From the moment I first met Archbishop Desmond Tutu back in 2003, it was always my intention to one day ask him to give a lecture in London on behalf of The Forgiveness Project, an organization which he supports that explores forgiveness and reconciliation through the personal stories of real people.
Knowing, however, that everyone wants a small piece of one of the world’s most admired humanitarians, I did not imagine for a minute that I would succeed. But I had underestimated the man who gives so much to so many, and my request was in fact met with an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ via the Archbishop’s personal BlackBerry.
The minute I announced the lecture via The Forgiveness Project networks in February this year, word spread quickly and within three weeks the London venue, with a capacity of over 800, was sold out. It was at this stage that requests from fans and peacemakers all over the globe started landing on my desk. Everyone it seemed wanted to get a message to the Archbishop; some wanting to send him their stories; others to ask him to endorse their work or answer ethical dilemmas that were burning holes in their hearts.
At The Forgiveness Project’s inaugural annual lecture last Wednesday, it was easy to see why everyone wants a little piece of Desmond Tutu. His immense humanity and irrepressible good humour are infectious. As he spoke of the uniquely African concept of ‘ubuntu’, the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the transformative nature of forgiveness, there was a real sense that people were witnessing something immensely special. It was intriguing to see how he responded to the other speakers on the stage — Mary Blewitt who had lost 50 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide; Jo Berry whose father was killed in the 1984 Brighton bombing; and Patrick Magee, the former IRA activist who planted the bomb. Desmond Tutu indicated he felt honoured to be in the presence of these three remarkable people.
My guess is that not everyone in the audience felt as accepting as the Archbishop when Magee held firmly to his political position that the violence meted out by the IRA during the Troubles was justified because the besieged Catholic community had no other form of defence. Jo Berry, a pacifist, may not agree with the man who killed her father but she understands his position, claiming that had she lived his life, perhaps she would have made his choices.
For her, healing has taken place because she’s chosen to dialogue with Magee across their irreconcilable differences.
I have seen them speak together on many occasions and the tension is always palpable, and yet the very fact that for a decade they have kept talking says much about the process of reconciliation. Archbishop Tutu who has witnessed similar meetings between victim and perpetrator and is a strong advocate of Restorative Justice – provided a supportive presence for the three speakers as they demonstrated the discomfort and pain of loss, not least when a loan heckler in the audience retaliated with ‘rubbish’ at Patrick Magee’s claims that he had only embraced violence because there was no other choice.
Mary Blewitt’s attitude towards forgiveness appeared polar opposite to that of Archbishop Tutu. The founder of a Rwandan survivors’ organization, Surf, described how she had witnessed only pain, disillusion, and the re-traumatizing of survivors who were now forced to live next-door to the people who had once tried to kill them.
For her, the world is awash with forgiveness; “Forgiveness without justice is nothing more than delayed atrocity”, she says.
Standing on the stage, speaking of all the many atrocities she had born witness to, Blewitt’s story was deeply painful, but it was extraordinary to see Desmond Tutu edging towards her, respecting her pain. No one should be forced to forgive, he told her.
He shared his vision of ubuntu with the audience, explaining that in essence this was a philosophy of: ‘I am me because you are you…I speak, only because you speak’. He pronounced the word in a slow, considered way, as if savouring every morsel of meaning from a deeply humane concept that has helped repair his country. At the heart of ubuntu lies the belief that healing only comes through understanding and the radical realization that my humanity is inextricably caught up in yours.