Acton Institute Powerblog

As We Forgive, Can I Forgive?

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My Acton commentary this week looks at As We Forgive, a moving documentary about reconciliation and forgiveness in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. As I reflected on forgiveness in my own life, my thoughts fell on a dear friend who died very young and my feelings towards the man who took his life.

The full commentary follows:

Two and a half years ago I lost my good friend, Tim. He had just reenlisted for his second term in the Army after having already served once in Iraq. On a late summer evening, while stationed on his base in Washington, a fight broke out. Tim tried to break it up and was stabbed in the neck by a fellow solider. He died shortly afterward at the hospital. Tim was 22. I haven’t ever thought much about the young man who took his life. And if I had the opportunity to meet him, I can’t think of any reason that I would. Tim’s killer is locked behind bars for the rest of his life, and for all intents and purposes justice has been served. For me it’s easier to forget that he still lives while my friend is dead.

For many in the small African country of Rwanda, however, it’s not easy to forget about death. Just over a year ago, I traveled with the Acton Institute to Rwanda in preparation for a new project on poverty. Although we were there primarily talking to entrepreneurs about wealth and poverty, it was impossible not to have questions about the 1994 genocide. In less than 100 days, nearly one million people were murdered and tens of thousands were responsible for these deaths. Flying into the country with that knowledge, a mere 14 years later, I didn’t know what to expect. I was anxious and unsettled, the same sort of tension that I felt while visiting Tim’s body at the funeral home. The weight of death stood in stark contrast to such a vibrant culture.

Genocide destroyed Rwanda — socially, economically, and politically. After some measure of stability was restored, the new leaders needed to find a way to further return order and rebuild the infrastructure that was lost. Punishing the murderers and enacting justice was immediately a problem. How do you uphold justice when the guilty are too many to count? The small, landlocked country didn’t have the prison space to lock up all of the killers. With an overwhelming backlog of court cases and little hope of full reparation, Rwanda’s leaders tried something revolutionary. Incarceration and execution were set aside in favor of reconciliation. Beginning in 2003, over 50,000 killers who acknowledged their part in the genocide were released and reintegrated back into society. The doors were opened for genocidaires to live side by side with the surviving members of families they had destroyed.

Stories and Reconciliation

Filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson jumps headlong into the tension between the justified victim and the repentant killer. Her hour-long documentary, As We Forgive, tells the personal stories of two women struggling to forgive the men who took their families from them. Hinson also shares the testimonies of the men, wracked with grief and remorse, as they do their best to find forgiveness and rebuild trust. With the help of Rwandan mediation groups, the victims and killers meet face to face in an attempt to reconcile.

There is nothing forced about the forgiveness process Hinson exposes in As We Forgive. She simply uses the camera as a window through which the audience watches it unfold. The story follows Rosaria, who has already forgiven the man who killed her family. Her journey in the film is one of re-building trust. I liked Rosaria immediately and was amazed by the peace and gentleness that flowed from her, despite the incredible hardships. But not so with another woman, Chantal, who has no desire to meet the man who wronged her. The pain she suffered is tangible and forgiveness is nothing compared to the justice she feels she deserves. Hers is a story of deep grief and a desire to withhold forgiveness.

I will never forget the personal stories I heard from the survivors of the genocide during my visit. The stories of the killers, however, were not told nor did I ask to hear them. Hinson, on the other hand, has the insight to recognize the importance of the guilty men’s accounts. Both men describe the darkness that overcame them and how the weight of their actions has affected their lives. Their burden of guilt is heavy and, although terrified to meet and interact with Rosaria and Chantal, both men do whatever they can to redeem themselves.

The descriptions of both survivors and murderers are essential to understanding the forgiveness taking place in Rwanda. This is what makes As We Forgive most powerful. Humanity is recognized in all parties involved and they all have a chance to tell their story. The viewer is exposed to the pain of injustice and to the darkness of human sin, two things that all of us can relate to in our own lives. While I may have not taken the life of my neighbor, I have, at times, been responsible for the pain in the lives of some of my closest friends. While at first it feels like a great leap from upstanding citizen to blood-thirsty killer, Hinson seems to suggest that perhaps we’re not so different from the killers ourselves. While it’s easy to hate the men who performed such horrific atrocities, after hearing the grief in their voices, I could not. I know how it feels to be a sinner.

