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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Forgiveness is possible

Even after the worst atrocities, forgiveness is possible, says a South African psychologist and researcher. At its core lies empathy, the turning point where people encounter and recognize each other as human beings.

July 31, 2012

Before Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela joined South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, everything she had ever read about the aftermath of mass atrocities told her that forgiveness was not possible.

But as a coordinator for the commission, Gobodo-Madikizela repeatedly saw forgiveness happen between victims and perpetrators of atrocities committed during South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Prompted by that experience, she set out to understand what she had observed. A psychologist and researcher on trauma and healing, she wanted to know what happens deep in the process of forgiveness.

Her conclusion after years of research: forgiveness is possible even in the aftermath of mass atrocity. It happens unexpectedly in the encounter between victim and perpetrator, in the moment when they recognize each other as human beings.

“At the core of these encounters lies empathy,” she said.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a senior research professor on trauma, forgiveness and reconciliation at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa, and former professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town. Her book “A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness” won the Alan Paton Award in South Africa and the Christopher Award in the United States.

Gobodo-Madikizela recently spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School for the Center for Reconciliation’s 2012 Summer Institute. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I was a coordinator for the commission’s Human Rights Violations Committee and organized the victims’ hearings in the Western Cape Region in Cape Town.

Part of that work was facilitating and chairing the public hearings and leading the encounters between victims and perpetrators. Sometimes family members of victims wanted to meet the people who had committed the atrocities -- the murders or disappearances of their loved ones.

They requested us to bring them together in private, so sometimes I presided over those processes. There were not many, but those that did take place often were the source of some of the greatest insights into what is possible in such encounters.

Q: How did that experience shape you and your subsequent work?

It revealed to me something that I had never discovered in my own research. Until then, what I knew about the possibilities after atrocities had to do with revenge -- about how much anger and resentment atrocities lead to for generations.

Hannah Arendt, for example, who wrote about the Holocaust and the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, concluded that you cannot forgive evil, that radical evil acts are unforgivable. You cannot even apologize for them. And it shaped her perspective of the possibilities, that those possibilities had a limit.

And then enter the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it disrupts all that we had read about what is forgivable or unforgivable. And that was an invitation for me to look deeper into these issues.

Q: Tell us about your research.

My research focuses on the role of forgiveness in healing traumas. I’m interested in unearthing and understanding what lies deep within these processes of forgiveness.

In addition to working with victims’ family members who expressed forgiveness, I’ve also spoken with their children and grandchildren, looking at the consequences of the past on the second generation.

They were too young then, but now they are the next generation, and they’re asking questions about how their grandparents could forgive. They’re asking questions about why they were not given a voice, and so on.

The transgenerational transmission of trauma has long been studied, but what I’m learning in this work is that actually there is also the transgenerational transmission of guilt and of shame on people who were not the doers of the deed.

By association, through their parents or their family members, it gets passed on to them as well. And the consequences are quite debilitating emotionally for many of these people.

Q: What are you learning about forgiveness? What are the overarching lessons from your research?

One is that forgiveness is a possibility, even in the aftermath of mass atrocity.

The second lesson is that when people engage and encounter one another and recognize one another as human beings, that becomes the moment, the turning point, where people can reach out to one another and make that connection.

The third thing is that forgiveness, the importance of forgiveness, actually rises up or emerges in many cases as an unexpected outcome of these encounters.

Often, people don’t come to these meetings with their former enemies with an idea that, “Now I want to forgive this person.”

But they encounter the other, the person who has done them great, irreparable harm, and recognize their humanity.

How does the other present their humanity? Through remorse. Remorse is a truly human phenomenon. Remorse cannot be evil.

When family members encounter the remorse of the perpetrator, they encounter the perpetrator as a human being.

It is in that encounter, that connection, that really brings out and makes forgiveness possible in ways that are unexpected.

And at the core of these encounters lies empathy, that it is the perpetrator’s remorse is actually rooted in their capacity for empathy. The victim’s forgiveness, on the other hand, is equally rooted in their capacity for empathy, for human empathy.

Sometimes the word “forgiveness” sounds inadequate to capture for us that movement toward the other, that movement of connecting with the other at the very deep core of their humanness.

“Empathy,” it seems to me, is a more stronger word that elaborates for us, or illuminates for us, what the process of engagement is, and why forgiveness becomes possible.

It is why a perpetrator can rise beyond guilt and shame to touch that place of remorse, which is a very vulnerable place. There, a perpetrator has to recognize their own brokenness, because for them to have violated and dehumanized a victim, they had to dehumanize the self first. They rendered themselves inhuman in order to conduct their terrible deeds.

So remorse is a recognition of deep human brokenness, and it is also the possibility -- the place where it becomes possible for the perpetrator to reclaim their rights to belonging in the realm of moral humanity.

Q: So people didn’t come to these meetings necessarily seeking forgiveness? My guess is they probably wanted to scream at somebody.

Absolutely. In fact, for so many, that is exactly how they start the engagement. They express a lot of anger. I showed a video clip in my seminar yesterday where a group of mothers faces a perpetrator, calling him a wolf dressed in sheepskin because he was a black collaborator with the apartheid police.

Here is a man sitting on the other side of these mothers. He killed their children, and he’s sitting right there and they’re having this conversation. And there’s a moment when the mothers realize that he is a broken man. He feels remorse deeply, and there is a turning point from that anger to where they reach out to him with a profound sense of forgiveness.

