When Forgiveness Is Impossible

Posted by Jill Carattini, on March 28, 2013

In war-torn relationships of Northern Uganda, forgiveness is complicated. Betty was a teenager when her village was raided by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel army known for its brutal tactics and widespread human rights violations. She was kidnapped as a sex slave for a commander and ordered to commit callous acts of violence as a child soldier, until gradually she was broken and became an active member of the LRA.


After six years of bloodshed, however, Betty managed to escape, running across the country to freedom. But coming home would not be a simple matter of returning. She had committed violence against the very people she hoped to rejoin. Her own guilt and shame was as palpable as the mistrust and anger of her village. In her absence, two of her own brothers had been killed by the same army Betty fought alongside.


In the midst of such loss, with so many permanent scars, forgiveness might seem hopeful, but naïve at best. Is reconciliation even to be desired when brokenness is so irreversible? Does forgiveness cease to be hopeful when neither party can ever be the same again? From where I stand, these are painful questions to even begin to answer.


But the people of Uganda are trying. For hundreds and hundreds of children like Betty, terrorized by crimes they were forced to commit and returning home to terrorized villages, tribal elders have adapted a ceremony to make it possible for both. In a ceremony that includes the act of breaking and stepping on an egg and an opobo branch, the returnee is cleansed from the things he or she has done while away. The egg symbolizes innocent life, and by breaking and placing themselves in its broken substance, returnees declare before their village their desire to be restored to the way they used to be. In a final step over a pole, the returnees step into new life. In many cases, women returnees come home with babies who were born in the bush, usually a result of rape. When they arrive at the broken egg, the child’s foot is placed in the substance, too. The spirit of reconciliation, like warfare, must touch everyone.


In a single week, Christians around the world remember the last moments of Jesus, the betrayals and predictions, the march to crucifixion, his burial on Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday, and the terror and amazement of Easter Sunday. In a week, we are reminded how the disciples failed him miserably, falling asleep when he needed them most in prayer, denying ever knowing him as he was convicted for being himself, watching him die alone from a distance. In a single week, Christians move from recognizing ourselves in this list of failures to sensing the hopeful confusion of the disciples, the overwhelm of Thomas, and the timid longing of the women at the tomb. In a single week, we move from complete despair to shocking hope, total darkness to surprising light, the finality of death to the reordering of reality, from broken and sinful to restored and somehow forgiven.


In this solitary week, Christians remember a story that should make the bold and touching forgiveness of war-torn Ugandans seem natural, expected, and necessary, however shocking or complicated or slow-coming it might be. After the egg-breaking ceremony with her village, Betty went from rebel to ex-rebel, from shamed to restored. “I feel cleansed,” she said of the ceremony. After a day of being welcomed and celebrated, she adds, “Some of the bad things in my heart: they are gone.”(1) Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, notes of such radical forgiveness: “[With its] uncomfortable commitment to bringing the perpetrator back into the family, Africa has something to say to the world.”(2)


Indeed, it might. And so does Christ. In one eventful, holy week, we remember the ugly depths of our sin and stare into the deep scars of the servant who bore it away. This utter shift in our condition is as overwhelming as this Good Friday, as disquieting as Holy Saturday, and as inconceivable as Easter Sunday. But it is our ceremony. Christ is broken, we are covered in his blood, and we emerge as dead men and women walking. How beyond our knowing, how inexplicable is this gift. Yet because it was given, in a single week, we can claim again the mystery; we can claim the power of reconciliation; we can claim Christ, who moves us from perpetrator to family.


Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.


(1) Abe McLaughlin, “Africa After War: Paths To Forgiveness—Ugandans Welcome ‘Terrorists’ Back” International Center for Transitional Justice, October 23, 2006.
(2) Ibid.