Thursday, August 17, 2023 | Trey Comstock
"The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge.
These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.
In order to advance such reconciliation and reconstruction, amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past. … With this Constitution and these commitments we, the people of South Africa, open a new chapter in the history of our country." (Republic of South Africa Constitution of 1993)
This comes from the interim constitution for South Africa. It intentionally setup a bridge from the hyper-racist Apartheid regime that drew boundaries based on skin color so harshly as to constitute a gross human rights abuse and a modern multicultural democracy. The specific passage above enshrines into the founding fabric of the nation what would become the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both victims of Apartheid and perpetrators of Apartheid still lived in the same nation. They hoped to avoid recurring cycles of bloodshed around past crimes without sweeping those crimes under the rug. They desired a nation based on the African concept of ubuntu that roughly translates to “I live because you are” – a deep interconnectedness between all people. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who ended up leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, entitled his book on the process, “No Future Without Forgiveness,” which also serves as a decent summary of the situation. People committed horrendous crimes. People suffered horrific injustices and violence. Now, both of those groups sought to live as one nation. A process of truth, admitting what happened and letting the victims tell their story, a formal request for amnesty, and then, reconciliation and forgiveness without forgetting, seemed to be the only way to let that happen. Now, nearly 30 years on, it worked at least in the broad strokes. Forgiveness can give life to both forgiver and forgiven, allowing everyone to live in a new way.
We see this process playout in Jacob’s family here in Genesis 45. Jospeh’s brothers commit a crime against him so famous that it has its own Broadway musical. Jealous of his relationship with their father, the other sons of Jacob knock out Jospeh, sell him to slavers, and tell their father that he died. For a while, things for Jospeh only degrade. He ends up imprisoned and faces death many times, but eventually, he works his way up to a highly respected position in Egypt. Things only go marginally better for his brothers. They remain in their father’s house, but a famine forces them to seek help in foreign lands. Jospeh’s respected position and his brother’s near starvation bring them back into contact, and the question on the table becomes one of survival. Without Jospeh’s help, the rest of God’s people, at that point solely made up of Jacob’s family, will die out. Without forgiveness, they too have no future.
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7-8 NRSV)
Jospeh does forgive and, in doing so, gives them a future. Here, we glimpse Jospeh’s spiritual superpower – processing the trauma, staying connected to God, and not letting past harm hold him back. He’s no longer a slave. Now, he has risen to the administrator of all Egypt. Even though he suffered, he can see how God has used that suffering and how he can help God’s people, even if they don’t deserve it. If you survey the Old Testament, Jospeh stands out as one of the few unblemished characters. He never wavers in his faith or has complicated romantic relationships or sells out God’s people for earthly power. His only sin seems to be being a mildly braggy teenager. His forgiving his family stands in that line of faithful accomplishments. He had every right to turn them away. They harmed him, and they weren’t Egyptian and, thus, had no claim on the grain. He decides to not let those things stand in the way, and his family survives.
For their part, the brothers never assume that they deserve forgiveness. When Joseph reveals himself, they blanche, expecting the other shoe to drop. “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” (Genesis 45:3 NRSV) This silence speaks volumes. To me, it reads as a recognition of the harm and that they cannot expect any good going forward. Their minds races with the recognition that because of what they did, they doomed God’s people. No doubt, they lived a lifetime in that silence as all hope drained away. That moment is its own kind of wordless confession. Thanks be to God and God working in Joseph, their nightmare scenario of causing the death of God’s people doesn’t play out. They get forgiven. Their world continues turning.
This isn’t just about nation states or Biblical families. Any time we forgive, we tear down a wall. We lessen the number of grudges poisoning our world. We opened another opportunity for us and those around us to live fuller lives. The brokenness of modernity thrives on hate, but in forgiving, we take away some of that hate’s potency. We forge new ways for God’s people to thrive.
However, we won’t always be in the forgiver column. We will also need forgiveness and won’t deserve it. In those times, we need to recognize forgiveness as an underserved gift, confess the wrong, and then hope. Maybe the person on the other side will offer us a future.