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No Future Without Forgiveness

By Desmond Mpilo Tutu
Doubleday. 1999. 289 pp. $ 23.95. ISBN 385-49689-3

Reviewed by Jorge Lara-Braud
Austin, Texas


If you are a teacher or a preacher of Christian faith, or if you are simply in need of a persuasive argument that God is still in charge of your life and everything there is, you should get a copy of this book.

Here, from both a factual and a theological perspective, Desmond Tutu gives us a riveting account of the risks the new government of South Africa took to get beyond the legacy of apartheid and to put in its place a future of justice and reconciliation.

It rejected “the Nuremberg solution” because the perpetrators of the worst crimes had destroyed most of the incriminating evidence and practically every crucial witness. And they were still holding on to the guns.

It also rejected a general amnesty, the solution chosen in recent years by the new governments in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries after years of repressive regimes. As Tutu observes, the new South African leaders, practically all educated in church schools, simply could not consent to the crime of letting criminals walk away with impunity and ill-gained possessions. Nor could they deny the victims the right to call their oppressors to account, or to give public expression to their grief.

Instead, South Africa surprised the world by opting for a third alternative, what Desmond Tutu rightly calls “restorative justice.” Under its terms, amnesty was to be granted, even to the most notorious criminals, as long as they confessed their crimes publicly and truthfully. Their victims were to be provided with a forum to tell their story, and with a share of reparations to be paid by the government.

The primary instrument of “restorative justice” was the 17-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission appointed in 1996 by the government with Tutu as its chair. The commission’s work, completed in three years, became the greatest asset for South Africa to heal a past of horror and to build a future of hope.

This book is Tutu’s opportunity to share with us some of the stunning events that have marked the rebirth of South Africa, especially the stories told to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With a keen sensitivity, he examines in detail two recurring signs of blessing for the future of the nation. One is the forgiving spirit of the victims, in spite of the appalling crimes committed against them by the agents of the apartheid regime. The other is the exhilarating liberation from guilt that has come to the perpetrators who have made a public confession of their crimes.

Fortunately, Tutu does not miss a chance to glean invaluable theological insights form these signs. Perhaps the most valuable is his conviction that the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth loves victim and victimizer unconditionally. That means that we should never give up on even the worst offender.

As Tutu reminds us, the expression “There but for the grace of God go I” is not a pious display of humility, but the acknowledgment that the ultimate difference between that other offender and me is that I have accepted forgiveness while he has not. Therefore, nothing has greater potential to cause the criminal to repent and renounce his cruelty than to let him know most certainly that he, too, can be forgiven.

This magnanimous theological perspective enables Tutu to detect in the recent history of South Africa and in the experience of the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation the miracle of God’s reconciling love. No wonder, he observes, the nation was spared the blood bath so many feared, and instead became the most hopeful sign that even this world’s worst enmities can be healed. The illustrations Tutu chooses to document this miracle may cause you to weep or laugh. They may also cause you to believe anew that God is truly in charge, and that for that reason, evil cannot have the last word anywhere in all creation.

The book is worth a doxology, especially because the one who writes it is obviously a doxological theologian, not only in times of ecstasy, but also in times of agony.