Healing Through Forgiveness, Creating Peace on Earth
Story and photo below by Christine Giordano
COVER PHOTO CREDIT: From Tutu: Authorized by Allister Sparks and Mpho A. Tutu. Image copyright © Matt Hoyle/PQ Blackwell
To see him is to experience him. When Networking® magazine experienced Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he sat, poised in a chair beside former Human Rights Commissioner and president of Ireland Mary Robinson. At 80 years old, dressed in black with a crimson priest’s collar and large, dangling, silver cross, his frame seemed deceiving small for the largesse that was about to hypnotize the room. When he finally did speak, his voice resonant with oak tones, he seemed to blend humor and wisdom into a mesmerizing cocktail that imbued members of the audience with positive feelings for days.
“Each one of us has an instinct that allows us to hone in on goodness. The people we admire, revere, aren’t usually the powerful, the macho. You could say a lot of things about Mother Theresa but macho would not be one of them,” Tutu said to the crowd’s delight. Giggles rippled through the audience.
…And then there was the knowing that you were in the presence of two superheroes of global proportion. Known for her morality and her ability to always do what’s right, Robinson was the first female president of Ireland who went on to fight for human rights across the globe. Archbishop Tutu is a Nobel Laureate of 1984 whose super-human powers seem to incite peace when conflicts are at a stalemate and seem hopeless. During the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, Tutu served as a spokesman for one of the most important liberation movements of modern history. (The Dalai Lama calls Tutu his “spiritual older brother” in an essay published in Tutu: Authorized, HarperOne 2011.) As an Archbishop, Tutu was part of the revolution that banished apartheid from South Africa. Then he somehow healed the rift for the nation to live in peace.
Robinson and Tutu had arrived to represent The Elders (theelders.org), an independent group of world leaders who work together for peace and human rights, including President James Carter, Kofi Annan, Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Fernando Cardoso and Graca Machel. On this day, they were speaking about girls, as young as 8 or 9 years old, being forced into marriages around the world. (Every year, 10 million girls are married without consent before they’re 18.) In addition to child marriages, The Elders are working toward healing and reconciliation in the Middle East and the Sudan; in Côte d’Ivoire , where over 3,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in post election violence; in Cyprus, to heal decades of conflict and division between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots; to help improve inter-Korean relations; and to stabilize Zimbabwe.
But Tutu was also doing something else. He knew his appearance was being broadcast to an audience of thousands of “young people;” the same young people who have changed regimes in Egypt, created an Arab Spring for their beliefs to be met, brought water to areas of drought, and, in essence, are crusading for and actualizing their ideals. These are the people who use the Internet to organize and “tweet” their messages across the world, who, through social networking are given a virtual megaphone to broadcast their views like never before in history. Suddenly, Tutu was speaking directly to them.
“Compassion, integrity, gentleness, those are the things that really make the world go around,” he said. “And it’s going to be ok — eventually. And all of you here are enlisted by God to make this world that kind of world.
“And you’re just fantastic. You don’t know, God looks down and…” (Pantomining ‘God,’ Tutu animatedly rubbed his hands together as if God has big plans for them, then raised his hands in a silent cheer, then broke into his trademark giggle of joy.)
With his tremendous charisma, he immediately crossed the age-divide, and was simultaneously celebrating young people while enlisting them. He was asking youths for help to evolve the world.
Their response was immediate. Seconds later, Tutu’s message was rebroadcast throughout their Twitter accounts, his words echoed by those he had just touched, for thousands if not millions, of their collective friends to see. He seemed to have a natural way of reaching them. It wasn’t the first time American youth had broadcast his message.
When The Elders was formed by Richard Branson (Virgin Atlantic Airways) and musician Peter Gabriel, they tapped Nelson Mandela, who then again selected Tutu to be its chair. The two’s history began years ago, when civil rights activists were banned from speaking out and sometimes beaten to death, and young, angry Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 after trying in desperation to form an armed wing of the African National Congress. Then activist Steve Biko was killed in detention in 1977. Tutu rose reluctantly as an interim spokesperson against the South African apartheid.
