Forgiveness after evil: is it possible?

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Forgiveness after evil: is it possible?

Friday, 27 April 2018  | John Steward

‘Forgiveness is difficult’ was a frequent admission of my Rwandan team when we began together in 1997. Every person in the country was affected by the events surrounding the 1994 genocide. Most were aware of personal failures as well as the impact of their actions on others. ‘You have a difficult job but please don’t ask me to forgive anybody’ was a common welcome to me.

At that time many church leaders preached: ‘you must forgive; forgive and forget’. This challenge intimidated many Christians because it added the pain of shame to entrenched feelings of guilt, anger, failure, hurt, anxiety, powerlessness and fear. People lived with the consequences of evil all around them. As one missionary quipped, ‘There are no demons left in hell – they have all gone to Rwanda’. The perpetrators of the genocide numbered in the thousands, many of them ordinary people who now had a lot to answer for. In this sense, evil was not just ‘something out there’, but something that ‘has its seat in the human heart’.[1]

Back in Australia, one hundred people had committed to praying for us. Being assigned to find ways to build peace and bring hope adds a certain pressure. We needed divine leading. I was fortunate to be given a directive on my first day in Kigali: ‘You have come to a complex situation; don’t do anything for 3 months. Just look, listen and learn’. This advice saved me from rushing out to ‘rescue’ traumatised Rwandans.

Seeking insight and understanding

Our first source of inspiration was Scripture. Mark’s gospel is compact, with an economy of words. His repeated use of the word ‘forgiveness’ in the early chapters reflects his grip on the purpose of the coming of Jesus. Mark reports John the Baptist using the synonym ‘remission of sins’, linked with ‘repentance’ (1:4). In the next three chapters Jesus speaks of forgiveness seven times (2:5, 7, 9, 10; 3:28, 29; and 4:12). Mark concludes this focus as Jesus begins his ministry in Jerusalem: ‘Forgive, if you have any-thing against any-one’ (11:25).

The practice of forgiveness is the heart of faith in Jesus Christ, and it was at the core of our vision for Rwandans. But that alone could not overcome the barrier of ‘Forgiveness is difficult’.

The second source of inspiration was through watching and waiting. In Rwanda, to share without discriminating between ethnicities requires openness to forgive. I heard my first story of forgiveness; then I learned of survivors caring for lonely people in hospital. This group of widows of the genocide, whose personal poverty was evident, would walk several kilometres every Saturday to share half of their possessions without discriminating. Our hope increased.

Third, as a team we added two words to our response: ‘Forgiveness is difficult, but possible’. But just how could it occur? I found a copy of David Augsburger’s Helping People Forgive.[2] He explains that the first normal reaction of people traumatised by painful events is not to do anything about it. He named this denial. Daily, Rwandans came to tell me their stories of being stuck in pain, loss, shame, disappointment and guilt. They felt paralysed and trapped in their vivid memories, frightening dreams, daily suspicions, mistrust and fears. Denial does not mean pretending that nothing happened; rather, it means choosing not to do anything or simply not knowing what to do.

Denial was also apparent whenever Church groups sent us proposals for funding of ‘reconciliation events’. These were for running seminars to consider the history of why genocide occurred, or for work in prisons. None could report having seen reconciliation happen in their attempts to work for change. I began to search for where it was occurring.

Augsburger suggests that for a victim to willingly forgive they must participate in a healing process with their offender or with a healing community. In Rwanda many survivors do not know who killed their loved ones, so they feel they can never resolve their pain. Their denial has morphed into paralysis (I believe that people do this everywhere after conflict).

Some months later I learned of several healing approaches: two that were developed in Rwanda and one from South Africa. We decided we would encourage and support these African responses.

We discovered that these approaches worked for both survivor and offender, male and female, Hutu and Tutsi. People who had been at enmity were able to look each other in the eye and talk about the past. Prison work began in earnest; some prisoners wrote confessions and prepared letters of apology. Several churches began low cost work to help perpetrators prepare for the nationwide grassroots justice process.

How does this healing work?

Of the 3 workshops, one was for pastors and included biblical material on the unconditional love of God for sinful people. Another was shaped for interfaith groups, while the third was based on behavioural psychology. They had many common elements such as confidentiality and truthful telling of the story. Some onlookers raised questions about the approaches: was not Christ’s healing of the wounds of sin sufficient?

