Contents: UU World Back Issue

Forgiving the worst

by Rosemary Bray McNatt

We live in a world of escalating atrocities, when humanity’s inhumanity is ever more prominently on display. Yet even in the midst of such turmoil, even in the face of horrific oppression, there are voices that stand out for their rarity—voices of mercy, empathy, and forgiveness. How do human beings forgive, and what might forgiveness look like? Are there times when forgiveness is impossible, and if so, what happens to the hearts of the wounded and the unforgiven?

These are complex questions that assume a particular importance now, and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a tough-minded as well as compassionate inquirer into this sensitive subject. A clinical psychologist who served with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Gobodo-Madikizela may know more than she wants to know about the soulless brutality of apartheid. In A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, she shares what she learned through a series of interviews with one of apartheid’s most notorious murderers.

Eugene de Kock was the commander of the South African death squads, head of the covert operations that murdered thousands of black and white anti-apartheid activists. His testimony during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission implicated many other police and government officials and revealed the depth and breadth of the South African government’s determination to crush resistance to the apartheid regime. Gobodo-Madikizela first encountered de Kock when he testified about his role in the murder of three black police officers. The black officers had threatened to expose the role of white police officers in the suspicious deaths of four anti-apartheid activists, and de Kock had been summoned to respond. He asked the technology division of the police to plant a remote-control bomb in the officers’ car. When the bomb was detonated, it killed the officers as well as a friend who was accompanying them.

After de Kock’s testimony, he pleaded with the commission to let him meet with the families of the murdered police officers to apologize privately. The Commission granted his request. A week or so later, the author, her curiosity aroused, talked with Pearl Faku and Doreen Mgoduka, the two widows who agreed to see de Kock:

Both women felt that de Kock had communicated to them something he felt deeply and had acknowledged their pain. “I couldn’t control my tears. I could hear him, but I was overwhelmed by emotion, and I was just nodding, as a way of saying yes, I forgive you. I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well. . . . I would like to hold him by the hand, and show him that there is a future, and that he can still change.

It was this exchange—“one that raised burning questions” on the nature and appropriateness of forgiveness—that prompted Gobodo-Madikizela to interview de Kock for a total of forty-six hours over six months. What is so effective about this potent little book is the author’s willingness to examine not only de Kock’s feelings and motivations, but her own. She is resolute in her honesty and brings a deeply felt curiosity both to their meetings and to her reflections about them.

If showing compassion to our enemies is something that our bodies recoil from, what should our attitude be to their cries for mercy, the cries that tell us their hearts are breaking, and that they are willing to renounce the past and their role in it? How can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups?

This question may be irrelevant for people who do not have to live as a society with their former enemies. But for those whose lives are intertwined with those who have grossly violated human rights, who sometimes even have to live as neighbors with them, ignoring the question is not an option.

Gobodo-Madikizela was briefed by the prison warden about security provisions for her visits with de Kock—right down to a chair on wheels she was expected to sit in, so that she could scoot away from him in the event of an attack. And yet from their first encounter, Gobodo-Madikizela was struck by the ordinariness of the man responsible for so many murders. Raised by an abusive Afrikaner nationalist father whom he referred to as “the proverbial hard man,” de Kock grew up surrounded both by separatist rhetoric and emotional trauma. Just as striking, she writes, is de Kock’s struggle around violence—not only the violent life of his childhood, but the violence that was state-sanctioned apartheid.

De Kock knew that what he had done as commander of covert police activity at Vlakplaas [the apartheid death camp] was simply beyond what most human beings could understand. When it came down to it, it was beyond what he could understand, once he was removed from the day-to-day demands of the destructive life he had led. And this was his burden, his struggle. The cloak had now been removed to reveal what had been hidden before, not only from the public eye but from himself as well.

