Forgiveness, restorative justice are central to conflict resolution, Michael Lapsley tells TEAM conference

March 9, 2007

Healing and reconciliation are integral to the journey of forgiveness, the Rev. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest who serves as the director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories based in Cape Town, South Africa, told the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference gathered in Boksburg March 10.


Restitution and reparation are part of the journey, he added.

Born in New Zealand, Lapsley moved to South Africa in 1973. Due to his political and social organizing efforts he was expelled from the country in the mid-1970s by the apartheid government. He subsequently lived in exile in Lesotho, the United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe.

Early in that period, he became a member of the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC), which was then conducting an underground guerrilla struggle against apartheid.

In April 1990 in Harare, Zimbabwe, Lapsley was sent a letter bomb by the South African government and in the resulting explosion lost both his hands, an eye, and his eardrums were shattered, among other injuries.

He repatriated to South Africa in 1992, and in 1998 helped launch the Institute for Healing of Memories, which facilitates a healing process for communities and individuals in South Africa and internationally.

"In my own journey I am not full of hatred, because if I was full of hatred and bitterness, I would be a victim forever," he said. "I believe much more in restorative justice and the justice of retribution."

Lapsley reminded the gathering that Jesus said human beings cannot live by bread alone. "Jesus did not say that a human being cannot live without bread," he said, thanking participants for all they are doing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

Focusing his address on conflict and conflict resolution, Lapsley noted that there is no mention of that among the MDGs. "Conflict is a major factor preventing development ... We as faith communities need to add another goal specifically around issues of healing and reconciliation -- it is part of our core business."

Lapsley said that it is important "not to undermine the primacy of scripture but rather to assert a high doctrine of the Holy Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth," noting that Bible-reading Christians took 1800 years to abolish slavery.

Successive Lambeth Conferences have been clear "that war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with our understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ," he said. "It further declared that the use of modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God's gifts."

Chastising the United States for its contribution to the world's conflicts, Lapsley said, "For most of humanity it is evident that the greatest threat to world peace comes from the one country in the world that has the greatest stockpile of nuclear weapons and it is the only country that has ever used them."

He commended Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for speaking out "fearlessly" against the Blair government going to war in Iraq.

South Africa, Lapsley said, was characterized by war, oppression, violence, exploitation and conflict throughout the apartheid era. "Finally for us the sun dawned. 1994 was the turning point in our long journey as a nation, if not the beginning of our journey to becoming a nation."

In dealing with the legacy of the past, "we longed to turn the page of history. But the problem was that page was too heavy. It could not turn until we had read it," he said.

He applauded the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in creating the space for thousands of people to tell their stories and have their pain acknowledged.

"As I travel around the world listening to the pain of the human family, people often say to me that I would love to forget what had happened but I cannot," he said, with a challenge that Christians are not expected to forget. "Christians, Muslims and Jews -- the great Abrahamic faiths -- belong to the three great remembering religions."

He reminded the gathering that in the Eucharistic feast Jesus asks: do this in remembrance of me.

"We have done this for 2,000 years. We are geared to remembering, not forgetting," he said, underscoring the need for redemptive memory -- "of good that comes out of evil, of life that comes out of death, of slavery to freedom."

"But there is another kind of memory," he continued. "Destructive memory" through which many conflicts are sustained from generation to generation.

Moving from destructive to redemptive memory requires acknowledgement, he said. "Once the wrong that has happened has been acknowledged, the healing journey can begin."

Conflict often results in victims becoming victimizers, he said, acknowledging that sometimes people want to use their suffering as the pretext for greater violence. He used the events of 9/11 as an example of that, when the whole world embraced the US "but then the option was taken for revenge."

When victims become survivors, many do not make the next step to becoming victors, he said. "We all know the power of acknowledgment, when the one who has hurt is able to say: I am sorry, I was wrong, will you forgive me?"

Upholding former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu's book, “No Future Without Forgiveness,” Lapsley shared a dream that the leaders of the world's religions will apologize to same-gender-loving persons for the pain they have caused them for so long, and that the US will apologize to the Iraqi people.

"Traveling the journey of forgiveness for one's own sake is a form of healthy selfishness," he said. "In a deliberative way we have also begun to focus on national reconciliation, but also on refugees, so often forgotten because no government represents their interests."

Lapsley spoke of "multiple woundedness," noting that many people in South Africa have layers of pain.

"In relation to the AIDS pandemic decimating the nation we realized that our contribution would be to create a safe space for people infected and affected by the disease to share their journey and tell their story," he said, referring to the Institute for Healing of Memories. "Across the world countries are haunted by their unfinished business. We as Christians are called to remind ourselves that good comes out of evil, life out of death. In the Jesus story the victim becomes, not a victimizer, but victorious."

The sacred space, Lapsley said, "enables participants to make things better, enables people to live with pain, ambiguity."

Healing and reconciliation "are not optional extra," he added. "In the institute we like to say every story needs a listener."

Lapsley said that for him the most important request of the last Lambeth Conference was "the call to listen to the stories of gay and lesbian people," and he saluted the Archbishop of Cape Town for his facilitating the listening process in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. "A key part if the journey of healing is being listened to," he said.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could come back to Boksburg 3 in a few years and say: the Anglican Communion is a place where I was not judged, a place where people were willing to listen to my story?" he asked. "Today I want to say to the Communion -- thank you, for being God's instruments to enable me to be redemptive, to bring life out of death, good to evil, to travel a journey from victim to survivor to victor."

Lapsley ended his address with a Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort…
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart

May God bless you with Anger…
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with Tears…
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness…
To believe that you can make a difference in their world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.

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