The cause seemed hopeless at the time. When South Africa’s segregated population broiled in a festering volcano of hate and violence, Tutu stood up against the extremists on both sides. He eventually incited thousands to march through the streets, helped millions claim their human rights, and called for sanctions against South Africa.
A turning point for Tutu was when he was heard by an American audience as he attended a national Episcopal Church conference in New Orleans in 1982. His warm, intelligent-yet-self-effacing humorous preaching style made an indelible impression on Americans who were still mourning Martin Luther King. He enabled them to put a face to the apartheid struggle in South Africa, where thousands were being discriminated against in the name of effective governance.
“Impassioned students who could barely pinpoint where South Africa was on a global map” championed the cause, setting up “squatter camps” in U.S. universities and causing a “political tsunami,” according to Tutu: Authorized.
It had its effect. Ninety American companies pulled out of South Africa. Chase Manhattan Bank refused to roll over short term loans, and their rand currency plunged 35-percent overnight. Things in South Africa started to change. Suddenly, communities of color were allowed limited voting rights in segregated areas of Parliament. Activists took heart and pushed harder.
It wasn’t easy for Tutu. In South Africa, the Archbishop walked a political tightrope that could have led to his murder from either side. He had to be radical enough for blacks, but the government declared it a criminal offense to even call for universal suffrage. Activists were silenced and banned from travelling by a government that unleashed forces to bludgeon and interrogate to death those who disobeyed. Crowds of protesters were fired upon. On the other side, those who were fighting to desegregate South Africa were murdering people they thought were informers, and violently using the common torture practice of “necklacing” in which victims were burned alive inside of rubber tires.
When Tutu called for sanctions against his own country, he was labeled “Public Enemy Number 1” by the government. More than once, he risked his own life, once by storming into a bloodthirsty crowd to rescue a victim who was about to be necklaced. His headquarters were bombed, his life threatened, and he faced malice from both sides. He called for a freedom march, wrote to and obtained a letters of support from Margaret Thatcher and President G. H. Bush, and led 30,000 people of all colors, (a.k.a. “Rainbow People of God”) through the streets. It created change. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison soon afterward, and Tutu left his political leadership post. After apartheid finally ended and people of all color were allowed to vote in 1994, President Mandela tapped Tutu again. This time it was to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a travelling confessional which heard 31,000 apartheid human rights abuse cases in three years. It was the final step of the nation toward peace.
Broadcast over the airwaves from community halls, there was no doubt that apartheid existed, and that people had been unfairly harmed. Because South Africa has a strong belief in community unity, there were three specialist committees for human rights violations, amnesty applications and reparations for victims, enveloped within a theological framework calling for repentance and forgiveness from the community at large.
Tutu was the compass, even as he underwent cancer radiation therapy. Known for his deep listening ability, he shared his empathy and compassion with the victims and called them to higher ground. There were times when Tutu wept, overwhelmed by the atrocities he was hearing. But, he quickly realized his emotions would draw the cameras toward him and away from the victims and their stories. He learned to hold back his emotions for the sake of healing the rift of his country’s divide.
Then the Archbishop, or “The Arch” as he likes to be called, went a step farther. He would ask the victims if forgiveness was possible.
But how can you forgive some one who has sent the order to murder your son? Or who tortured your loved one? Or who kept you oppressed, and treated you as less than human?
Tutu brought about tremendous moments of humanity, when guards finally admitted opening fire into crowds and asked for forgiveness, and when mothers of murdered sons found it within their hearts to forgive their killers. A nation wept with them. Felt validated. The strength of the every day person, and their ability to ask for and give forgiveness, became the balm that healed the masses.
What is Forgiveness?
Bill Moyers once asked Tutu, “What do you do when you forgive someone?” The Arch replied, “I am abandoning my right to revenge, to pay back. By the fact that you have abused me, hurt me, wronged me — by that, you have given me a certain right over you. I have the right to retribution. When I forgive, I jettison that right and I open the door to you to make a new beginning.”
