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.
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?