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Sunset from Capetown

Costly Forgiveness

The Bomber and Me

Michael Lapsley


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Now It’s Your Turn

Why is it that to this day, whenever I’m asked to tell a story I go blank? My father also never told stories. Perhaps that’s because his own father was a story, one that is in the history books.

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In April 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I was living in Zimbabwe working for Mandela’s African National Congress movement. One day I received by mail an envelope with two religious magazines. When I opened it, the package exploded, destroying both my hands and one eye, shattering my eardrums, and inflicting many other injuries.

To this day I can clearly recall how when the bomb went off I had the distinct sense that God was with me. I felt that the great promise of scripture had been kept: “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Now whenever I tell my story, I am not bitter, and I don’t want revenge. But forgiveness? In reality, I haven’t forgiven anybody, because there’s still no one to forgive – I don’t know who made the bomb, who wrote my name on the envelope, who sent it. Sometimes I speculate about what it would be like to meet those responsible. Perhaps one day there will be a knock on the door, and a person will be standing there saying: “I am the one who sent you that letter bomb, will you forgive me?” How will I respond? I might say, “Excuse me, sir, do you still make letter bombs?” “No,” he might reply, “now I work at the local hospital. Will you forgive me?” Then I would answer, “Yes, I forgive you, and I would prefer that you spend the next fifty years working in the hospital instead of being locked up.”

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Michael Lapsley

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I believe one thousand times more in the justice of restoration than the justice of punish­ment. So often when we say “justice,” we mean punishment or even revenge, but of course there is another kind of justice: the justice of restoring relationships. Perhaps I would drink tea with the letter-bomber and tell him, “Well sir, I have forgiven you, but I still have no hands, only one eye, and my eardrums are damaged. I’ll always need someone to assist me for the rest of my life. Of course you will help pay for that person, not as a condition of forgiveness, but as part of your effort to make reparation and restitution.”

In the Christian community especially, we often speak of forgiveness in a way that’s glib and cheap and easy. My experience, however, is that for most human beings, forgiveness is costly, painful, and difficult. And yet, when it happens, there is mutual liberation. The Greek word the New Testament uses for forgiveness also means “untying a knot.”

Pain connects people. Much of my work is in South Africa’s black community, and my passport to that community is the fact that I have suffered. When I was working in the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Capetown, an African woman once came to see me and began to tell her story. I offered to refer her to one of our psychiatrists. “No,” she said, “I’ve already seen them. I want to talk to you.” I asked her why. “Because you know suffering and pain.”

In this way, the loss of my hands and eye, which is dramatic and visible, becomes a passport to other people’s brokenness, which often is not visible but is no less real. Broken­ness is the norm for the human family; perfection is not. Those of us with conspicuous physical disabilities remind the rest of the human family of the truth about all of us.

One characteristic of our age is the phenomenon of unfinished business coming back to bite societies that have sought to bury their past rather than to heal it. When apartheid ended in South Africa, we faced two giant questions: How can we get people water, electricity, education, and healthcare? And how do we deal with what we have done to each other? In any place of conflict, the transition towards justice must deal with psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues as well as politics and economics.

Even when there is a just settlement of a conflict, if people are full of hatred, bitterness, and desire for revenge, it will never create a good society. Leaders must come to terms with this. If Nelson Mandela, when he walked out of prison after twenty-seven years, would have said, “Now it’s time to get them,” we would have died by the millions. But what did he say? “Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

Based on an interview by Richard Mommsen on May 7, 2014.

people watching sunset A crowd awaits sunset on Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
Contributed By Michael Lapsley

Father Michael Lapsley, a member of the Anglican Society of the Sacred Mission, has worked in South Africa since 1973. As a student chaplain during the 1976 Soweto Uprising, he protested atrocities committed against schoolchildren by the apartheid government and was expelled from the country as a result. Today he is director of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa, and the author of Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer (Orbis, 2012).