Lessons about Reconciliation and Reparations from Desmond and Mpho Tutu: A Book Review

Cover photo of the Book of Forgiving published by HaperOne.

Editor’s Note:  This week’s guest contributor, Sally Mac Donald, offers reflections on the 2014 book by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving. Sally examines the lessons learned in confronting apartheid in South Africa and offers reflections on how these lessons may apply in the United States and more broadly. 

Reviewing the Book of Forgiving during Black History Month allows us to look at ways to right the wrongs of this country’s original sin: mistreating and exploiting People of Color. Whether they were indigenous to this continent, imported as slaves, or the Chinese being excluded from becoming citizens, justice requires that a recognition and renewal take place.

As a Black born in South Africa, 1931, Tutu’s own experiences of apartheid factor into the narrative as well as those of his co-author daughter, Mpho. The book also depicts many other forgiveness journeys; its tapestry is its strength.

Before laying out the process of forgiveness, the authors describe the nature of forgiveness itself. They dismantle myths and preconceived notions. Forgiveness is Not: weakness, a subversion of justice, forgetting, or easy. For those familiar with the 12 Steps of AA, there is recognition that making amends hold value for the perpetrator. Asking for and granting forgiveness are also included in this exploration. The chapter on forgiving oneself is powerful. Although love is interwoven throughout the book, it’s disappointing that there is little mention of Tutu’s Christian spirituality. The strength and courage derived from a Higher Power is given minuscule credit.

The authors set out the paradigm of the Fourfold Path of Forgiveness: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the relationship. It’s these guidelines that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used to restore South Africa after apartheid. Imagine how these stages could be used in an individual relationship, yet also translate to maximize society’s healing.

Telling the story

In this stage, victims take back their dignity after being harmed. Those who have committed wrongs can witness and better understand the humanity of those they’ve hurt. Likewise, the betrayed person needs to acknowledge the humanity and back story of the perpetrators. It’s fair to say that none of us is blameless, or wants to be judged by our worst behavior. Desmond admits his anger and transgressions; his daughter acknowledges her shortcomings.

Naming the hurt

Before an injured party can find release through forgiving the perpetrator, they must process the emotion of being hurt. If we deny the hurt, it festers and comes out sideways. In a micro sense, it can become resentment; if a community hurts, it can foment that energy into rage. Further violence can ensue.

Granting forgiveness

The Lord’s Prayer recognizes that we ask forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We choose to forgive others because it dissolves the toxin that robs serenity. If we acknowledge that we’re not ready to forgive because the hurt is too raw or tender, a Higher Power can grant us the grace to carry on until we are ready.

Renew or Release the relationship

The final stage is an action step that requires a choice. Do we renew the relationship or release it? With individuals, safety is required before re-engaging with a repentant perpetrator. As a country, South Africa had to find a way to renew because releasing the relationship would mimic the stalemate that endures in Israel with its West Bank. From this distance, that conflict appears to have neither side ready to reconcile. One wonders how the war in Ukraine will resolve when Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine is so blatant, and the trauma so deep? What mediator can stand in the breach?

As for the United States, our choices for beginning the Fourfold Path for Forgiveness would require a true recognition of our history. Whether we start at 1492 or 1619, there are historical hurts that can only be forgiven if we face them. Erasing our history because it’s uncomfortable moves us backward, not forward.