After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Jeanette Winterson – my favourite writer, and one of the great thinkers of modern times – wrote an article for the New York Times (http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/twin-towers/) that profoundly shifted the way I thought about forgiveness and love. She admits she is not Christian, but even so, I think she understands things about grace that puts many Christians to shame.
Often when people who have been profoundly traumatised talk about forgiveness in the media, their decision is met with an inexplicable lack of comment. It is an embarrassing indictment on society that nobody applauds the nobility and strength of character that such a decision requires. Instead, we regard them almost as if we suspect they may in some way be mentally deficient. In a similar position, most of us would be baying for blood, frantically seeking for someone to blame. And then we, the public, can freely ride the bandwagon of their indignation and give voice to whatever prejudices we have been repressing. And so when they don’t speak (or shout) a language of hatred, the public feels almost robbed.
Maybe Jeanette Winterson was right when, in the article I mentioned earlier, she wrote:
“In the rubble of the twin towers, where pride has been dwarfed by hate, the smallness of what we are is too obvious. Whatever we do, it can be reduced to this. Whatever we build is temporary.
The Church has always used disaster to temper arrogance. Christian Fundamentalists are wallowing in Armageddon. Doom-sayers and pseudo-spiritual leaders are glad to see the world blow up, because it proves them right. Disaster is easier than healing. Misery is easier to manipulate than happiness. The Arab Fundamentalists who wanted this to happen are joined by millions of others for whom terror is a relief. Terror means a police state, security, infiltration. Terror means a tightening of morality and an intolerance towards others. Terror means hitting back before we get hit again.
Make no mistake. Plenty of people prefer the world as terror. The world as love is just too hard to take.”
That’s what really saddened me about the killing of Pierre Korkie, which was reported in the South African media today. The whole story is, of course, heart-breaking. It is indicative of exactly what Ms Winterson observed about the Twin Towers tragedy a decade ago. We have learnt nothing.
It is appalling that ordinary people have to be pawns in the political games of forces that all claim to be acting in the name of a holy God. It is dreadful that society treats these personal catastrophes as entertainment. But, horrendous as this whole sordid incident is, these things happen all over the world, every day. What really saddened me about this story was the indifference with which Pierre Korkie’s parents’ decision to forgive was received by the world. The optimistic part of me that still believes that there is hope for humanity took another blow.
You see, we don’t choose to forgive because we are too stupid to understand how deeply we have been violated, or too cowardly to seek justice. Offering forgiveness does not mean we are saying that the desecrations that break us are in any way justifiable. We choose to forgive because we realise that by not doing so we hurt not only ourselves, but those closest to us. We forgive because we realise that we can only end the cycle of hatred and abuse by refusing to perpetuate it, by waiving our right to retaliate.
When we don’t forgive, we are by default choosing bitterness and hatred. And anyone who has had a spouse or parent – any loved one, really – who has not forgiven a deep hurt, will be able to testify to how the resulting bitterness hurt more than just the one who refused to forgive.
Another great man, who died this week a year ago – one of my heroes, Tata Madiba – knew this. And our country has, in a very tangible way, benefitted from his wisdom. As South Africans, we – perhaps more than any other nation – should understand the transformative power of forgiveness and recognise the fortitude that choosing it requires.
But when Pierre Korkie’s parents echoed the spirit of Madiba, their words were met only with silence.