Grieving Hearts

As We Forgive demonstrates the most powerful and authentic expression of forgiveness I have ever seen on film (it has subsequently inspired a book of the same name by Catherine Claire Larson). Human nature encourages us to hold on to justice with both hands. So often, we believe that only by inflicting maximum punishment can a perpetrator really understand the pain of the victim. We believe that peace and freedom can only come when the guilty pay the price for their actions. As We Forgive says something very different. In the worst of circumstances, forgiveness, an act completely contrary to human instinct, has the power to genuinely heal both parties. While Rosaria seems to accept forgiveness quickly, Chantal doesn’t want anything to do with forgiveness. As she sat across the table from the man who wronged her, I wanted to shout at the screen, “Forgive him! Don’t you see? It will set you free!” But Chantal struggles. It’s easy to champion forgiveness when you’re not the one who must offer it.

Last month, I received a message from the sister of my late friend Tim. She announced that his killer is asking for clemency. Tim’s family has already written letters to the appropriate authorities asking them not to grant any leniency. And who could blame them? The man who took Tim’s life legally deserves each and every minute he spends in that jail cell. However, I know the last two years haven’t done much to heal the hearts of Tim’s family members. They have done their best to move on. After watching As We Forgive I started to wonder if maybe there was a way to find greater peace?

I don’t know the condition of Tim’s killer’s heart or whether he’s even looking for forgiveness. However, the evening of Tim’s death has affected him each and every moment of these last two and a half years. His sitting in jail hasn’t brought any peace to my heart. Although some may disagree, I don’t think another 10, 15, or 75 years will bring any further healing. I’ve begun to wonder if maybe I understand Chantal better than I initially thought. In the back of my mind, I can hear a little voice saying, “Forgive him! Don’t you see? It will set you free!” Honestly, I don’t want to but I’m having trouble avoiding the evidence. It’s satisfying to hold my pain against him, rather than find healing. In the same way that I need forgiveness for all of the inhuman things I do to my neighbors, maybe this man does too. The question is, am I strong enough to extend it?

Tabitha Blanski Originally from Chicago, Tabitha Blanski graduated from Calvin College in January of 2007, earning her BA in film studies. She spent her final months at school in Los Angeles working for Intuition Productions and studying the connection between religion and media. Her position with Acton allows her the opportunity to engage in the numerous stages of film production including planning, filming, and editing Acton’s new and upcoming documentaries and short films.


  • How does one forgive those who refuse forgiveness and continue to murder the innocent?

    Should the Allies have forgiven Hitler and NOT invaded Germany?

    Should the Duke of Wellington have forgiven Napoleon and not freed Europe?

    For that matter, should Elijah have forgiven the 450 false prophets of Ba’al and not have slit their throats at the Kishon Brook (1st Kings 18)?

    Should John the Baptist have forgiven the Pharisees and Sadducees instead of calling them what they were, a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7)?

    Or what about St. Paul and Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1st Timothy 1:19-20, both of whom he had to turn over to Satan that they might be taught not to blaspheme?

    People who commit genocide must be utterly, totally and completely defeated. Sometimes that takes force of arms against those who remain unrepentent. Just as a rabid dog is taken out into the field and shot dead for the safety of others, so also with these subhumans who insist on continuing to murder with impunity members of their own species.

    Sorry that that is harsh, but forgiveness doesn’t mean we roll over and play dead, sacrificing the lives of thousands of others who will be murdered as a result, just so that we can be self-rightoeusly smug that we are so forgiving.

    NATO should have gone in and wiped out the murderers who perpetrated the Rwandan genocide. You don’t sit at the table with the devil, hoping for a fair deal because you’re not going to get open. When the perpetrators of this genocide did was unspeakably evil, and the fact that Western countries sat on their hands and let it happen is an utter disgrace!

  • Dave K

    I would think forgiveness impossible without a sincere expression of regret on the part of the offender, and that means more than saying “I’m sorry”. In the absence of an effort to make restitution, apologies are simply cheap talk, and it should surprise no one that forgiveness may not be forthcoming in those cases. There will be no peace of mind or comfort flowing from forgiveness if the sentiment is not sincere.

