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My Take: If Rwandans can forgive killings, we can forgive the waitress
Innocent, left, is a Rwandan who murdered five people, including the brother of Gespard, right.
November 7th, 2011
12:13 PM ET

My Take: If Rwandans can forgive killings, we can forgive the waitress

Editor’s note: Jeremy Cowart is a Los Angeles-based celebrity portrait photographer and founder of Help-Portrait, a global movement of photographers giving free portraits to those in need. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

By Jeremy Cowart, Special to CNN

Would you forgive the bully that tripped you in 3rd grade? What about the terrible service from that lazy waitress? Or the guy who cut you off on the interstate?

What about the man who murdered your children? If he asked you for forgiveness, would you grant it? Would you agree to spend time with him – maybe one day call him your friend?

That's what some in Rwanda are doing: Forgiving and reconciling with murderers who killed their children, friends, siblings and parents during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

See Cowart's Rwanda series on CNN Photos.

I recently met some of them face-to-face.

My journey to them began a year ago, when I attended a conference for young Christians called Catalyst. A filmmaker named Laura Waters Hinson presented her documentary "As We Forgive," about a pair of Rwandan women on a journey to reconcile with the men who slaughtered their families.

The 1994 genocide had seen tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutus, provoked by extremist propaganda, kill roughly 800,000 Tutsi neighbors. Hinson had been showing her film across Rwanda to encourage reconciliation in schools, churches and villages.

After she spoke, I presented "Voices of Haiti," a series of photos I captured in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

At the conference, Hinson and I discussed combining our projects into a "Voices of Reconciliation" photo series. We wanted Rwandans to have an opportunity to make their own statements to the world. Nine months later, I was in Rwanda, working with Hinson and her team.

I grew up in the church and am a practicing Christian. I've heard "love your neighbor" and "forgive others because God forgave you" my entire life. But I don't recall my church ever discussing the idea of forgiving killers.

Our culture certainly doesn't promote the idea. The terms we discuss are "death penalty" vs. "life sentence." We expect full justice at every turn.

No one ever goes so far as to say, "You know, you might consider forgiving the guy that killed your dad." And who would suggest building a relationship with the murderer?

But what if we did forgive because "God forgave us?" Christians believe that God offers forgiveness to the worst of humanity. God, via the death of Jesus, traded places with humanity, bearing the punishment for sin that everyone else deserved. For Rwandans, it’s this theological principle that’s enabling a growing phenomenon of radical forgiveness.

Let's put beliefs aside. What if our entire culture - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, whatever - forgave everyone,  even our worst enemies?

What if we generously tipped our waitress after terrible service? What if we stopped counting the wrongs of our spouse and gave them a clean slate? What if we forgave the uncle who sexually abused us as a child?

From what I witnessed in Rwanda, this kind of radical grace is possible. While incredibly difficult to accomplish - especially if the offender has not admitted their wrong and asked for forgiveness, it’s a force that has the power to tear down walls and free hearts.

Hinson, whose film led to the creation of a Rwandan reconciliation organization, says that “some Rwandans liken unforgiveness to the experience of having acid eat you from the inside out. Others describe it like being trapped in a prison of hatred.”

“For the victims,” she says, “forgiving their offenders is a way of setting themselves free from the chains of anger and bitterness.”

On the other hand, I was struck by meeting many perpetrators whose burden of guilt seemed to weigh almost as heavily on them as the victims’ burden of pain. Forgiveness released both ends of the burden. It is perhaps the greatest thing I'll ever see in my lifetime.

The guys in the photo above wrote a message on their arms: "Love is the weapon that destroys all evil.”

It's hard to believe that the man named Innocent, left, murdered five people, including the brother of Gespard, right. They are standing on the site of the executions.

After serving a few years in prison, Innocent was released upon confessing to his crimes. He begged Gespard for forgiveness during a reconciliation workshop sponsored by the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative.

Like many Rwandans, these men participated in a reconciliation process that involved months of workshops, along with praying and doing agricultural work together, part of an ingenious effort to encourage reconciliation and alleviate poverty at the same time.

Today, Innocent and Gespard count each other as friends.

Other messages that survivors and perpetrators wrote on their signs are "Brothers in Forgiveness," "Truth restores trust" and "We restored our humanity."