The book of Genesis recounts challenging events in the life of Joseph. He suffered six life events that were, in the language of our day, traumatic. They were times of disappointment, disempowerment, dislocation, rejection and other personal challenges. Yet he showed an attitude of openness to what God wanted and to what was best for his adopted family and country. He was able to process his pain and loss with the support of companions who listened to his story. He remained stable, useful and faithful to God. In the end, his undeserving brothers and their kin all benefitted. In its complexity, Joseph’s journey connected with what we were observing in Rwanda.

Towards the end of Genesis, Joseph demonstrated a practical understanding of forgiveness after suffering wrong and what it can enable. After severely testing his brothers, he spoke clearly to them, searching for signs of their repentance. Despite some bumbling responses, Joseph opened the door to rebuilding a connection.

Joseph showed the therapeutic value of forgiveness, creating an atmosphere for possible reconciliation. We see his gentle assurance in Genesis 50:20-21: ‘You meant to do evil/harm to me, God intended to turn it to good, to bring about the survival of many people; so don’t fear, I will provide for you and your families’. This was not a throwaway line about ‘God cares’, but suggests that Joseph cared for them because God had a purpose beyond his suffering. From where did this belief come?

 I suggest that Joseph remembered his clan history – both the story of Isaac’s survival when his father was preparing to sacrifice him, and the history of his first ancestors when they disobeyed and tried to hide their shame from God. After that first failure in Eden God came down, seeking as usual to commune with the couple before their day ended. This act of conversing is inexplicable unless it demonstrates that God had forgiven them despite their wrong action and lack of repentance, even while they remained determined to defend what they did!

In interpersonal relations, where the one who has suffered has not forgiven the perpetrator, avoidance is the norm. A sane conversation with the offending party is not usually possible. However, in the Garden of Eden, God, who was the offended party, reached out to Adam and Eve. A conversation ensued and consequences were stated. A price was to be paid by the perpetrator in the form of a challenging life change – finding bread by the sweat of their brow. So forgiveness and justice are implicit in Genesis 3, as is the prospect of future restoration.

Thoughts on Forgiveness

What does the word ‘forgive’ actually mean? When we talk about forgiveness, what kind of forgiveness are we talking about?

In the Hebrew Bible two words are used: to bear or take, which is a very common word; and to pardon, a relatively rare word used only of God. The focus in the second is on divine forgiveness, for example:Who is a God like You, forgiving [pardoning] iniquity and remitting transgression?… You will hurl all of our sins into the depth of the sea’ (Micah 7:18-20).

The interpersonal dimension is relatively rare and usually someone in power shows the mercy. There is no instance of a powerful offender requesting forgiveness of another person.… the forgiveness… is grounded in self interest or in natural emotions that are more powerful than the desire for revenge.[3]

In the New Testament, the key word for forgiveness means ‘to leave or let go; to release’. It is almost always used of God. We call God’s act ‘divine forgiving’ because it absolves human sin. In Rwanda, divine forgiveness gave faith to Christians but it did not impact their conflicts with others. For this they needed interpersonal skills, including interpersonal forgiveness, to resolve the alienation created between people with a history of prejudiced and divisive behaviour.

The crux of the New Testament term is ‘to let go’ of bitterness toward the offending party and to choose not to take revenge. This human dimension of forgiveness raises questions: How does forgiveness occur, what does forgiveness achieve, what does it do to the memory, is apology necessary first, can one generation apologise for another generation, and what about justice? What does the practice of forgiveness mean and not mean? How can I prepare myself to practice forgiveness?

The words of Isaiah 9:6-7 are read in churches every December: ‘His name shall be called … Prince of Peace… of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end’. I am yet to hear a sermon explaining what the Prince of Peace does, but Rwandans have helped me create a definition: ‘The Prince of Peace rules in me through a healing that enables me to forgive and reconcile with my offender’.

As we saw this occurring with traumatised Rwandans, we found a new principle: ‘Without healing, forgiveness is impossible’. This is consistent with Augsberger’s insight:

In reclaiming the humanity of the other, in validating the injury, and in purifying the anger comes healing.… We cannot heal ourselves; healing is either actualized, mediated or surrogated within community. We are healed by the other, we heal each other.[4]

A wound must be opened before it can heal. This is delicately handled in the three workshops we used. Based on small group sharing and symbolic remembrances of pain and loss, people move, at their own pace, from denial of their pain to feeling the depth of it. In the absence of counsellors or psychologists, small groups are the space where deep work begins through listening.

Can only the offender repent?

