The Path of Forgiveness

When forgiveness has been offered or received, we get to start again.  It doesn’t mean that we forget what happened. It doesn’t mean that the harm is erased. It doesn’t mean that we run off into the sunset for a happily ever after future.   But it does mean that we surrender the right to get even.   We surrender the right to believe that we are superior to another person.  If we are  being forgiven, we surrender the burden of believing that we are inferior to the one we have hurt.   We can welcome a new identity and a new future that is not chained to the harm that was done and not chained to the past. 

This message was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI and the Unitarian Church of Quincy on March 22, 2020.

Wisdom Story.  What if nobody forgave?  We read this story in our service.  Here is a great dramatization of the story in this youtube video.


We have been talking about forgiveness all month.  What it looks like.  What it feels like.  Why it’s so important.  Why it’s good for us.  We’ve talked about what forgiveness is not and how we get to a place of being ready to forgive.  How to forgive when the other person won’t go there with you. How we forgive ourselves.  How forgiveness is a life long process.  We have also spoken of the cost of being unable or unwilling to forgive.

Several years ago, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the late Episcopal Bishop of South Africa, and his daughter Mpho Tutu, published a book called The Book of Forgiving. You may recognize their names.  Desmond Tutu became an international figure in the years leading up to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and his daughter has followed in his footsteps.  I would highly recommend their book if you are wanting to engage the process of forgiveness more intentionally in your life. I would offer a caution that there are many stories in the book that are very unsettling.  They speak of their experience living under apartheid in South Africa, with many stories of brutal violence and death.  If that would be too triggering for you, please approach the book with care.

What is really significant about this father and daughter is that they helped develop the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa after the end of apartheid. If you are unfamiliar with this history, here’s a brief recap:

From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa practiced apartheid. This meant only whites could vote in elections, work as professionals, attend quality schools, and serve in government.  If you were black or brown, you had very few civil rights.  You were limited in where you could work, live, go to school, and even who you could marry.  You had no say in your government or the laws that regulated your life.  The system was kept in place through systemic and brutal violence.  During the 1980s, the resistance to apartheid grew and many countries placed sanctions on South Africa to end apartheid.  When it finally came down, the realization of the freedom that had been worked for so systemically over the years was threatened by the real possibility of civil war.  Whites were terrified that revenge was coming their way, and black anger, which had understandably grown and simmered for more than 40 years, was at a boiling point. If the fears, hatreds and resentments of the last 40 years set the direction for the future, everything they worked for would be sabotaged.

In order to prevent massive bloodshed, the new government, created by those who had been oppressed, those who had been in the prisons, those who had agitated and organized, this government chose restorative justice over punishment as a way to address the horrors they had lived through.  They created the Truth and Reconciliation Process.  They offered amnesty to anyone who had committed human rights violations and war crimes on behalf of the Apartheid government, but only if they fully confessed what they had done, with no excuses. This amnesty was offered to law enforcement, the secret service, government officials and elected leaders.  The proceedings would be aired nationally and internationally.  Before the world and those they had hurt, they would need to fully confess the harm they had done, listen to those they had harmed share how this had impacted them, say that they were sorry, and authentically ask for forgiveness.

To describe this as a grueling experience would be an understatement.  The horrors of apartheid were brought into full view by those who had been part of its engine, who had to speak of their crimes before the victims and the families of their victims.  The pain of those who listened and responded was difficult to witness.  The stories kept coming, the hurt kept being named, the apologies piled up.   But the container of the truth and reconciliation process and the highly skilled and compassionate people who managed it were successful in not only preventing all out war, but in setting the stage for a new way forward for their very divided and wounded nation.

For many of us who watched this, we knew that we would never be the same.  This experience created in us not only a great respect for the new leaders in South Africa, but also invited us into a time of introspection about the power and the process of forgiveness in our own lives.  While few of us wanted to compare our personal unforgiven harms to the horrors spoken aloud in South Africa, Bishop Tutu himself suggested that we do just that.  He did not see using the lesson of their process as a minimization of what had happened to his country. He and his daughter Mpho fully believed that the truth and reconciliation process was a model that should be used by all of us because every single person struggles with forgiveness.  Every one of us has those we need to forgive, and every one of us has the need to be forgiven.  No one is pure perpetrator and pure victim.  When we are ready to be humbled by this truth, we are ready for the healing and freedom that can come with forgiveness.  This, they believed, was South Africa’s gift to the world.  Please, they said, use it again and again.

This is the process of forgiveness that they offered.  It has four steps.

The first is to tell the story of what happened.

The second is to name the harm that has been done.

The third is to grant forgiveness.

And the fourth is to renew or release the relationship through which the harm took place.

As a way to deepen into an understanding of what this four step process could mean for us, let’s unpack our wisdom story using these four steps.

In this seemingly simple children’s story, the harm that has been done has taken place over generations. It may have started with one incident between two people. In the case of the young woman who first met with the wise man, her grandparent and someone else’s grandparent had never forgiven each other for happened when they competed for the position of mayor.  The resentment from that harm was passed on to their children, and their grandchildren, and the resentment became a badge of honor.  They were held onto as pieces of identity.   The generational resentment continued the harm by separating whole families from each other, and being proud about it.  But the weight grew so heavy that they couldn’t even look up at the sky, couldn’t look into each other’s faces.   They were losing a sense of each other’s humanity and their own humanity.

