2 Corinthians 5:16–21; Psalm 17:1–8; Luke 20:27–38

A year after the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, which killed some 800,000 people, Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited a village near the capital of Kigali. Dozens of Tutsis had been slaughtered in a church there by members of the rival Hutu tribe. The new government still had not removed the corpses, so the church was like a mortuary. Outside stood a collection of skulls of the victims, some still with machetes embedded in them. Bishop Tutu has written that he tried to pray, but instead broke down and wept.

The Hutus and Tutsis had often lived in the same villages, spoken the same language, and were nearly all Christians. But over the decades the two tribes had taken turns dominating the country, and each time one tribe came to power it would carry out an orgy of retribution on the other.

The story of Rwanda is horrific, but this pattern of ethnic, racial, and religious hatred is not rare. We have seen it in Northern Ireland, in Palestine and Israel, in the former Yugoslavia, with Al-Qaeda, with the Basques in Spain, the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, the Chechens in Russia, with the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and with the genocide going on in Darfur.

And of course our world is filled with divisions that are not so violent, but destructive nevertheless. Many have said that our country has been as politically divided in recent years as it has been in decades, and people will tell you that Washington, D.C. hasn’t been so polarized in anyone’s memory. I suspect we can all name marriages and families that remain alienated because of wounds that are years and sometimes decades old. And our own Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church are painfully divided.

Especially in times of fear and rapid change, people define themselves over against those who are different, the other. ‘I and my people are different, superior, entirely unlike you.’ The world becomes divided into the good and the evil.

Martha Horne, the former Dean of Virginia Seminary, once described a heated community meeting dealing with the divisions in the Anglican Communion. A visitor waded into the discussion innocently and asked the arguing parties, “What would it take to reconcile the differences among you?” And an angry student shot back, “Reconciliation is not the issue here. The issue is faithfulness to God’s word… I’m not interested in reconciliation with someone who refuses to obey God’s word.” And it has to be said that equally vehement assertions have come from the progressive side as well.

Division, recrimination, and violence haunt every corner of the globe. And we see the ancient law played out repeatedly: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Philosopher Hannah Arendt called this “the predicament of irreversibility,” the ricocheting effect of evil causing evil in an endless and often expanding cycle. But as Martin Luther King put it, “those who live by ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ will one day become a blind and toothless generation.” Now in a world of suicide bombers and nuclear weapons, King’s vision may prove truer than anyone imagined.

It looks as if the central question of the 21st century will be, “Can we human beings learn to let go of the burdens of the past, engage our differences, and in doing that create a more hopeful future? Can we be reconcilers? “To reconcile” means literally “to make good again,” “to repair.” Can we learn to repair the fabric of our world as we make room for the stranger and even the ones we have thought of as “enemy?”

Forgiveness and reconciliation have not always been central tenets in world religions. In fact, Hannah Arendt declares that “the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, of loving the enemy, of forgiving seventy times seven, he was introducing something new into the human saga. In every daily service here at the Cathedral we echo his vision: “Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Jesus unleashed a movement of forgiveness and reconciliation by sending out followers who would not return evil for evil, who were willing to absorb wrong-doing and thereby release the present from the prison of the past.

St. Paul in our New Testament lesson says that God has given to Christians “the ministry of reconciliation.” We who have been forgiven and accepted in Christ are called to be healers and forgivers ourselves. Archbishop Tutu described God’s work as an endless work of reconciliation:

There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, goodness, peace, and justice…

Archbishop Tutu goes on then to say that every act and gesture of forgiveness and healing contributes to this slowly building movement toward a new world.

Reconciliation was the center of Desmond Tutu’s ministry. His great phrase, “No future without forgiveness,” the title of one of his books, sums up his conviction not only about his own country but for the whole human race. In the days of apartheid in South Africa, he knew that reconciliation first demanded confrontation, and he was a key leader in the fight to establish a new, non-racist government. And then, with the fall of apartheid, the healing could begin. April 27, 1994 ushered in a new era in South Africa. At last, all South Africans could vote, and Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison on Robben Island, became president of his country.

But how could South Africa face the horrors of its past? Everyone agreed there could be no new South Africa without dealing with the oppression of the apartheid years. They would need to steer a course between those who cried “prosecute and punish” and those who demanded “forgive and forget.” Negotiators finally hammered out a process that would require three parts: confession, a full disclosure of the crimes committed; forgiveness in the form of amnesty from punishment or further prosecution; and, where possible, restitution, making amends for what was done.

