“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” — Jesus
Mike Steenkamp sat erect in his South African home before the CNN camera and delivered a statement many are finding simplistic and confusing. In the last month, he has become accustomed to cameras having assumed the role of family spokesman after his niece, Reeva Steenkamp, was killed by her boyfriend, South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, in his home.
The popular Pistorius, called “Bladerunner” because he has no legs below the knees and runs on high-tech blades of carbon fiber, captured the attention and admiration of the world during last summer’s Olympic games in London. His fellow South Africans saw in him a champion who overcame incredible odds to compete at the highest levels against some of the world’s most gifted athletes.
But Pistorius apparently has a dark side. Some claim they were not surprised when news reports revealed that he had shot through a closed bathroom door killing Reeva early on Valentine’s Day.
The killing has divided the country into those who believe, as Pistorius asserts, that it was a tragic accident in which he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder, and those who find such a story too far-fetched to be credible.
Steenkamp, too, had become a popular figure. Although a law school graduate, she was working as a model and had made her television debut in a South African version of reality TV shown two days after she died. The 29-year-old blonde beauty seemed to have a fantastic life ahead of her.
No wonder her friends are outraged that Pistorius was released from jail as he awaits a trial date. The emotions churning in connection with the case make the comments of her sad-looking uncle hard for them to understand.
“But for my own, for my side,” he said, “I would like to be face to face with him and forgive him. Forgive him what he’s done; and that way I can find what is probably more peace with the situation.”
The interviewer, CNN’s Drew Griffin, asked, incredulously, “You would forgive him, Mike, whether this was [pause] a tragic accident or whether [pause] this was a ….”
Mike cut in, “Whatever the outcome, I feel that my belief … if Christ could forgive when he died on the cross, why can’t I? Who am I not to forgive him?”
I had to wonder if his attitude was influenced at all by the awe-inspiring examples of forgiveness demonstrated during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to a democratically-elected government.
The rest of the world, including most South Africans, believed that when native Africans took control of the government a terrible bloodbath would ensue as they took ven-geance on their white oppressors. Bishop Desmond Tutu, who orchestrated the transition along with Nelson Mandela, believed in the power of forgiveness.
“We have been appalled at the depths of depravity revealed by the testimonies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” wrote Tutu. “Yes, we human beings have a remarkable capacity for evil — we have refined ways of being mean and nasty to one another. There have been genocides, holocausts, slavery, racism, wars, oppression and injustice. But that, mercifully, is not the whole story about us. We were exhilarated as we heard people who had suffered grievously, who by rights should have been baying for the blood of their tormentors, utter words of forgiveness, reveal an extraordinary willingness to work for reconciliation, demonstrating magnanimity and nobility of spirit.”
Tutu and Mandela believed South Africa could have followed the example of the Nuremberg war trials after World War II and tried to bring every offender to justice or choose the way of General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile in offering a blanket amnesty. Neither, however, seemed capable of bringing true harmony to the populace.
“Our country chose a middle way of individual amnesty for truth,” Tutu recalled. “Some would say, what about justice? And we say retributive justice is not the only kind of justice. There is also restorative justice.”
In spite of such a potent example of forgiveness in their own country, many South Africans are now calling for blood — specifically that of Oscar Pistorius. After the interview was posted on the Internet, a string of comments were left by those who visited the site. One, a white South African woman, left multiple comments in the space provided, saying that Steenkamp’s death should be avenged and that religious beliefs that encourage forgiving such a death were responsible for much that is wrong in the world. Some echoed her sentiments.
Tragically, even many in the church are not quite sure what to make of Jesus’ words to forgive as we are forgiven. They regard them as good in theory, but insufficient in practice. To see the truth of this, one has only to speak to hard-liners in a church fight. They lose objectivity, assign blame and want to hurt those who have hurt them. This is natural. Forgiveness is not.
But isn’t that the whole point of the church? Aren’t we empowered by the Spirit to live above the norm? Shouldn’t we be capable of withstanding natural desires for revenge and retribution? Can’t we call forth greatness of spirit to forgive those who have injured us and those we love?
A weary-eyed man whose niece was murdered has wept buckets of tears in his grief. He knows that his family — particularly his brother and his wife — will never be the same. But his relationship with the living Christ causes him to ask, “If Christ could forgive when he died on the cross, why can’t I? Who am I not to forgive?” The world may not understand forgiveness springing from that kind of faith, but it can’t help but notice it! Among those Internet visitors who left comments was an atheist who asked, “Who would ever give thumbs down to that kind of forgiveness?” Mike Steenkamp is giving her reason to believe.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.