So yes, the starting point is often anger, but there is something in the recognition of the other as a human other that invites them to that place of forgiveness.

Q: In your work, you write about a process you call “empathic repair.” Is that what you’re describing here?

Empathic repair is the notion that you are repairing the brokenness. When a perpetrator goes to that place of remorse, they are reaching out to the victim’s family with the possibility of repair through empathy.

It is the victim’s sense of empathy that enables him or her to begin on the road toward repairing their brokenness from the trauma. That’s why I call it empathic repair.

The interesting thing about this is that these encounters are really about rebuilding broken relationships. The healing and the repair are not only for the victim or the victim’s family; it’s also for the perpetrator.

For the perpetrator, it is also an opportunity to grasp at repair. In this encounter lies the hope for them as well that they can start a new life by entering this realm of moral humanity. It is a reparative moment for them, too.

Empathy is stepping into the shoes of the other and feeling with the other. The process is a kind of reciprocal mutual engagement. Psychology scholars talk about the significance of recognition. Other scholars talk about responsibility for the other, this idea of recognizing the other, noticing the humanity of the other.

So many people are always chasing the other and being angry at the other, because that defines their identity. When we realize that the other is actually the self, then that becomes the moment of repair.

Q: You’re also doing some work with the University of Cologne, working with second- and third-generation descendants of Holocaust victims and those of the perpetrators. What are you finding?

These people in Germany are in their late 50s and 60s. One group is children of Nazi perpetrators. Their fathers and mothers served in the concentration camps.

They have been in dialogue for more than 10 years with a group of adult children of Holocaust survivors, people whose parents survived the camps.

The group was established by a well-known psychoanalytic scholar of large groups, Vamik Volkan, who studies the importance of naming these histories and talking about them. He helped these two groups to begin dialogue about these transgenerational effects of this past.

They’re learning about the complexity of empathy and of engaging history. While there is always a desire to understand and know the other, the story is more complex than, “We’ve now connected. We love each other. There’s peace.”

It’s so much more complicated, because of the kind of memories that intrude into these relationships.

What I’m studying with these groups is what empathic engagement looks like. How can we plant seeds of transgenerational transmission of empathy, instead of transgenerational transmission of hatred, and of shame, and of guilt?

Q: Are they finding empathy and forgiveness possible?

Very much. The language of forgiveness was never part of the Holocaust, so different language is beginning to emerge. They eschew the language of forgiveness, because it’s loaded.

The scholarly conversation among those who study the Holocaust or forgiveness after trauma is that the living have no right to forgive on behalf of the dead.

It’s an important perspective, but one that I think needs revision. If, as we have found, these hatreds and violence are passed on intergenerationally, then we may well want the generations to begin forgiving.

The living may have no right to forgive for their departed, but you’re not really forgiving on their behalf. You are forgiving on your behalf, because now you are the one carrying this memory into the future. That’s where the violence and the potential for hatred lies, so that’s what you interrupt.

Q: What is your response to people who say it’s better just to forget and move on?

You can say the word “forget,” but the reality is that it is never forgotten. This stuff is deeply carried. It’s carried in deep stories within.

These are narratives that people identify with over generations. They define who they are. The history of oppression is part of the identity of the people who have been oppressed.

They are released from it once they face that history and embrace a new life, but that doesn’t happen automatically. It happens because it is faced. It has to be faced, acknowledged and named.

Some people are lucky. They have strategies of pushing back and saying that, “I am who I am now. I’m not defining myself according to that history.”

But many people, unfortunately, cannot do that, because either their lives have not changed or the wounds are very deep. And for people to say, “Move on; forget the past” is another stab in the wound, another re-traumatization.

Q: What’s the role for the church in this? And how well is it performing that role?

Churches have a very important role to play. The church already has a group of people who are ready to receive the good news. And the good news is not only biblical good news; it is also doing the work to make sure that people live in a spirit of good news.

The good news is the news of love -- of loving and caring for our neighbors, putting ourselves in the shoes of our neighbors. That is the good news.

If churches can embrace that message and know how to live it, then the fight for peace will be achieved in so many parts of the world.

But we find that churches are not doing that work.

There was a time in my country where churches fought to play the role that churches are supposed to play, and they did it magnificently. The churches and people in the church like Archbishop Tutu and the Rev. Peter Storey spoke truth to power and lived the truth by example.

And that is what is needed, and that is what is missing, even in my country today. Having had that magnificent, shining history, churches today have just withdrawn. It’s almost as if the Truth Commission came, the evildoers confessed, and now we’re supposed to just go on as if nothing is wrong with our society.

That is a mistake that so many church organizations and institutions have made in South Africa, by letting go and not continuing to fight the fight of building peace, spreading the word of love and making Christians understand that they’re in the world to live the example of Christ, of loving the neighbor. And the leadership in the church has not stepped up at all in recent times, unfortunately, and that’s what is so much needed today.

Q: Speak some to that. What is the role of leadership in forgiveness and reconciliation?

Leadership is so important, not only within churches but in all institutions. We need leaders who understand the importance of compassionate relationships and who know what it means to be a compassionate leader.

That is at the core of this work of reconciliation -- recognizing the humanity of and showing compassion for the other. That is the starting point of leadership in all institutions.