And so South Africa launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Bishop Tutu as its leader. I remember seeing TV reports of Desmond Tutu weeping as he listened to the victims tell their stories of unimaginable torture and of the cruelties inflicted even on children and the old. At times Tutu would lead members of the audience in singing a hymn to help the victim recover composure, and often, even in that secular setting, he would lead them in prayer.

One reporter described a typical Commission hearing taking place in a packed community hall in a dusty township. A black woman told of the night the security police smashed down the door and dragged away her son, who had been active in an anti-apartheid uprising. Some days later a policeman sent for her to come to the mortuary. In terrible detail she described the bruised and almost unrecognizable corpse, riddled with 19 bullet holes. People wept quietly as she struggled to continue. “I do not know if I can forgive,” she said. “I must know who did this to my son. When I see the face of the one who killed him, and he tells me why, then perhaps I can forgive.” Ultimately she, and a great many others, were able to release their terrible pasts, and begin to move on.

The brutality afflicted whites as well as blacks. Bishop Tutu has often told the story of a young white woman, Beth Savage, the victim of an African terrorist bomb exploded at a golf club during a party. Savage underwent open-heart surgery and was in intensive care for months, and even when she was discharged she was so disabled that her children had to feed, clothe, and care for her. Nevertheless, she was able to say this to the Commission: “I would like to meet that man that threw that grenade in an attitude of forgiveness and hope and that he could forgive me too for whatever reason. But I would very much like to meet him.”

As exhausting as the work was for the Commission and for Bishop Tutu, the result can only be called a miracle. A nation emerged from the worst injustice conceivable, with the black majority at last leading the country, and a civil society and economy still in tact. The cycle of revenge had been broken. Forgiveness had proven to be the most powerful tool for the future of the human race ever discovered.

In the face of the world’s divisions, every now and then we have glimpsed another possibility. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning Irish poet, who has reflected long and hard on the hatred that has torn his country apart, put it this way in a poem:

History says. Don’t hope
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up.
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Every now and then a people have caught a glimpse of what a future might be “on the far side of revenge and alienation.” There was the outpouring of generosity in the Marshall Plan after World War II when the U.S. helped rebuild our devastated former enemies; there was the creation of a United Nations to work toward mutual understanding; there was the international response to the tsunami two years ago, and the sense of closeness we felt as Americans just after 9/11. These were moments of what Bishop Tutu calls “ubuntu,” when we humans realize how deeply we belong to each other.

Just two years ago the nation watched the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, respond with forgiveness and compassion to the widow of the man who had murdered five young girls in the local school. They invited her to stay with their community, invited her to the funerals, and shared with her the cash gifts that had poured in from around the country. It seemed to point to a new possibility for human beings. Hope and history for a moment rhymed.

In Desmond Tutu’s life and ministry we have been given a picture of the future that God wants for us and our world on the far side of revenge. Maybe the most powerful phrases in the human vocabulary are these, “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you,” and “Let’s start again.” What if the religions of the world suffused the world’s children with these phrases starting in the crib and the rocking chair?

Think what would happen to broken marriages or alienated families if the wounded, angry participants used these words more. Think what could happen if political leaders could learn to say they are sorry when they make mistakes. Think what could happen in our divided church if we fully embraced the call to be reconciled to God and each other. What a sign to the world that would be!

Think what could happen in this country if we finally decided to face the truth of what slavery has done not just to African Americans, but to all of us—setting up an underclass, cutting us off from each other, leaving a gap that runs through the life of our cities and our world.

A movement at the heart of things is underway to reverse centuries of division and hostility—a subtle current that began on a cross, and has been working under the surface for centuries. Now it has surfaced to Desmond Tutu and the people of South Africa as they have shown us that forgiveness in the face of terrible evil is actually possible, and not just a nice idea. The longed-for tide has risen up.

Look at South Africa [Bishop Tutu wrote]. We were a hopeless case if ever there were one. God intends that others might look at us and take courage…. There is life after conflict and repression…. Because of forgiveness there is a future.

Thanks to Desmond Tutu and his people, we have seen what life can look like on the far side of revenge. What if we began to live that way—at home, in this city, in our nation, and our world? What if?