Empathy, as shown in a willingness to understand the other party, is a key to forgiveness. But when a survivor cannot receive empathy from a perpetrator, are they to be consigned to perpetual pain? Augsburger adds:

… when in an alienation or injury a surrogate process becomes necessary because the offended and the offender cannot or will not meet, the surrogate can give actuality, authenticity, and availability on behalf of the forgiving community that supports and empowers the interaction.[5]

Forgiving is often hard work. The Welsh poet Waldo Williams wrote: ‘What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns to stand alongside your old enemy’.[6]

Bill Clinton responded to this invitation to empathy when, in 1998, he met survivors of the genocide. Prior to that day, Clinton was perceived in Rwanda as being guilty of not intervening speedily when he knew about the genocide; he was almost seen as an enemy who used his power against Rwanda.

The Rwandan government had hastily built a small structure at the airport to be inaugurated by President Clinton. However, Rwanda was not yet stable and his ‘minders’ refused for him to leave the terminal for fear of his safety - not even to walk 100 meters to the memorial sculpture containing bones of victims and some of the killing tools.

Despite this hiccup, Clinton made a speech at the terminal that showed an attitude of repentance and contrition:

I have come today to pay the respects of my nation to all who suffered and all who perished in the Rwandan genocide.

The international community… must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope.

… all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.

We must work now to remedy the consequences of genocide. In their [the genocide victims’] fate we are reminded of the capacity in people everywhere… to slip into pure evil. We cannot abolish that capacity, but we must never accept it.[7]

I was out of the country at the time but returned to Kigali the following day. I expected my Rwandan friends would hold dark emotions such as fury and disappointment; instead they were exultant: ‘President Clinton came to apologise, he accepted responsibility for his failure, it was amazing’. His empathising had deep impact; Clinton was forgiven by hundreds of survivors. These Rwandans were letting go of their bitterness because someone had acknowledged their painful past, helping to heal a rift (wound). Since that day, the Clinton Foundation has proven his sincerity through many practical contributions to the country. Another way in which empathy can be shown is ‘identification repentance’, sometimes called ‘political forgiveness’, which occurs when an individual or group expresses their regret for historical failures by previous members of their group. It is an attempt to be truthful, and to acknowledge hurts that have been minimised or ignored. Precedents for this approach can be found in the ninth chapters of Daniel, Nehemiah and Ezra.

I observed the power of the idea when I sent one of my team to participate in a 3-day healing event. He reported:

I was relatively untouched until the final day when the Welsh facilitator stood to apologise as a European for the failure of the West to come to the aid of Rwanda. When she confessed her shame at Europe’s failure, I knew she accepted that we felt abandoned 1994. This contrasted with the speedy international response to Kosovo. I am comforted that someone cares about how we suffered.

A spirit of attending and responding to the truth about our past gives healing impact to this approach. Otherwise people of the next generation may easily carry forward the weight of their forebearers’ losses and nurture the pain of alienation, abuse and aloneness. They believe that no-one cares about the long, painful memories they have inherited. (In storytelling cultures these hurts are kept alive.) Heartfelt acceptance and contrition that validate the sense of injury or loss are part of the ‘good’ that overcomes the memory and the effects of evil (Romans 12:21).

At the same time, the weakness of making empathy the primary focus is that it can seem to give little weight to a commitment to offer recompense for what is lost. Empathy, if it is not accompanied with some act of justice, can be hollow.

Practicing forgiveness

I had believed in the concept of forgiveness, taught it and preached it; but Rwandans showed me how it works. In healing workshops, participants dreaded the thought of forgiving. ‘Am I to be told that I must forgive my offender(s)?’ From childhood this is a normal fear; none of us respond well to coercion.

Augsburger refers to ‘purifying the anger’ as a component of healing. He says that ‘we divide within and “forgive ourselves” to regain unity’ before we can seek to forgive the other.[8] As Rwandans processed their emotions by learning to respect their feelings, they saw themselves more truthfully. They noticed desires to hurt others, to regain the upper hand, to obtain satisfaction through vengeance. They saw that they could be stepping out onto the path of violence and that this would begin the cycle of violence all over again.

By a grace that was not of them they found themselves leaning towards the option to ‘forgive myself’. It came as both a surprise and an opportunity. The door opened to an awareness that peace in my world begins with me: I can be a peace-maker or a peace-breaker.

My inner healing helps to fulfil the injunction of Hebrews 12:15, which warns of the poisonous bitter root that impacts many. As the poison within is removed until only a scar remains, I can move to the question about forgiving others for what they did to my loved ones and me.

