Book Review by Gene Knudsen Hoffman — Summer 2002
There is a way the world can change from war to peace, from hatred to love. It requires a lot of effort, a lot of understanding, and it begins at home.
For centuries we’ve been told to practice it, that it’s healing for ourselves and the other, that it’s a way to manifest love and courage. It brings peace to the participants. It is a brave and noble thing to do, and — it can be very costly, costly to pride, to arrogance, to fear, to hate.
Michael Henderson has written the definitive book on it and it’s called: Forgiveness. Of it Desmond Tutu wrote, “A deeply moving and eloquent testimony to the power of forgiveness in the life of individuals, of communities, and between and within nations. It effects change — a powerful book.”
Forgiveness demands much of us, yet once we’ve practiced it, it is so obvious — and easy. It demands that we examine our lives daily to learn whether we have brought harm to anyone, discouraged anyone, destroyed anyone’s confidence or trust. If we find we have, we give up painful denial and simply acknowledge it to ourselves, to the one harmed, and ask their forgiveness. Whether or not we’re forgiven is not the issue. That we found the courage to take the unexpected act is. We have accepted our imperfection and begun a healing process for ourselves and the world.
In his book, Michael Henderson tells us story after story of forgiveness in action and its results. I’m going to focus on one of them. I feel it’s an object lesson for us Americans. Perhaps it will whet your appetite for more.
In 1788, the British colonized Australia, and for the Aboriginal peoples, this period was one of “dispossession and massacre,” to the point where it was assumed they would die out. But the number of the mixed Aboriginal and white people grew steadily, and, since they were almost always born of white fathers and Aboriginal mothers, most grew up in Aboriginal communities.
This alarmed the white authorities who had no respect for the Aboriginal culture. They thought if they took the children out of the aboriginal culture, Australia would comfortably become a western country. So they stole, often brutally, children from their mothers, often when they were newly born, and placed them in foster homes or in institutions. By 1970, some of the Australian citizens began working courageously to overcome the attitudes that allowed such cruelty to happen. Kim Beazley, a member of Parliament and leader of the Labor party decided to devote his parliamentary career to the needs of the Aboriginal (sometimes called Maori) people.
In the late `80s the Labor commission initiated a Royal Commission to discover why so many Aboriginal people took their own lives while in prison. In 1993, some Australians and some government officials were ready to admit how cruelly the Aboriginal people were treated. By 1997, a 680 page report was finished and was titled Bringing Them Home. It called for a National apology.
The national report shook the conscience of Australia. After some months the government announced it would make available sixty-three million dollars over four years for counseling and family reunion. However, it ignored the proposal for a national apology and the concept of a National Sorry Day of acknowledgement and forgiveness.
On their own initiative many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people came together and launched a plan to hold a Sorry Day on May 26, 1998, exactly a year after the report had been made public by Parliament. The idea spread rapidly with strong backing from the churches and from educational authorities. One group developed Sorry Books in which people expressed in their own words their sorrow for the forced removal of children from families. Eventually more than 1200 such books were distributed in which 400,000 people wrote personal messages. On National Sorry Day the books were handed to elders of “The Stolen Generations” in hundreds of ceremonies throughout Australia.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser published an article called Why We Must Say Sorry in which he wrote “Facing the truth about our past, when it is contrary to that which we have been taught for generations, is difficult. Unless non-Aboriginal Australians are prepared to look at the past honestly, there will be no real reconciliation with Aborigines. It also involves matters of Spirit. This is where an apology for past wrongs is relevant. An apology does not say “I am guilty”; it is a recognition that our society perpetuated a wrong and that we are sorry it happened. … An apology says that by today’s standards these things should never have happened.”
The next step the Australian people took was a Journey of Healing which was led by members of the Stolen generations, who took the initiative to heal the remaining wounds among people of all races. One member of the stolen generation, Fiona, said “National Sorry Day was the final thing in my healing because it gave recognition to pain. …and it gave us permission to cry and grieve together. Since then, I’ve suddenly become aware that our people aren’t victims any more.”
On August 27, 1999, Parliament expressed its sincere and deep regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practice of past generations and for the hurt and trauma that Prime Minister John Howard (who two years before had refused to apologize to the indigenous people) came to describe with the following words: “The greatest blemish and stain on the Australian national story is our treatment of the indigenous people. It is important that we recognize that, we con-front it and acknowledge it.”
My dream is that we American people will come out of our denial about the tragic harm we’ve done others beginning with Native Americans, the people of whom we made slaves, all immigrants who were rejected and looked down upon, our gay and lesbian children, brothers and sisters — and from there move on to people all over the world who have suffered and died from the weapons we have used and the bombs we have dropped. Making a pilgrimage of acknowledging the harm we have done, making what amends we can, and asking forgiveness is not beyond our capabilities and it has a powerful example in our own Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project where they are performing just such acts of healing and restoration in Vietnam at this very time.
(Your purchases help to support this site.)
Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate. by Michael Henderson, Book Partners Inc. Wilsonville, Oregon 97070. 1999.
Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project
P. O. Box 369, Garberville, CA. 95542