He believes that in not forgiving, the person is trapped in a consuming pattern of anger and resentment, where they are looking for the opportunity to pay back the harm they’ve experienced. In essence, even their thoughts are victimized. What does the one being forgiven need to do, asked Moyers.
“For your own sake, the only way you can appropriate forgiveness is by confessing. That opens the possibility of being able to receive,” said Tutu.
Tutu has continued on, through his Desmond Tutu Peace Center in Capetown, and as chair of The Elders, to work toward creating peace in international conflicts. He’s gone to Côte d’Ivoire to encourage an independent, inclusive, national reconciliation following months of post-election violence. In 2009, he was part of The Elders’ delegation to Israel and the West Bank to support Middle East peace by meeting with diverse groups of Israelis and Palestinians. Responding to Darfur’s genocide tragedy, he travelled to Sudan in October 2007 to meet officials and internally displaced persons. He’s also gone to Cyprus four times to promote peace, and Ethiopia to tackle the child marriage practice. “We want to use our collective clout, as Elders,” he told delegates, “to lift up something that has been ignored by the world.”
In autumn, he told an audience in Manhattan after being asked what keeps his spirits buoyant after all of the atrocities he has witnessed across the globe, “I think it is important for all of us to know that, even when the stakes are high against, in the end, good prevails.”
Tutu’s Message Inspires Long Island Community By Christine Giordano
Reverend Dwight Lee Wolter used a letter from Tutu to inspire a community toward healing.
It was 2008, and Marcelo Lucero, 37, had just been stalked by a crowd of teenagers, murdered and stabbed to death in an anti-Latino hate crime in Patchogue. Jeffrey Conroy, 17, was charged with the murder. Over 1,400 stuffed into Wolter’s Congregational Church of Patchogue for Lucero’s funeral, and $20,000 was raised for his family. But it was becoming obvious that parts of the Long Island community were festering with resentment and hate toward minorities. Yet the stories were rarely heard – some said because of the victims’ unwillingness to be documented, others said it was because they weren’t recorded properly.
Rev. Wolter’s own young daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. He knew resentment and hatred first hand, and his life’s path had taught him what needed to be done to reclaim community justice. He wanted to hold a hate-crime tribunal – the way Archbishop Desmond Tutu had done it in South Africa after apartheid, with all parties present, including law enforcement.
It was controversial, and Wolter said he faced backlash from all areas of the community. He also had to find a way to protect the undocumented residents of Long Island who feared exposure.
“Nobody really wanted to see or admit that this stuff was going on in the community… and there was a lot of denial and resentment,” said Wolter. Furthermore, was the undocumented fear of what would happen if officials from the justice system or the police department were invited, said Wolter.
“ You can’t circumvent the guys with the guns, badges and the power,” said Wolter.
The reverend found a way to write to Archbishop Tutu, and asked him for advice. Tutu responded with a letter.
“Basically, it said that all people need to have a seat at the table. Everybody needs to be included in that conversation,” recalled Wolter. “He felt even the families of the perpetrators should be invited.”
Wolter used the letter from Nobel Laureate Tutu to convince the community. The tribunal was held at Wolter’s church with the aid of the advocacy group, Hispanics Across America. Authorities, including the Suffolk County police, the district attorney, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department attended, with the promise that no one would face deportation. Fifty two people showed for the two hour tribunal; there was time to hear only 19 of their harrowing stories. Fourteen victims chose to meet afterward with officials to report the crimes against them.
As a result, audio tapes of the tribunal led to Grand Jury and Department of Justice investigations. Procedures were changed so that hate crimes would be red flagged by law enforcement. A Hispanic commander was assigned to lead the Fifth Precinct, and Spanish-speaking foot patrol officer Sgt. Lola Quesada was placed as a Patchogue community liaison. “If you commit a hate crime, Patchogue will come down on you… They’ve improved a lot,” said Wolter, who is still working toward promoting healing between the families of the perpetrators and the victims.