A Grace That Heals

In the aftermath of apartheid's collapse in South Africa in 1994, the new government under Nelson Mandela established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose task it was to investigate specific acts of brutality committed in the name of apartheid and to seek some measure of resolution that would enable the country to move forward.

At one meeting early in their work, the commission gathered to reach a verdict on a particularly painful case involving an elderly South African woman. At the hearing, a group of white police officers, led by a Mr. Van de Broek, admitted their personal responsibility in the death of her 18-year-old son. They acknowledged shooting the young man at point-blank range, setting his body on fire, and then partying around the fire until the body had been reduced to little more than ashes. Eight years later, van de Broek and his fellow officers had again intersected with the woman's life, this time to take her husband into captivity. And then, some time later, van de Broek had come knocking at her door once more. Rousing her from bed in the dead of night, he brought the woman to an isolated setting by a river where her husband lay tied to a pile of wood. As she watched, he and the officers doused the man with gasoline and then ignited a fire. The last words her husband spoke to her, in the midst of the blazing pyre, were "Forgive them."

Now at long last the time had come for justice to be served. Those involved had confessed their guilt, and the Commission turned to the woman for a final statement regarding her desire for an appropriate punishment.

"I want three things," the woman said calmly. "I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband's body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial."

"Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him."

"Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. And, I would like someone to come and lead me by the hand to where Mr. van de Broek is so that I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real."

As the elderly woman made her way across the silent courtroom, van de Broek reportedly fainted, overcome by emotion. And then the silence was broken when someone began singing "Amazing Grace." Others soon picked up the words of the familiar hymn, so that finally the entire audience in the courtroom was joined in song.

From John Roth's Choosing Against War: A Christian View, 62-63. He claims to have "drawn extensively from the account of the story by Stanley Green, "When Reconciled, We are Free," Mennonite Weekly Review, Sept. 7, 2000, 4.