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Apologize, Apologize, Do Not Feel Free to Avert Your Eyes

Recently, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said it would be “wonderful if [Mr. Obama] would apologize for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on behalf of the American people.”

Such an act would submit our nation to the power of forgiveness, which is what Nelson Mandela did when he became president of South Africa.

Forgiveness may seem too simplistic and naïve to do much good, however, clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of South Africa has studied how forgiveness helped her nation heal both victims and perpetrators from the ghastly crimes of apartheid.

When individuals forgive each other, she said, a “transcendence of the heart begins with a recognition that gross human rights violations were committed.”  This is done by telling—and listening—to stories about what happened to individuals in a particular incident.

An “empathetic repair” takes place where both perpetrator and victim are able to encounter each other’s humanity because each person has exposed him or herself “to the naked face of evil” that is within him/her.

What is most interesting in this dynamic is that through forgiveness, the perpetrator has a vehicle for expressing remorse and suddenly finds he has an opening to his conscience that he silenced long ago in order to do evil deeds.  In effect, he dehumanized himself while trying to dehumanize another!  By asking forgiveness, he re-engages himself with those he wronged and thus “re-captures” his lost humanity.

Gobodo-Madikizela illustrated how this worked in an American setting.  Kim Phuc, now an international speaker and an ambassador for UNESCO, was the naked Vietnamese girl running down a road screaming from the napalm burning through her skin, as depicted in the 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.

One day Kim spoke to a group of U.S. veterans and recalled the napalm incident. She admitted that while “we can’t change history, we can work together to change the future.”  She added that someday she hoped to meet the man who dropped the napalm.

Soon after her speech she received a note that said: “I am that man.” The man came forward and the two of them embraced with her sobbing: “I forgive. I forgive. I forgive.”

Gobodo-Madikizela noted that this encounter was “a gesture of so much grace” and a “turning point of transformation.” Here was a woman reaching out to the man who had done an evil deed against her—and he responded. And “there was no training involved, no 12-step program.”

Gobodo-Madikizela is quick to point out that forgiveness does not mean that the evil done is forgotten. Instead, she said that “the spirits of vengeance must be transcended.” In this way, a “moral humanity” sets in where care, compassion and empathy free both victim and perpetrator from the past and open them to healing.

“This is the beginning of hope,” she said.

While we can’t realistically expect President Obama to apologize to Iraq, Americans everywhere can ask the people of Iraq forgiveness through various acts of kindness and outreach.  For example, we can adopt various cities in Iraq as sister cities.  We can devise programs to connect with Iraqis.  We can support our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in their own healing process for the violence they may have committed.  We can hold public forums, demonstrations, educational programs to understand how and why our government encourages militarism.

Maybe, just maybe, with all our small efforts compounded, we could start a movement that would compel President Obama to apologize for Iraq and help our nation recoup its moral authority before the world.

The times are calling us to create a new era where citizens take the initiative to do what our government can’t do.  Through forgiveness, we not only begin the healing in ourselves but we cut a new path for our democracy—together.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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