noun: The restoration of friendly relations
Synonyms: Bringing back together again
Christians tend to talk about forgiveness like it’s a simple task. Put the wrong behind you, smile, shake hands, and never bring it up again. But have you ever tried to forgive someone who has truly done you wrong? Not pretending it never happened, or saying it doesn’t bother you, but truly forgiving in your heart. I don’t know what your experiences are with pain or letting go, but facing that kind of hurt is not easy and it can take a long time to heal.
In Rwanda there was a genocide in which at least 800,000 people were killed in merely 100 days. The genocide mentality was so prevalent that neighbours betrayed neighbours, people who were once friends gave each other up, and even families turned against each other. It was a time of great sorrow, distrust, and fear. How do you come back from that? How do you find healing as a country and as a people?
After the genocide Rwanda created the Gacaca Courts, launched in 2002, to try and bring justice to a broken people. They wanted to shine a light on what had happened so everyone could see and work through the pain together. They understood that there could be no peace without first addressing the disharmony and lies that had been circulated throughout the genocide. The courts brought together survivors, perpetrators, and witnesses before locally-chosen judges to establish truth about what occurred during the genocide. Those who confessed their crimes could lower their jail time by completing community service and they then had the choice to live in what they called reconciliation villages.
We visited one of these villages in the first week or so I was here and I still do not fully understand it. It amazes me. It bewilders me. It is humbling. In these villages perpetrators and survivors live, work, and exist together. Someone who killed your mother could be living next door. They have mediators here as well, to ease the transition and provide counselling. We heard two people speak, a perpetrator and a survivor. They talked about how after the genocide people had to come to terms with what had happened and figure out how to continue forward. They talked about how perpetrators and survivors were now becoming friends, that some had even gotten married. If they hadn’t been standing right in front of me I wouldn’t have believed it. Can you even imagine anything like this happening in the United States?
The perpetrator who spoke, a man who seemed a bit younger than my dad, his hands were shaking the entire time. He talked about how he had killed people, and I’ll admit, for a moment I was afraid. This man had killed people, probably with a machete. And yet, he was publicly denouncing what he had done and standing with those he had previously professed to hate. The thought crossed my mind that maybe he was lying. But it was clear he was not. I found myself struggling to see him as anything but a murderer. I didn’t even know him. If I had such a hard time seeing past his transgressions, how did the survivors do it? How did he? The survivor, a woman of the same age, was very fidgety and played with her hair. She talked about needing to move forward and not backwards. She talked about living with people who had been apart of the genocide. She spoke very softly. I did not understand her either. Was my heart so hard that I could not conceive of such forgiveness? When they had both finished speaking, that sat down next to each other, in peace. In peace.
What does it mean to truly be at peace? At first I was sceptical about these villages. I thought about what I would do if I was in their place and my first reaction was a very visceral NO, how is that justice. But justice isn’t just about the people who have done wrong, it is also about the survivors. They choose to face the hurt. They choose healing instead of vengeance. The reconciliation village showed me that justice is the healing of all hearts in the face of immense suffering. I’m still learning this lesson.
When you think about true forgiveness and what it means to be reconciled, you are thinking of Rwanda. The strength of the people here can be seen through these acts of grace. It takes courage to choose to forgive; forgiveness is not a feeling, but rather a conscious act, a decision that you have to make everyday. To look a murder in the eyes, to look yourself in the eyes, and say, “It is finished. I choose to go forward. Would you like to go forward with me?” And to say, everyday, “Yes”.