This is the burden we carry with our unforgiven harms.  At first they may feel like a badge of honor, or even a birthright, but over time they become a burden, separating us not only from our loved ones but from ourselves.  The result is isolation, sadness and a loss of perspective.

In our wisdom story, the first step, telling the story of the harm, took place when the wise man asked the young woman why everyone was so sad.   One can imagine that as she told him the story of the grudges and how proudly they held them, it helped her to see them in a new way, no longer as a point of honor but as a burden.  Telling the story changed her self understanding and her understanding of the community.  This created in her the first step of readiness to let go.

The second step is naming the harm.  Sometimes we have the presence of mind to name the harm ourselves.  We can say to ourselves, “This is the story of what happened and this is how it has harmed me.”  But it’s also not unusual that naming the harm comes from others who are witnesses to the repercussions of what has happened. Sometimes we are so immersed in the minutia of our lives that it takes someone else to see the bigger picture. In our story, the wise man named the harm by sharing his observations.  He said to the young woman, “You all look so unhappy.  You look tired from your burdens.”  He named the harm that was being done by this generational transfer of resentment.   His naming of the harm changed her.  Once again, she saw her life in a new way and she felt a stirring in herself for freedom. When he offered her community the opportunity to set aside their burdens and to stand straight again, she was ready to make it happen.  She ran to the mayor and said, “Bring everyone together.  We get to be free!”

Then came the actual act of forgiveness.  It’s pretty simple in our story.  They are given their lines and they say them until everyone has spoken to each other. It happens pretty quickly.  No one is either the perpetrator or the victim. Everyone takes responsibility for the harm that has happened, and everyone shares in the act of forgiveness.   We know that in reality it’s not often that simple.  We know that forgiveness doesn’t always happen this easily.  But what is clear is that the burden had become so great that there was a communal desperation for release.  When a path to freedom was offered, they were ready to receive it. They were ready to see the sky, ready to stand up straight, ready to look into each other’s eyes, ready to live again.

The final step is renewing or releasing the relationship from the burden of the harm.  When the story has been told, when the harm has been named, when forgiveness has been offered or received, then you get to start again.  It doesn’t mean that we forget what happened. It doesn’t mean that the harm is erased. It doesn’t mean that we run off into the sunset for a happily ever after future.   But it does mean that you “surrender the right to get even (quote from Lewis Smedes).”  You surrender the right to believe that you are superior to another person.  If you are the one being forgiven, you surrender the burden of believing that you are inferior to the one you have hurt.  In our story, the town actually changes its name from Grudgeville to Joyville.  They get a new identity and a new future that is not chained to the harm and not chained to the past.

A few things to remember:

  1. There is no rule for how many times you need to tell the story.  Some of us need to tell our stories for years.  There are so many layers to process that telling the story only once could not possibly be enough.
  2. Sometimes we shift in our understanding of what harm was done.  If the harm is too raw, getting too close to naming it before we are ready can set us back. Don’t pressure yourself to get close to the naming of the harm if you don’t have the support to hold you when it gets hard.  There were lots of supports in the Truth and Reconciliation process.  There were skilled people holding the space and people ready to support everyone who participated.  They weren’t doing this alone and you don’t have do it alone either.
  3. Prepare to experience shifts in how you name the harm.  Sometimes as we reflect, as we tell the story one more time, we start to see our part in the harm that was done.  If we are clinging very tightly to a victim identity, we won’t be able to see our part, if we had one.  If we are terrified that who we are will crumple if we admit a wrong, we won’t be able to acknowledge the harm we’ve done and we will keep being imprisoned by fear. As we tell our stories over and over, we may come to have a more layered understanding of what happened and if we caused any harm.  This will help us resist the urge to dehumanize ourselves and the one who hurt us.  As Unitarian Universalists is means that we are living a whole lot of our principles, including that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that we try to live in a spirit of justice, equity and compassion, that we engage in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. 

If we are committed to engage in telling the story and naming the harm, by the time we get to the place of expressing forgiveness, our hearts are already changed and our spirits are primed for release. Saying the words “I’m sorry,” or saying “I forgive you,” is a confirmation of what has already happened.

That’s what happens through the process of forgiveness.  It releases us from the burden and the power of the harm.  We get to see the sky again.  We get to look into each other’s faces again.  We get to notice our life in new ways and make different choices. We are restored to ourselves and made new.

It’s been almost 30 years since Apartheid ended in South Africa, almost 30 years since those unforgettable Truth and Reconciliation proceedings were broadcast around the world. It would be fair to say that the country is still working to disengage from its past. There are stories that still need to be shared and the harm is still very evident.  Injustice still exists and that there is still much work to be done.  But, they started the process of reconciliation and peace. They told the stories, they named the harm, and they asked for and offered forgiveness.  They committed themselves to releasing and renewing relationships that gave families the chance to find peace, that gave communities a way to rebuild, and that gave the country a chance to start again. It meant that freedom was actually an option.

This is what forgiveness offers us as well.  We all deserve this freedom.  We all deserve lives of peace and wholeness where we can be restored to ourselves and to each other.

May it be so.


About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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