One of the lessons I have learned as I have grown older is that we should be a great deal more modest in claims we make about our prowess and our various capacities. Even more importantly, we should be generous in our judgments of others, for we can never really know all there is to know about another.
Desmond Tutu wrote this in his No Future Without Forgiveness while describing Winnie Mandela's testimony before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela, a powerful, charismatic yet controversial leader in the movement to overthrow a self-evidently violent and racist governmental system, had come to exonerate and justify herself before a committee more interested in chronicling and reconciling the sins of the past. "We were," Tutu writes, "not a court seeking to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We were seeking to establish as much of the truth as possible. . . . It would be left to the commission later to announce in its main report just where it believed responsibility resided in the violation of human rights."
Other witnesses before the committee had reported acts of terrible violence organized and directed by Winnie Mandela. She sat in defiance of the committee and the witnesses, before finally offering a brief, understated apology for one act of violence connected to her. She did so in response to an appeal from Tutu: "You don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say, 'Sorry, things went wrong, forgive me.'"
I can't say enough how fascinating and wildly impressive South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to me. Hearing these stories of horrible violence laid bare and then laid to rest, seeing once-defiant agents of violence take ownership of their wrongdoing, reading the reflections of the bishop who presided over these public sacraments of confession, I'm continually amazed that an entire country could experience such a dramatic conversion together. At the center of it was the will of all sides to own the truth and to confess it.
Tutu later reflected on what a small step expressions of regret like Mandela's can seem to the outer world, but what a giant leap it is to the private soul: "It is never easy to say, 'I am sorry'; they are the hardest words to articulate in any language." They're hard to say because they grate against our pride, our instinct to protect and even elevate ourselves, our biased instincts that whatever wrong we've done is at least in in some sense justified by the wrongs done to us. To say "I'm sorry" is to leap by faith into a raging river of contrition, and we won't find out till we've leapt whether God will deliver us safely to the other side.
Nevertheless, "I'm sorry" sounds to the outside world like such a small thing to say, sometimes even too small a thing to say given the wrongs it's meant to redress. It seems like such a token of regret, but it may be that even the slightest regret can begin what will ultimately become a remarkable reconciliation.