Our third Forgiveness Conversation of 2016, in collaboration with the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace, tackled the challenging question of whether it’s possible to forgive acts of genocide. Two speakers with first-hand experience told how family members had been victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide when up to 1 million people were slaughtered in 100 days; they also spoke about how forgiveness had motivated and guided them through grief to recovery.
The musician and peace activist, Jean Paul Samputu stressed that for him forgiveness had nothing to do with the perpetrator but rather meant a release from the bondage of hatred. Lesley Bilinda, currently vicar of St Andrew’s Church in Fulham and author of two books on the genocide, spoke about the murder of her Rwandan husband but also about how she was now able to give meaning to her grief experience “which changed me for ever and led me to work alongside people who are struggling.”
The Conversation was held at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace and began with the screening of Invincible, a short film by Rwandan filmmaker Yves Niyongabo about how Samputu came to meet and forgive his father’s killer, once a neighbour and close family friend. The film was a stark reminder of the chillingly intimate nature of Rwanda’s genocide where neighbour turned on neighbour with extreme brutality. Rwanda may be the most extreme example of what can happen when one group demonizes another but as Samputu reminded us “it was human-beings who did this – the world should learn from Rwanda.”
In the film, forgiveness is presented as the ultimate liberator, a position echoed by Samputu who told the audience that since we live in a world where the culture of revenge reigns, “forgiveness should be our permanent attitude.” He spoke about how God had shown him the way but surprised everyone by saying the only group he found hard to forgive were the Christians. He was referring to the Church’s moral and political culpability during the genocide. Bilinda added that sometimes being a Christian can complicate forgiveness because of an undue pressure to forgive.
She referred to the difference between psychological forgiveness (promoting improved health and well-being) and Christian forgiveness which she said “is based on the fact that God has forgiven me.” Then, after a short silence she reflected, “That’s quite overwhelming for me. If God can forgive me, who am I not to forgive others?”
One audience member said that whilst she could understand the reason to forgive individuals who had perpetrated mindless acts of violence in order to save themselves and their families, she then asked, how do you prevent a vicious ideology being upheld by forgiving those who spout it? Bilinda was adamant: “This has to be challenged. In Rwanda a vicious ideology seeped in because it wasn’t challenged. Even here in the UK today we have to stand up and challenge hatred and say it is not acceptable and demonstrate a different way of living.”
Dr Scherto Gill, the Executive Secretary of the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace (an organisation that The Forgiveness Project has collaborated with on a number of occasions) skilfully chaired the evening drawing the discussion to a close by inviting the audience to draw lessons from Rwanda’s past, and consider how relevant forgiveness might be to the growing fear and resentment in our society.
Samputu’s final gift to the audience was to sing unaccompanied his very personal and unifying anthem ‘Forgive’.