as we forgive
Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda
by Catherine Claire Larson
A friend gave me this book last November. I read the first few pages but then purposely didn't look at it again for six months. It was too gut wrenching. Too much brutality and pain and deep sadness for my already sad self to take in at the time. This summer I've loved it. It has filled in some holes in my understanding of forgiveness. I still feel like I only really understand the tiniest bit of what forgiveness is and how it works but I sense that it's key to all my tomorrows being ok. Bitterness looks awful to live with. I want to be whole and happy and healthy emotionally after this past year, not wracked with unforgiveness or anger. I'm doing good. I just want to wring out every drop.
This book follows the stories of six Rwandans' lives before, during, and after the 1994 genocide their country went through that left every 1 in 8 persons dead in just three months time. Not just dead, but horrifyingly murdered, often by yesterday's friends and neighbors. Years later the perpetrators were released from prison in groups of tens of thousands. Most of them headed home where their families were...where their victims families were. Can you imagine the tension? Rwanda became a drama for the world to watch the incredible depth of forgiveness and reconciliation that the human soul is capable of producing, truly with God as the source.
I would sit in bed reading this book at midnight with tears pouring down my face. These stories are unbelievable. But I didn't walk away thinking that my pain is somehow wimpy or insignificant because nobody has killed my children before my eyes. Minimizing my own hurt, though seemingly irrelevant compared to what happened to these people in Rwanda, isn't part of the answer at all. You can't minimize your pain and work through it simultaneously. One friend told me recently that you have to lean into the pain. Feel the full force of it. It's only when you've let the hurt have freedom to hurt that you can hope to come out of it clear headed and done. Maybe its easier said than done. I'm not really sure.
You often hear people say, as the rational to forgive, that you need to forgive for you. That unforgiveness or the churnings of resentments inside you will mess you up. You can get physically unwell. It will eat at you. Forgive so that you can be healthy both physically and emotionally. I think it's all true. And of course, there is the ultimate biblical obligation to forgive. God has completely forgiven you in Christ and you have no hint of rightness to not forgive your brother. I'm on board there too. I've thought a lot about the New Testament writings on forgiveness.
But there were new thoughts in this book. The one that was huge for me is that forgiveness is a gift you give to the offender. And that the giving of this gift is hard and painful. Giving forgiveness is priceless and an ultimate kindness. There is nothing greater that you could ever give to that person. And giving forgiveness to the person in your life that deserves it the least is really hard to do. As a matter of fact, it's so hard that it hurts. Gut wrenchingly so. But if you can press into that pain and make the choice to forgive, you've done something huge. Something bigger than yourself. Something deeply right in response to something deeply wrong. Who wouldn't walk away from that and not notice that the sky is a little bit bluer and the sun a little brighter?
"Like everyone who wrestles with forgiveness, I had to first understand what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not mean that what happened didn't matter. It isn't sweeping a crime under the rug. It isn't saying the crime was a misunderstanding. It isn't saying that the crime did little harm or that it left no loss in its wake. Forgiveness isn't forgetting. It doesn't have to mean forgoing the established criminal justice system. Forgiveness isn't usually a one-time act, but more commonly a lifetime commitment. Finally, and most important, forgiveness is excruciatingly difficult." (pg. 88) I would also add that forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean you have to go on to have a relationship with that person again. It's ok to be done.
I think about people who won't forgive. There is an incredible amount of power and control that the unforgiving person attempts to retains and holds over the offender. The potential power to make that person feel horrible for the rest of their lives, for example. To plague them with a guilt that even God himself says He is willing to forgive. It seems that the unforgiving person doesn't realize that they, too, are human and fail and sin and offend. Welcome to earth. We actually all stand on equal ground in need of forgiveness from each other. If you're too good to extend forgiveness, perhaps you need to reevaluate your view of yourself. Maybe you're not as neat as you think. And I don't mean that for the person who wants to forgive but struggles to do it. Where do you start? I think you start by getting to a place where you can say to God that you are willing for Him to make you willing to forgive. I don't mean to be cavalier, but honestly...when you can say that to God and really mean it...He'll do the rest. You really can sit back and wait and watch. He is the source, He gives it to you...and forgiveness seems to be one of His specialties.