How had such a man been able to fool himself so completely about who he was and what he was doing? In apartheid-era South Africa, it was almost easy for a murderer to be convinced of his value as a patriot. A convoluted sense of morality often springs up in the midst of such atrocities, as the author reveals when talking about the murder of children under apartheid. “De Kock’s conscience regarding children led him to respond differently. He protected them. ‘I made it very clear verbally,’ he told me with passion, ‘and in virtually every operation you don’t, you don’t harm children.’ . . . If any of his men were to kill a child, he said, he would personally execute them.”

The author asks, “If de Kock was capable of so much evil . . . how could he have found the compassion to save children from the tragic consequences of his actions?” She suggests that his own childhood helplessness and need for protection motivated these restrictions on his own malevolent behavior. But throughout the book, even as she uses a psychologist’s tools to try to understand de Kock, Gobodo-Madikizela is very much aware of her own equally complex feelings, not only as a professional committed to the healing of her nation through the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but as a citizen of the new South Africa, mourning the inclusion that was denied her for decades. At no point does the issue of multiple perspectives become more clear and more poignant than in an early interview with de Kock, when the author asks him to talk about his meeting with the widows of the bombing, and is confronted by de Kock’s tears and remorse: “Relating to him in the only way one does in such human circumstances, I touched his shaking hand, surprising myself. But it was clenched, cold and rigid, as if he were holding back, as if he were holding on to some withering but still vital form of his old self. This made me recoil for a moment. . . . ”

Later, however, her withdrawal becomes something more:

[A]s I drove out of the prison . . . I started to feel a great sense of anxiety and despair. During my drive I suddenly broke down in sobs. . . . My emotions were becoming increasingly confused, but only in the sense that they represented my multiple identities, the past, and the present. . . . My tears were for all those years of being . . . relegated to a second-class citizen, even a foreigner, in the country of my birth. . . . I felt a deep sense of loss about this. But at the same time, I felt a sense of loss about de Kock, that the side of him I had touched had not been allowed to triumph over the side that made him apartheid’s killing machine. . . . Hard as the memory of having touched him was, the experience made me realize something I was probably not prepared for—that good and evil exist in our lives, and that evil, like good, is always a possibility. And that was what frightened me.

The author comes to understand the power of forgiveness, even in the face of terrible evil, through her further interviews with both de Kock and with others who had been victimized by him. She reviews and regards with respect the history of other mass atrocities, but Gobodo-Madikizela in the end believes that the effort to forgive, combined with ways to reincorporate certain perpetrators into the society they have wounded, is in the end the only path toward justice and accountability, particularly in societies in which victims and perpetrators must live side by side. “The question is no longer whether victims can forgive ‘evildoers’ but whether we—our symbols, language, and politics, our legal, media, and academic institutions—are creating the conditions that encourage alternatives to revenge. We have come to rely too narrowly on retribution as the only legitimate form of justice.”

Not everyone will agree with the author’s conclusions, and even she moves toward this stance cautiously—for how do we determine genuine remorse? Who has the right to forgive the perpetrators of great evil?—but it would be difficult to find a more searching appraisal of the good and the evil that lurks in every heart. A Human Being Died That Night is an affecting and courageous work.

In the West, a disproportionate amount of religious practice has been designed in one way or another to subdue or control the self. Buddhism, of course, reminds us that the very concept of self is an illusion—but as illusions go, it’s a pretty powerful one. Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, has struggled both professionally and personally with the negative images of self that control our lives and limit our futures. Her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, is a warm, personal guide to Buddhist-based practices that are meant to encourage the embrace of who we really are.

“Believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering,” Brach writes. She shares the story of her own search for spiritual enlightenment and the painful ways in which her need for perfection placed her at great emotional risk. (Her account of one spiritual teacher’s emotional abuse is chilling.) Stories of clients in her psychotherapeutic practice and exercises and guided meditations leaven the book, and her humor and warmth help Brach avoid the typical excesses of self-help guides. Readers will be rewarded with a practical guide to self-compassion.

It is not a matter of self-indulgence, the author explains. “By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive.”

The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt is a contributing editor for UU World and minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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