Blue Coat School 17/9/03
Is forgiveness a sign of weakness?
If someone has wronged you and knows that she has wronged you, aren't you just caving in to her and letting her get away with it if you tell her you forgive her?
And can forgiveness sometimes be an injustice?
If you forgive a terrorist for an atrocity he has committed, does that absolve him from responsibility for his crimes?
We're used to thinking about forgiveness in personal terms. You and I know how difficult it is to forgive others for the things they do to us. It may seem crazy to suggest that forgiveness can come into the big conflicts going on in the world. But for individuals or for nations, the questions are the same.
They're massive questions for today, two years after 9/11; the same year as our leaders committed us to another military campaign in the Middle East; and as we come here this morning carrying with us our own hurts and grievences and regrets, which are just as important as the big world events.
They're questions like: can forgiveness bring strength and dignity to all the parties involved? Can justice be done through it?
The leaders of South Africa worked through these questions and concluded, yes. As South Africa ended apartheid, they set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was a court of law with mercy at its heart. It was a body which enabled justice to be done, with forgiveness.
This is how it worked. The Commission invited those who had committed acts of violence, violations of human rights, under apartheid, to publicly disclose the truth about their crimes. If they did, then the Commission granted amnesty to them.
This was no feeble well-meaning exercise in a weak sort of forgiveness, it didn't allow evil to triumph or to escape judgment.
As, day after day the Commission listened to people's stories about the atrocities that had been committed during apartheid, they granted amnesty only to those who pleaded guilty. In other words, only those who recognised their crimes and were prepared to take responsibility for what they had done were offered forgiveness.
This gave the victims an unusual opportunity to tell their stories, and gave them hope that they would be compensated and restored. And often these inquiries brought extraordinary scenes of repentence and forgiveness from those who had been involved.
The Commission's method raised many questions, some still unresolved, but for many people, it worked. It restored their dignity. It helped them start their lives over again.
That's not a full answer to the questions I've offered you this morning. But it's an illustration which may help enrich the moral conversations we're having these days, about how to deal with conflict in the world. South Africa shows that forgiveness can be offered as a genuine alternative to payback and retribution.