Is forgiveness between Black and White South Africans really possible after more than two decades of democracy?
This was the question Dr Dion Forster, Head of the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University (SU), tried to answer on Thursday (21 September 2017). Forster, who is also the Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at SU, delivered the fifth Stellenbosch Forum lecture of 2017.
The Stellenbosch Forum lecture series provides regular opportunities to staff and students at SU, as well as interested people from the public, to learn more about the relevant, world-class research that is being done at SU.
Forster said his research among Black and White Christians showed that forgiveness remains a deeply contested and complex issue in South Africa and that the country faces significant challenges with regards to dealing with the 'sins' of its past.
According to Forster, these two groups hold very different views on the concepts and processes of forgiveness.
“Black and Coloured people understood forgiveness in a collective and social manner."
“Forgiveness is not only an individual concern; it has social consequences and social expectations within the community. They understood forgiveness not only as a matter of spiritual restoration between the individual (or community) and God, but also as the restoration of relationships and structures in the community."
“For this group, forgiveness can only be authentic if the conditions for forgiveness are evidenced in the community – in other words, forgiveness in South Africa would be contingent upon economic transformation, transfer of land ownership, a transformation of social power dynamics, and visible and tangible expressions of remorse on the part of the beneficiaries and initiators of apartheid in South Africa."
Black people don't want cheap forgiveness, said Forster.
He pointed out that, in contrast to black South Africans, Whites tend to individualise and spiritualise forgiveness
“For them the offended party wasn't the neighbour but God. They did not initially consider forgiveness as something that may be important when engaging the party against whom the sin (or grievance) was committed."
“Forgiveness would have been enacted when God had set them free from the guilt and spiritual culpability of their actions, it would not necessarily entail the restoration of relational harmony among members of the community or the restitution of social, political or economic structures in the community."
Forster argued that this different understanding of what the Bible says about forgiveness, contributes towards our inability to forgive and be forgiven.
He said one significant problem is that these un-reconciled persons seldom have contact with each other because legacy of the apartheid system which separated persons racially, according to economic class, and geographically.
“The result is that each group's own social views and religious beliefs become entrenched, and the views and beliefs of the 'other' are rejected or ignored because they are not understood or engaged across the aforementioned separating boundaries."
Forster said despite the significant challenges we face with regards to dealing with the 'sins' of our past and the current complexities, the journey toward shared understandings of forgiveness may indeed be a possibility.
“Forgiveness is not impossible," he added.
Forster said we need carefully facilitated contact between Black and White people so that they can understand and talk about their different perspectives on forgiveness.
- Dr Forster's lecture was based on his latest book The (im)possibility of forgiveness? An empirical intercultural Bible reading of Matthew 18:15-35.
Photo: Dr Dion Forster delivers the Stellenbosch Forum Lecture.
Photographer: Anton Jordaan