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In my work as a peace-building trainer, I have the opportunity to work with people most of society has deemed as monsters: Drug dealers. Killers. Genocide perpetrators.
I also have the opportunity to work with crime victims: Rape survivors. Families who have lost a loved one to murder. And individuals who have survived genocide.
There is a bond that connects these two groups of people — a relationship that exists whether either party wants it to be there or not. And that relationship — how it is perceived and how it is navigated — has a profound impact on how both groups heal and move forward after a crime.
Forgiveness — as a concept — is something I have spent a great deal of my professional work contemplating and studying. When harm has been done, the topic of forgiveness is inevitable. Whether one is seeking to forgive one’s self for having harmed another or whether the harmed individual is seeking ways to forgive the person who violated and / or betrayed them. Forgiveness looms like a mysterious beast no one can quite describe.
But what is forgiveness?
To explore this topic, I want to tell you two stories. One about a man I met in a Texas prison and another about post-genocide Rwandans.
Eric, that’s not his real name, is currently serving 10 years in a Texas prison for a robbery and assault charge. Eric is enrolled in a program that teaches incarcerated individuals empathy and accountability. When I asked Eric why he chose to participate in the program, his answer intrigued me. “I want relief.”
Eric grew up in an extraordinarily violent home. His father was addicted to drugs and beat his mother daily. When his father would grow weary of the beatings, he forced young Eric to beat his mother while the father watched. The beatings were gruesome and constant.
Eventually Eric’s father went to prison. Eric came home from elementary school one day and his mother and baby brother were also gone. He stayed home for about a week before the neighbors realized he had been left behind. They called child protective services.
Fast-forward 10 years. Eric has a family of his own. He has a wife and two children — one of which is a severely disabled daughter. She is the apple of his eye. He loves his daughter more than life itself. But, as you can imagine, the medical bills, nurses, special vehicles, wheel chairs, etc. are all incredibly expensive. And even though Eric has two full time jobs and his wife has one full-time job, they simple cannot make ends meet.
Eric starts selling drugs. He is a successful drug dealer with repeat customers. And one night, one of his repeat customers fails to pay him the $300 he owes him. In order to make an example of him, Eric beats the man. But once he starts hitting him, something inside him snaps. He can’t stop. He beats him until the man passes out. And then he does something truly horrific … he burns the man’s eyes out with his cigar. He blinds the man.
Eric cannot tell the story without sobbing. He cannot believe that he would do something like that. He is a good man. He is a devoted husband. He is a dedicated father. He is the center of his children’s world. And … he is also a person who committed a terrible act of violence against someone whose life is forever changed. And since that act of violence, Eric has been reduced to one thing … a monster.
What is the relief that Eric seeks? He wants the freedom to live outside the judgment of that one act. And he knows the only person who can give him that freedom is the one person who has never seen his goodness. It is the person who only knows him as a monster.
In 1994, Rwanda was divided by three tribes: the Hutus, Tutsis and the Twa. The Hutus represented 85 percent of the population and the Tutsis represented 14 percent. For reasons that are far too complex for this short article, the Hutus blamed the Tutsis for the hardships they experienced in life. And in the spring of 1994, after four years of civil war, the government called for all Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbors. Anyone who refused to take up arms against the Tutsis was charged 2000 francs per day. The government was to remain closed until every last Tutsi was dead. No one was allowed to farm his land. Schools were closed. Businesses were closed. Churches were closed. The only business the Hutus were to be about was the business of killing.
Obediently, the Hutus took up their machetes and violently set about slaughtering people who had, until only days previously, been their friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow church members. The murders were violent, conducted by hand and anything but swift. In less than 100 days, more than 800,000 Tutsis men, women and children were murdered.
Two years ago, 20 years after the genocide, I went to Rwanda to provide peace-building training to government officials and security personnel. My colleagues and I were unsure what to expect. What we found surprised us. No longer divided by Hutus, Tutsi and Twa, the Rwandans have turned away from their tribal heritage and created a national pride in the idea that “we are all Rwandans.” What unites them as a nation of people has taken precedence over what once divided them.
Though they are a nation struggling to overcome the trauma of genocide, they are also a nation of people committed to reconciliation and forgiveness. After the genocide the prisons were extremely overcrowded, housing 5 to 10 times the number of people the prisons were originally designed to hold. With so many people incarcerated, it would take more than 200 years to actually process all the crimes through the traditional court systems.
And so the government tried something radical. Any person who was willing to admit his guilt and voluntarily participate in a peace and reconciliation program could be released from prison. The peace and reconciliation program included an admission of guilt, a request for forgiveness and a restitution program that would be decided upon between the offending party and the surviving individuals who had been harmed by that person’s actions — and so began a gradual, yet profound, process of widespread forgiveness.
One evening, after a long day of training, one of my colleagues and I were enjoying an orange Fanta when he wondered out loud what it would be like to train Hutus instead of the Tutsi. I paused and looked at him. Puzzled. In Rwanda, it is considered extremely rude (and illegal) to inquire as to whether someone is Hutu or Tutsi.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He commented that he was not sure he would be able to be neutral or objective as a trainer in the midst of “those monsters.”
I took a moment to consider my response to him, and then I said: “You do realize that three quarters of the Tutsi population was murdered during the genocide, right?”
I could tell by his face that what I was saying did not register. So I said it more bluntly: “For the past two days, we have been training individuals who formerly identified as Hutu.”
As that realization sunk in, he sat quietly and then said, “I guess I am glad I did not realize that.”
And in that moment, I fully understood forgiveness. And I marveled at what the Rwandans had managed to accomplish.
Forgiveness is the releasing of another’s guilt and restoring that person to innocence. Forgiveness is the willingness to respect the human dignity of the person who harmed you and the willingness to understand that he is separate from his actions.
During the week of training in Rwanda, my team engaged with the Rwandans seeing only their innocence and their beauty. We saw their humanity and respected their dignity — just as they did with one another. Whatever wrongs they may or may not have committed in their past, it was their present self we recognized in them and they recognized within each other. And it is that gift of forgiveness that Eric so deeply desires.
Too often forgiveness is perceived as an inward process — a gift we give ourselves so that we may move forward and experience inner peace.
True forgiveness is a gift we give each other so that we may move forward together in peace.
Robyn Short is a mediator with expertise in transformative mediation and restorative justice models for dispute resolution. Whether in a corporate, nonprofit, academic or home environment, Robyn assists parties in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. Robyn helps organizations through mediation, facilitation, onsite conflict training seminars, leadership training and dialogue circles. Learn more at www.RobynShort.com.