Easter Day, April 24, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
The nation of South Africa changed the face of human history in the decade of the 1990's. South Africa held its first free election in April of 1994. The world had watched with bated breath as the edifices of apartheid were systematically dismantled and another way of life was build on its ruins. The crumbling of the old system had begun 5 years before when President, F. W. De Klerk surprised the parliament and the nation by removing the bans on liberation movements, and releasing Nelson Mandela.
The Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, records the cataclysmic inner struggles of that April day. On the one hand South African blacks were being allowed to vote for the first time in the life of the nation. They were overjoyed to the point of delirium. On the other hand, they had lived with reprisals for so long that some feared that the whole day was a set-up for an even more crushing blow. South African whites voted because they always had. Many supported the change and voted for a new South Africa, even amidst the growing sense of betrayal of the system that had so benefitted them, and many of them feared the reprisals awaited them from newly empowered blacks. In the World Community optimists heralded the day as the end of yet another oppressive regime in the world. Pessimists and realists who had seen what had happened in other similar situations were far less hopeful. They predicted a bloodbath as the newly enfranchised blacks pushed their hated oppressors into the south sea.
But it just didn't happen. Oh, yes, there were the excesses of the day, but nothing of the bloody aftermath everyone feared. Far better than the pessimists, even more than what even the optimists hoped, something happened that was totally new in human history.
It was clear that all were victims of a system gone wrong, the great question was how to set it right. Tutu and Mandela saw two impossible extremes. On the one hand cruel justice had been dished out on Nazi war criminals in the Nuremburg Trials, and the result was only more fear and less reconciliation. On the other hand, calls for blanket amnesty were hardly honest with the horrendous pain the country had experienced, both the pain of the oppressed, and the damage to the conscience of the oppressors. They chose instead the knife-edge of the middle ground. They created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with the profound work of reconciling a people alienated from itself. It functioned on two principles. First, amnesty may be granted only to those who in good faith came completely clean with their deeds, and restitution was something negotiated between the perpetrator and the victim. There just would be no reprisal.
It was astoundingly successful. More often than not the experience of victims being able to tell their story in a context of support and truth, combined with hearing the perpetrators tell the full story of their deeds and ask for forgiveness was enough to have both leave the room arm in arm, both delighting in their newfound freedom and friendship! The nation of South Africa realized that the way forward had to be the way of forgiveness.
Well, maybe it wasn't the first time in human history. The very first time took place a couple of millennia earlier. This time it was not a nation that was alienated from itself, it was a whole creation. It was not just political and economic, it was cosmic. Jesus also faced the possibilities. When Jesus rose from the dead He could have marched into Jerusalem at the head of his disciples' army, stormed the Temple and seized the High Priest. Pilate's palace would have been next, followed by Herod's stronghold of Caesarea, and then, with the Armies of Heaven behind Him, He could have marched on Rome itself. What could have stopped the King of Kings from asserting His place? Or He could have stood in the middle of the air and pronounced forgiveness for all of creation, for we knew not what we did in killing the King of Glory, He could have whisked us all into heaven, and lived happily ever after.
But these were also impossible options. The first would have been to reduce His kingdom to a kingdom of the earth, built on the same systems of power that have produced such mixed results for us, and the second would have been to obliterate our part of the deal, short-circuiting our engagement in the process. Instead He chose something radically different, something in-between—in good Anglican style! To the fearful men who ran to his grave He sent an angel to send them into Galilee instead. Galilee, where it all started, and from where it would all now once more begin, Galilee of the Gentiles, shadow of the world-encompassing mission to come. To the faithful woman who wanted to find his broken body he called her by name; personal, warm and present! “Mary!” In the grand scheme of things Peter, James and the other disciple, Mary and the women, were no less guilty than the Pharisees and the Soldiers. But in the resurrection God walked the knife-edge of forgiveness with us. Cruel and harsh justice was set aside, with its inevitable end of winners and losers where in the end all lose, as was mere unthinking amnesty with it's Pollyanna forgetfulness. Instead God opted for reconciliation, whose end is relationship, purpose and fulfillment!
You would almost think that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu had heard of that story before! In fact, there were others, like the young Welshman named Patrick, caught by Irish slave raiders in the 6th century who escaped and then return to Ireland at the risk of capital punishment to win the land for Christ; and J. Hudson Taylor who gave his life to share Christ with the Chinese and is remembered there to this day; or 5 young men who landed on a gravel bar along the Curaray River in eastern Ecuador half a century ago, and gave their lives to reach the warlike and violent Waorani who now follow Christ; and Bruce Oleson who contracted malaria to reach the unreachable Motilone of Venezuela. The list literally goes on and on and on.
Yes, Tutu and Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is unique in the way it reconciled a nation to itself, built as it was on Christian forgiveness, but the reconciliation of the world through forgiveness has been happening countless times and in countless ways throughout the world. You’ve lived it, and if you believe in the resurrection you’re called to live it in ever greater circles around you. Every instance is unique, yet every instance is built ultimately on one great moment between God and His creation, the resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.