Stories of reconciliation bring peace to the nations

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 8, 2006

From a country whose very name till recently was synonymous with racial injustice are coming stories of hope that can transform the world.

In last week's column I mentioned that Cochrane's lady of linguistics and stuffed hippos, Elaine Phillips, adjunct instructor at Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary, would be the keynote speaker at the March 3 community-wide World Day of Prayer, hosted locally by St. Andrew's United Church.

This year's gathering was based on prayers and reflections by women from South Africa. Elaine, originally from South Africa, challenged her audience to rise above bitterness, a challenge that deserves repeating far and wide.

Elaine and her photographer husband Robin are no strangers to rising above life's bitter moments. In relocating from South Africa to Alberta in 1998, they had loaded all their earthly belongings into a container and entrusted it to a cargo ship heading from Cape Town to Vancouver. The container never arrived. Hurricane Mitch washed it overboard, sending to the bottom of the Atlantic a lifetime of love-filled memories – letters and photos that symbolized the couple's togetherness.

At Cochrane's World Day of Prayer, Elaine spoke passionately of South Africa's different kind of loss – a good loss, a washing away of generations of bitterness and revenge that stood in the way of a nation's togetherness.

She shared a story that has come to symbolize South Africa's new era of hope. Valuing author Philip Yancey's account, she quoted from his book Rumors of Another World:

"When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent. Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace when, after emerging from prison after 27 years and being elected president of South Africa, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform.

"He then appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe took control from another.

"For the next two-and-a-half years, South Africans listened to reports of atrocities coming out of the TRC hearings. The rules were simple: if a… policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the obvious injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice."

"At one hearing," Elaine summarized, "a policeman recounted an incident when he and other officers shot a young man, and then destroyed the evidence of their crime. Eight years later they murdered the boy's father."

Continuing her quote from Yancey: "The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. 'What do you want from [this man]?' the judge asked."

What was the elderly woman's request?

"'[He] took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like… him to come… and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like [him] to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.'

"Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing 'Amazing Grace' as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but [the policeman] did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.

"Justice was not done in South Africa that day…. Something beyond justice took place. 'Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,' [the Bible says]. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu understood that when evil is done, one response alone can overcome the evil. Revenge perpetuates the evil. Justice punishes it. Evil is overcome by good only if the injured party absorbs it, refusing to allow it to go any further. And that is the pattern of otherworldly grace that Jesus showed in his life and death."

Elaine concluded by turning her attention to her hushed audience. In our submission to God, she said, we too must "be reconciled to each other." Only then can our own stories bring "peace, love, hope and healing to all nations.

"We are the peacemakers."

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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