raped in her cell. To cope with her torture, she “[took] her spirit out of her body and [put] it in the corner of the cell in which she was being raped.” This allowed her to distance herself and pretend her rapes were happening to someone else. Years after her release, in an interview for the PBS documentary Facing the Truth, she told her interviewer that “she had not yet gone back to that room to fetch her soul and that it was still sitting in the corner where she had left it.”
It’s hard to imagine someone telling her that she can’t be a good person unless she forgives her state-sanctioned rapists. But Chapter 11 of Mark accomplishes this inhumane feat. No matter how many nice verses about redemption and forgiveness the Bible boasts, it can’t make up for the baggage that its binary interpretation of forgiveness carries.
There are a few ways that Christian thinkers try to distance themselves from this baggage. Some of them try to create wiggle room and say that it’s not the act of not forgiving that rots us. It’s the determined decision not to forgive that is sinful. (Technically, wrathful.)
That is a false choice, and it is nonsense. If someone doesn’t forgive their perpetrator, then they necessarily believe that they shouldn’t forgive their perpetrator yet. Telling someone they’re wrong not to forgive may be true in petty cases. But as wrongs become more extreme, mandating forgiveness becomes more clearly immoral.
Claiming that scripture is corrupted by people to mandate forgiveness is a poor defense, too. This is the excuse that Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers for religious leaders who stand by the scriptural conception of forgiveness. In practice, Tutu accepts a modern and nuanced conception of forgiveness. His writings on forgiveness are moving examples of deep compassion and even deeper thought. But his failure to acknowledge that the Bible encourages an interpretation of forgiveness that he rejects in practice is a mistake.
Because defenses of scriptural interpretations of forgiveness fail, the secular community must offer something in its place. A reinterpretation of forgiveness must leave room for victims to be angry and heal. It must also avoid mandating forgiveness as an endpoint in the healing process. Victims and survivors must remain in control of the process of healing and forgiveness at all times. Otherwise, secular allies can succumb to the same failures of compassion that scripture encourages.
A better way to conceptualize forgiveness is a spectrum. On one extreme is someone who is lost in their rage and trauma. It’s an unlivable extreme that therapy is designed to fix. The other extreme is forgiveness. However, it’s not a final goal to be reached. Instead, it’s one of two boundaries with a large middle ground where trauma survivors have room to heal. Withholding forgiveness for petty grievances can still be considered wrong, and forgiveness can remain a personal choice. This is the view that’s accepted and promulgated by many writers who worked on South Africa’s TRC, and it’s one that the secular community can embrace to be better allies to trauma survivors.
However, it’s not good enough to criticize religious writings on forgiveness. Secularists must avoid falling into the same traps that those who rely on the scriptural interpretation of forgiveness do. For example, there’s a growing body of research that shows the effects of forgiveness are healing for victims. It’s tempting for secularists to encourage trauma victims to forgive their perpetrators because it’ll make victims feel better.
But forgiveness is only healing when it’s done voluntarily. Rushing victims into forgiveness invalidates their struggle to integrate trauma into their lives. With forgiveness on a spectrum, victims have the ability to go through the messy healing process. Sometimes they’ll feel closer to forgiveness and then fall away from it. But they don’t have to forgive to heal. On the forgiveness spectrum, they can release enough rage and pain to live without being encumbered by trauma.
Secular criticisms of religion are meaningless if the secular community can’t offer compassion in scripture’s place. If trauma survivors call on one of us for support, then it’s critical to understand all the ways we can help.
But it’s equally important to understand how easily we can be hurtful. We must avoid the well-meaning mistakes that harm survivors more frequently than their critics’ attacks do. The point of religious criticism isn’t just to score points for our side. It’s to help real people—religious or not—who find themselves in need of compassion, understanding, and above all, grace.
Eugene de Kock is one of South Africa’s most infamous death squad leaders. He led kidnappings, tortures, and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists, both inside and outside of South Africa. After he was imprisoned, he asked to apologize to the widows of one of his squad’s bombings. Two of the widows sat across from the man …