  • Exactly my point, David. People need to read Luke 17:3-4 and see what it REALLY says:

    “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.”


    Notice that Jesus says “…and if he repents…”

    No repentance – no forgiveness. It’s that simple. You can’t give to someone what he refuses to accept.

  • Paul and Dave,

    I don’t think it’s as clear cut as that. The jeerers were not asking for forgiveness when Jesus was hanging from the cross, telling his Father, “Forgive them…” And in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that the Father “…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

    And also, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

    I’m not one easily disposed to forgiveness, and I’ve never been wronged in ways mentioned in this post. So I’m not speaking from experience here. But I do believe that there is something expected of us beyond the offering of forgiveness to someone who’s demonstrated contrition.

    Great post, Mrs. Blanski! Not a bad way to start.

  • Jack,

    Maybe you’re right. Maybe not.

    I truly fear that if we had adopted that attitude, then we’d all be speaking German now. The response to evil sometimes is the force of arms. The Christians at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 understood that as they faced the Islamic fanatics of the Ottoman Empire. And the Franks understood that at the Battle of Tours in the mid-700s when the Islamic Moors were fighting for southern Europe.

    I realize that this isn’t in the Protestant Bible, but it is a part of Sacred Canon and is in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. 1st Maccabees chapter 2 talks about how Mattathias and his sons had to oppose Antiochus IV Epiphanes lest the Gentiles soon destroyed them. Because of what they did, Israel was preserved for the next 165 years when Christ was born.

    Read 1st and 2nd Maccabees sometime. Learn what people had to do for freedom. Indeed, freedom is never free and as one of the Founding Fathers of our Republic once said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots alike. It is its own natural manure.”

    We need to remember history as it is, not as some sort of idealized fantasy.

  • Jack,

    Please forgive me if I seem a bit “off the wall”. I agree completley that as Christians we must always have a forgiving heart. But when it comes to genocide in Rwanda, Islamic fascist terrorism in the Middle East, or history’s examples of Nazism, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Napoleon Bonaparte, then sometimes force of arms MUST be used.

    That Western countries sat back and did NOTHING to stop the Rwandan genocide is unconscionable (did I spell that right?). I suspect that is Rwanda had been oil rich like Iraq, the story might have been different, and that’s sad.

  • Paul – I think we both agree about something. Our call to forgive cannot prevent us from confronting evil. When some confuse the two, one or the other is downplayed, and evil in some way prevails. I think pacifism is immoral. We must both love our enemy and stop our enemy from doing evil if it is in our ability to do so, and sometimes violence is an appropriate means.

  • Agreed 100%, Jack. This is why I often have to partake of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. I can confuse the need to confront evil with my greater need to forgive. I am so very imperfect when it comes to forgiving and I need the help of a holy priest.

  • Sandra Roelofs

    As demonstrated by Christ’s words on the cross that Jack quoted earlier, Jesus is the ultimate forgiver. For this I am truly thankful. However his forgiveness does not mean that all consequence of sin is erased.

  • Paul, I think we’re on the same page.

    The fact that Rwanda was abandoned and left to clean up so much evil on its own was a horrible injustice. But justice and forgiveness are two different things. Justice is necessary to protect society and keep people safe. Forgiveness is how one finds personal healing, whether on the part of the guilty or the innocent. In the case of “As We Forgive”, forgiveness came over a decade after the genocide was finished. At that point, justice had already been enacted but personal relationships were severely broken.

    In no way am I advocating that Christians are called to step aside and ignore horrible atrocities out of forgiveness. If it came across that way, I apologize. Genocide, in any country or situation, is a terrible evil that needs to be stopped. I do, however, believe we could find much greater peace if we were better able to use both justice and forgiveness in fighting evil.

  • I have not seen the movie yet but hope to. We all need inspiration when it comes to forgiveness.

    That said, for many Christians, ‘forgiveness’ has devolved into self-therapy…and that problem cannot be discussed in 25 words or less.

    Hope some might read Love, Prayer and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies