Forgiving what's difficult to forgive

A Christian Science perspective: Lessons in forgiveness from the people of Sierra Leone after the atrocities of civil war.

Imagine this kind of courtroom: the victim of a crime states the charges against the perpetrator; the accused admits guilt and asks forgiveness. The victim then offers forgiveness to the accused, who promises to make amends to the individual and his family. Immediately, both individuals spontaneously grab each other’s hands and begin a dance of reconciliation, as everyone around them celebrates.

This is not some utopian fantasy; it is the reality of how Sierra Leone is healing after the brutality of its 11-year civil war. Fifty thousand people were killed, and over 2 million people displaced. Today, March 23, is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the civil war. It will be a day of national commemoration to support the victims as well as to make a commitment that never again will the people have to resort to such bloodletting in order to solve their problems.

The “courtrooms” where conflicts are being addressed are evening bonfires where villagers gather to bear witness not only to the admission of guilt and forgiveness, but to the restoration of community. The joy of drums pounding and of the people dancing in the firelight fill the hearts of the participants and observers. This process has happened in Sierra Leone over 100 times since the program started three years ago. By the time another year has passed, 50 ceremonies involving over 300 villages will be blessed by this healing. More than 1,200 people have stood before their communities to tell their stories.

What kinds of crimes are being forgiven? Nothing less than mass beheadings, rapes, maimings, and brutal beatings that have left victims blind and disabled.

This healing process is called “Fambul Tok,” family talk, a centuries-old practice of Sierra Leone culture. What’s happening there is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that family relationships were threatened by the rebels abducting children and training them to turn on their families.

Last week at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, I watched the première of the film “Fambul Tok,” a documentary that tells the story of the growing number of villages that are being restored through the project. Human rights activist John Caulker had the initial vision for the project. With the support of the peacemaking and philanthropic organizations Catalyst for Peace and Fambul Tok International, he and his staff have traveled thousands of miles (often on foot) to help the villagers remember their own heritage of forgiveness.

The forgiveness and repentance are not superficial. And although restoring full relationship between the individuals and rebuilding trust may take time, the bonfire commitment is a genuine beginning. Reaching into the depths of their being, perpetrators move past the animality and find ways to live their humanity. The victim is given a way to exercise the freedom to forgive and find the authority to move forward.

Since watching the movie, I find myself wondering how thorough my own forgiveness of others has been. These words of Mary Baker Eddy from the textbook of Christian Science are ringing in my ears: “In Science man is the offspring of Spirit. The beautiful, good, and pure constitute his ancestry. His origin is not, like that of mortals, in brute instinct, nor does he pass through material conditions prior to reaching intelligence. Spirit is his primitive and ultimate source of being; God is his Father, and Life is the law of his being” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 63).

Several times in the film the villagers and their chiefs affirm passionately, “We are one family.” Our primary relationship is not in the “brute instinct” and tragedy of human experience. Our primary relationship is anchored in our common source, God, Spirit. Forgiveness is one of the ways we practice our divine origin.

This fact that spirituality is our true nature makes profound demands on our thought and life. It insists that we practice humility, usefulness, unselfishness, and expectancy. It has profound consequences for our families and communities. The practice of forgiveness is so inherent to each individual’s spirituality that it cannot be destroyed, not even by the brutality of war.

The gift of Sierra Leone to the world is this: No matter how severe the crime, it is more important for the individual’s place in the community to be restored than to hold on to the memory of suffering and sin.

Let us join the people of Sierra Leone on this day of commemorating peace and in reverent defense of the high goal of forgiveness. Let us receive the gift of forgiveness by being more willing to practice it – with an immediate joy in restored relationship, even dancing to drumbeats!

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