Richard Wilson’s sister was murdered, and her killers showed no remorse. Could he forgive them?by Richard Wilson / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers posing in 2008: victims of the war in Uganda have been offered the chance to forgive participants
In the rage-filled summer that followed my sister’s murder, a close friend was reduced to tears as I described my efforts to track down those responsible. “But don’t you think you should try to forgive?” she implored me. At the time, the question just made me feel angrier, more frustrated, and more alone.
Charlotte had been killed with 20 of her fellow bus passengers in an ambush by rebels on a remote hillside above Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Hutus were released unharmed. The last to leave was told to tell the authorities “we’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do.” Tutsis and foreigners were stripped, robbed, forced to lie face down on the ground and shot at point blank range.
Not only were the killers unrepentant, they were continuing to kill. Each week brought new reports of massacres in the same area. The same randomness—the same casual sense of entitlement.
But the question kept coming back. My search for justice, futile though it seemed, had consumed me to an extent that friends and family found disturbing. Was this really what Charlotte would have wanted? Shouldn’t I try to “move on”?
It was only when I began writing a book about Charlotte’s murder that I was forced to confront the issue head on, and started an exploration that continues today. Was forgiveness an intellectual decision or an emotional state? Was it simply a psychological process or did it have a more abstract, moral dimension? Was it something instant, or a long-term undertaking? Could it ever be right to forgive people who have shown no remorse and seem hell-bent on continuing to commit the same crimes? Was it possible to forgive on somebody else’s behalf?
Among the books and articles I came across, the overwhelming view was that “unconditional forgiveness” was the ideal—the only way for victims to free themselves of anger and avoid being “imprisoned by the past.” The “healing power of forgiveness,” it seemed, could mend divided societies, transform hardened killers into law-abiding citizens, and save victims from a lifetime of rage and hatred.
Yet there was something about all of this that jarred—a moral absolutism combined with wishful thinking that seemed both dangerous and demeaning. According to Desmond Tutu, forgiveness and reconciliation were…