Forgiveness is a choice and cannot be coerced. Neither should it be begrudged. Solomon Schimmel[9] points out that there are moral issues raised by forgiveness and that all forgiveness has consequences, good and bad. He adds that, ‘If people have a more sophisticated understanding of what forgiveness entails, they will be able to forgive intelligently rather than indiscriminately’.

At a human level we must engage with one another about resolving the pain one has caused to the other; at the same time, we will need to engage with God to resolve the sinful acts that brought the pain, or to receive the grace to let go of our bitterness and desire for revenge. Some explain this difference by saying ‘I don’t forgive an act, but a person’. In general, if an offender comes and pleads for forgiveness, such a request deserves a response. This may be to offer either a ‘yes, thank you for your apology, I have forgiven you’, or a ‘wait; I am grateful for your apology but am not yet ready to forgive you’.

A common misconception is to believe that forgiveness is for the offender. In situations where the offender shows no contrition, or if the offender is unknown, a willingness to forgive plays a crucial releasing role in the victim/survivor. Rwandan musician Jean Paul Samputu (pictured below),[10] full of intense hatred for the man who killed his father, heard God’s voice repeatedly telling him, ‘you must forgive Vincent’. Samputu’s healing began the moment he accepted to do this. He sings:

Forgiveness is for you, not for the offender.

Forgiveness is to release you from your prison of hatred.

We become what we do not forgive.[11]

There are physical actions that can help set our minds towards forgiveness:

First, I can extend both arms and say, ‘I am so sorry, please forgive me’.

Second, if I receive an apology I can say, ‘I forgive you’, and extend my right hand to shake the hand of the person apologising. Alternatively, I can clasp my two hands together and say, ‘I appreciate your apology, but I am not yet ready to forgive you’.

Third, in my imagination I might have reached forgiveness for a hurtful event, but the person who acted is not around; in that case I can place my right hand on my heart and affirm, ‘I have an attitude of forgiveness towards that person’.

Fourth, I learned from two women of Rwanda the most powerful response of all. They suggest two statements. First, extend the left hand with a flat palm and say, ‘I have already forgiven you’. Keeping the left hand flat, now raise the right hand with fingers pointing upwards in the STOP sign and say, ‘but what you did was wrong and I want to know what you are going to do to help recover something of what was lost by what you did’.

This double action of a forgiving spirit asks the offender questions of repentance and restitution; it invites them to choose justice that is restorative not punitive. Such forgiveness does not let the other person ‘off the hook’, does not pretend that bad things did not happen and does not seek revenge, but seeks accountability from the perpetrator. It does not replace the need to go to court or stand before a tribunal. It invites the perpetrator towards healing and the possibility of reconciliation – the point where two enemies may face each other and meet in the middle.


Schimmel points out that, ‘even though the forgiveness transformations are primarily internal, the fruition of forgiveness is entering into community with others’.[12] I need to think often about this: ‘In what way do I engage with evil when I forgive, repent or apologise?’ The Spirit of the Prince of Peace who rules in me is peaceful and leads me to acts filled with peace. But does this peace only come after my healing from life’s trauma, violence, hurt, grief and loss? The Prince of Peace who lives in me knows that my healing will enable forgiveness and reconciliation.

John Steward has degrees in divinity and agriculture, and a PhD in Soil Science. John is an author and advocate for peace and for the past 20 years has told the story of healing and recovery in Rwanda. He is the author of From Genocide to Generosity: Hatreds Heal on Rwanda's Hills (available here), for which free online study guide for small groups can be found at

This article will also appear in the forthcoming Zadok issue on ‘Engaging Evil’ (No. 138, Autumn 2018). You can subscribe to Zadok here.

[1] G. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 392.

[2] David Augsburger, Helping People Forgive (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

[3] Solomon Schimmel, Wounds not Healed by Time (NY: Oxford University Press,

2002), 81-82.

[4] David Augsburger, Helping People Forgive (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 97.

[5] Augsburger, Helping People Forgive, 1996, 98.

[6] Waldo Williams, ‘What is Man?’, v. 2,

[7] ‘Text Of Clinton's Rwanda Speech’,, 25th March 1998.

[8] Augsburger, Helping People Forgive, 1996, 97.

[9] Schimmel, Wounds not Healed by Time, 2002, 237.

[11] Session 8 of the Study Guide, ‘To Live Well and to do Well’,

[12] Schimmel, Wounds not Healed by Time, 2002, 238.

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