Reflections on Forgiveness by Carl Wilkens

Forgiveness is so many incredible things, many of which I’m still discovering!

A huge part of forgiveness for me though is the need to rehumanize the perpetrator in my mind. In order to start this process of rehumanizing those who carried out the genocide (all the way from the top planners down to the interahamwe with a machete in hand and those internationally who could have done something and did not), I’ve found it so helpful to imagine them as a child… what was it like when they took their first step? What condition was the heart in of the person whose hands received them when taking their first step? What did the chain of events look like that shaped that child’s life, body, and way of thinking which in turn drove his/her feelings which in turn drove his/her actions?

Another significant aspect of forgiving for me is giving up the expectation that the perpetrator can somehow give me something for my recovery. While they may choose to play a role by apologizing (which can be very valuable in both the rehumanizing of them and my healing process) my healing is not dependant on them and what they choose to do. I can find ways to release and let go of my anger and hatred so that it does not develop into a self-destructive cancer and allow the perpetrator’s horrible acts to further inflict  damage and loss. One of the best ways I have found to do this is through service for others. This sounds simple but it has been so very, very powerful for me.

Forgiveness is not giving up interest in bringing the perpetrator to justice and perhaps even some form of restitution (pathetically meager in comparison to the loss though it might be). But this is not the responsibility of the victim or their family. It is the responsibility and opportunity to be seized by the society where they live.

Throughout this whole process a very necessary belief that I hang onto is that letting go of anger and hatred in no way diminishes the wrongness, the horror, and the loss that resulted from the terrible choices of the perpetrator. The same goes for rehumanizing, it in no way diminishes the wrong. Nothing about forgiveness diminishes the wrong or the huge loss that we must live with! Hanging onto hatred and anger does not in anyway honor those who have been taken from us.

And the reality that forgiveness is a process is the last thing I would say. Rarely is forgiveness an act that is accomplished in a moment. I may need to go through the “rehumanizing thinking” again and again, as well as the service and other methods of working through my anger and hatred. But in time forgiveness and the freedom that follows does come.

I have so appreciated the message of “As We Forgive” and the significant impact it has had on my understanding of forgiveness. The film has proved a valuable tool in inspiring and directing dialogue on forgiveness at a very personal level, which is where forgiveness is most effective. Dialogue that is not only crucial in healing from a genocide, but something each one of us must involve ourselves in every single day, from simple “slights” to major woundings.

Carl Wilkens is the former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda. In 1994, he was the only American who chose to remain in the country after the genocide began. His choice to stay and try to help resulted in preventing the massacre of hundreds of children over the course of the genocide. Wilkens currently runs the non-profit educational and professional development organization World Outside My Shoes.