Maybe we start small and decide to forgive the waitress, no matter what. Maybe if we begin with small acts of grace, we could one day find ourselves practicing radical grace and restoring humanity, too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeremy Cowart. Cowart's and Hinson's work in Rwanda was funded by a grant from the SEVEN Fund, an organization that promotes enterprise solutions to poverty.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion • Rwanda • Violence

soundoff (442 Responses)
  1. Justin

    Thanks for the article. I've often wondered if I would be able to forgive someone for murdering a family member of loved one, and I'm very inspired by the people of Rwanda who are able to do so. I just finished a great book, "Forgiving the Unforgivable" by Master Charles Cannon, that speaks to the power of forgiveness and acceptance that is great for anyone struggling with learning to forgive.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  2. momoya

    And what would tyrants fear in a world of complete and total forgiveness? Forgiveness helps the victim to be at peace with what wrongs have been committed against him; it does nothing to curb wrong behavior or stop the evils of those without empathy.

    December 27, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Cris

      I think the point here is that the man who committed the act asked for forgiveness. It wasn't simply given to him. I don't know how anyone could deny forgiveness to someone who would humble themselves enough to ask for forgiveness but I do agree with you that it seems pointless and even counterproductive to forgive someone who isn't sorry for what they've done.

      January 3, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  3. Skeptical

    It certainly is a nice idea, and this event surely does give hope to the rest of the world of forgiveness. But then again...is it an ideal? I agree with TheRationale (without the sarcasm). If this were so easy, it would have already been accomplished. Unfortunately, human nature is often times in the way. I really don't think there are people out there with that much good in their hearts. I'm not being pessimistic. I'm being realistic. This sort of thing is a miracle, a feat of humanity. If it actually holds, it'll go down through history. It might even set an example. But realistically, forgiveness is not such an easy thing. Those who can forgive is certainly a marvelous person, but have you really forgiven? You'll never forget, and I do believe that is a part of forgiveness. If the memory still tugs at your brain, still incites some emotion, you haven't forgiven, and it seems very dangerous (and unfair) to pretend you have.

    December 1, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  4. ecr

    why go crazy trying to explain what and who God is. No matter how much we study, learn, memorize the bible, the facts , etc etc, it is impossible to describe such thing as GOD! As christians we should know that no one convinced us that there was such thing, instead we each experienced it. Its a close relationship, a knowing in you that tells you that God is real. I can go on and on about what the bible says, what this and that says but in reality it comes down to that heart to heart meeting with him. Believe or not, salvation is individual. To each its own. We live in a world that works through the natural, God is supernatural. There is not enough intelligence, space, knowledge in this world to explain such a marvelous thing as God. Stay blessed everyone.

    November 30, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  5. His Grace

    What a powerful testimony of forgiveness from a country that has been beleagured with violence.

    That was indeed Grace in action. John1: 16/17 at work in the hearts and minds of people.

    Thanks to all the wonderful men and women of God who worked with the Rwandans to bring about healing and hope to a nation through wonderful love of Jesus Christ.

    November 9, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  6. Monty

    This is a really awesome article on grace. The movie Gracecard helped me open my eyes to grace, and I had anger and hate eating me up inside and once I realized that I needed to extend grace and forgive those that wronged me the anger and hate that was eating me up inside was gone.

    November 9, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  7. Coleen

    Thank you Jeremy for writing this. What an amazing perspective on grace. So often we get caught up looking at the "wrongs" that have been done to us that we don't stop to look at the bigger picture. Real people died in Rwanda and real people extended REAL, life-changing forgiveness. Because Christ first loved us, so we love...no matter what. Incredible testimony of this.

    November 9, 2011 at 1:55 am |
  8. Coenraad

    Jeremy has found a real life example of what grace is. It is hard, difficult and not in any way what the world tells us to do, but the freedom that one gains through it cannot be out into words.

    November 9, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  9. Karen

    Grace is scandalous and doesn't make sense. Jeremy shines that truth brilliantly when sharing his beautiful experience seeing both sides of a tragedy. THANK YOU, Jeremy!!

    November 8, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  10. Gracedoesn'tmakesense

    Jeremy, thank you so much for your inspiring work and for teaching us that grace and forgiveness transforms lives. Grace doesn't make sense, but it is beautiful. It is gloriously on display in these pieces and the stories that undergird them.

    November 8, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  11. Reality

    It appears most Hutus and Tutsis are Christian or some blend thereof. Did someone forget to teach them them the Twelve Commandments back in the 60's when all this trouble began?

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    November 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Reality: seems to me that their faith called them to admit when they are wrong. Maybe something we could all stand to learn...

      November 8, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Reality

      Something we all need to learn:

      The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen

      November 8, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • Eldon

      Explain the shroud of Turin or evil or emotions. Truth is self evident.

      December 11, 2011 at 4:20 am |
  12. TheRationale

    What if everyone were just nice to begin with?

    Gee, what a brilliant solution to every problem ever! I wonder why nobody ever thought of that one before! Let's break out in song and dance and give everyone a flower and a Coke.

    November 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.