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Repentance in South Africa, Forgiveness in Texas

Walter Russell Mead

Sometimes, there’s good news in the world, too: The Mail and Guardian profiles Adriaan Vlok, who was involved in overseeing South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime and now lives a life of charity and penance after repenting from his actions. More:

Now a 77-year-old widower, Vlok seeks redemption from his past by opening his house as a refuge for the vulnerable and distributing food to poor black families.

In the late 1980s, he was responsible for covert bombing operations that targeted church buildings and trade union headquarters, and he even tried to kill an anti-apartheid priest by poisoning his underwear […]

Today, Vlok lives in the suburbs of Pretoria in a modest house that he shares with a black man who repairs furniture in the garage, a former convict who killed his own wife, and a white family which was homeless.

Without any escort or protection, he drives a few miles to the township of Olievenhoutbosch with his car loaded with trays of food donated by local supermarkets and bakeries.

There, the man who once sent in the riot police distributes pies, sandwiches and cakes to hungry families, a children’s daycare centre and a disabled charity.

And another story came to our attention this week that shows the other side of the repentance process: forgiveness. The Washington Post tells the story of a widow who came to forgive the man who murdered her husband. Juan Martin Garcia, the convicted murderer, received the death penalty for his crime and was executed on this past Tuesday. In his last moments, he asked for the widow’s forgiveness and she gave it:

This time, Garcia didn’t make any excuses. And Ana Solano didn’t equivocate.

As the convict apologized for killing her husband, she and her daughter sobbed and said that they loved Garcia.

As pentobarbital flowed into the inmate’s veins, Garcia winced, shook his head, gurgled and then stopped moving, according to the AP. Meanwhile, Ana Solano and her daughter raised their arms in apparent prayer in a nearby witness room.

Afterward, Ana left no doubt that she had come to oppose the execution. Even murderers deserve to live so that they can teach others to avoid their mistakes, she said. “It’s about God,” she told the AP. “It’s about Jesus.”

In the true history of the world, stories like these matter infinitely more than most of the empty pursuit of power, reputation, and wealth that the media normally follows. These events should open us to possibilities: All human beings share something with Vlok and with his victims. At one and the same time, we have participated in injustice and cruelty. We have injured others by trampling on their sacred dignity and humanity…and we’ve also been the victims of the injustice, unfairness, and cruelty of others.

So what should, what can, we do? We need to repent like Vlok, which is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” It is about trying to repair and atone, even when that’s impossible in full and even when others don’t accept our sincerity. It’s part of repairing the damage you’ve done to yourself as much as the damage you have done to others, and it’s part of the healing process. But at the same time that we have to repent, we must also forgive. The two are related. We’ve all been sinned against; we’ve all sinned against others. It’s a recognition of shared humanity that causes us to seek forgiveness—and that also enables us, at least a little, to begin to forgive.

Repenting and forgiving are difficult and painful—and necessary to a fully lived human life.

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