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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 • My Take • Opinion • Rwanda • Violence

soundoff (442 Responses)
  1. Gracias

    And thank you Pastor Warren and all other Christian missions for your yeoman service in Rwanda.

    God bless!

    November 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Missions are evil. Wait, no missionaries are evil. My bad.

      November 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • miracle

      And who would have thought of this day – that radical grace is possible.

      That is the power of God's love at work!

      November 7, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      What God are you referring to. The Christian God, the Muslim God, the Hebrew God, the Sun God, Zuess.......??

      November 7, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  2. Alien Orifice

    I am trying but.....I just can't........I just can't bring myself to forgive..........to forgive......Dubya.

    November 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      And I am still waiting on Ann to re-fill my God Dam Iced tea!

      November 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I SAID NO LEMON GAD DAMMIT!!!!

      November 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Waitress #12

      Y U NO B PATIENT?

      November 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Cuz I am thirsty DAM IT! And bring over some of those Soy Bean things for crying out loud. Chop Chop! Y U No Hurry your a ss up!

      November 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  3. Bucky Ball

    As usual, no one bothers to define what they mean when they say "I forgive you". There are at least 15 definitions I can think of.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Answer

      I think the definition of this particular case is: "I won't kill you for what you did. I accept that you are alive and my family is dead."

      November 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  4. 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 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Chris

      Let he who is without sin cast the first stone

      November 7, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • No, I'm the best.

      Isn't it the 10 Commandments ?

      November 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Answer

      Chris if you could explain what sin is and have proof of it that would be great.

      Otherwise even using that antique quote that has no relevance is unsuitable in whatever stance you have.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Reality

      Ten + the two greatest Commandments makes Twelve.

      November 7, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  5. Karasanyi

    Forgiveness is a reality in Rwanda. You amy not figure out how you can live with the killer of your family but in Rwanda, this is possible. The genocide against Tutsi was done in a a terrible manner (About a million people killed within a hundred days). It also require extraordinary solutions for the country to exist. This needed an extraordinary sense of leadership and commitment. I assure you, Rwandans have lessons to tell on forgiveness.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Chris

      Wow. Im sure. Let the world pay attention. That's all WE have to do. It's them who are doing the hard job

      November 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Chris

    There's a lotta people slandering the idea behind this type of behaviour. Well if it's so stupid then do you want to get on this blog and start ranting about how Nelson Mandela was just a stupid old man with dumd ideas who created a lot of bad things in the world and really didn't help South Africa to change for the better? I didnt think so. Or Gandhi? "Aw yeah, everyone knows he was an a**hole!" No I didnt think so.
    Only those who have understood how much we need to stop passing hate down the line have ended up being seen as the greatest people alive in our modern times. Kinda says it all doesn't it? Forgiveness, truth, reconciliation are powerful tools. Wars happen. Stupid sheep following their leaders into doctrinal leaders into slaughters is quite common in mob mentality. The individual inside probably hates what they have done and must be addressed – even if he's in jail for the rest of his life.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  7. James

    I read the above and was moved by it...Its amazing or even suprising to hear that Forgiveness is as powerful as a weapon of any kind..if God forgives those who tresspass against Him, shouldn't we find a way to forgive those who tresspassed against us? Isn't that what God in Heaven tells us? Isn't that what our parnets try to teach us as young children? Forgiveness may be hard for some to come by...but in the end it may be all that we have...

    November 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • No trespassing

      God does not forgive trespasses. He sends you right on to hell.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Answer

      Yes only you would know of hell for fact. Since you've died and went there right?

      November 7, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  8. Matt Nash

    I am a teacher at an international school here in Rwanda and I am also an American citizen. I think that most of you that are so angry about this article have no idea what people here in Rwanda have been through. Yes there is justice, and that is being done in an amazing way here in Rwanda. But reconciliation is the best medicine for acts of hatred and violence.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Chris

      Just everybody refer back to Nelson Mandela please. Truth and Reconciliation councils were seen as dumb-dumb-stoopid at first ..... until they broke open the whole system, collectively snapped the branch of antagonism and created a strong country from a culturally despised racist wasteland. Just take a wee look at 20 years-ago history for a few answers. Best wishes for Rwanda. How could we ever criticise – just listena nd learn

      November 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  9. marty

    Forgiveness is NOT about condoning what someone has done. Forgiveness is NOT about removing all consequences. Forgiveness does NOT allow a killer to go free. What forgiveness DOES is to release ME from hatred, anger, bitterness, sorrow, etc. It allows ME to heal. And it changes how I see the wrongdoer. Not forgiving, holding onto anger, fantasizing about how to do them evil, only perpetuates the violence. Where does it end? Just check out the Middle East-almost no forgiveness, only killing and revenge killing. And it continues generation after generation. Forgive for your own sanity.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  10. Heartbroke

    I think people in different situations have different feelings about forgiveness. Its so funny that I run accross this story on my computor because My son past away on 8-7-2010 he was killed in action in Afghanistan then 7 months later my daughter was killed by her boyfriend of 3yrs. He accidently shot her between the eyes with the 40 cal ten inches away. I don't know all the details because there is a trial on the 18 of November but I do know of some evidence found. If we forgive does that mean we drop all other feelings and be happy. I think each person has many emotions when a loved one dies. Just because you forgive doesn't mean you don't want justice. We need to practice knowing the difference between forgiveness and keeping the order of society so we all know "it isn't ok to kill" because whether an accident or not there is always some sort of negligence.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Know What

      Heartbroke,

      My sincerest sympathy and compassion go out to you. It sounds like you have your head on straight, even with pain that I can't even imagine. I wish you peace and tranquility. Take care...

      November 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  11. spijder

    It is no one's place but the actual murder victims to forgive the murderers for stripping them of their very existence. They can only forgive them for taking someone from them, not for the actual murder.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  12. Chris

    There is a lot of real experience that shows that when a predator-type is trapped in self-loathing, expecting hatred from all sides for what he has done, hell-bent on doing more, actual forgiveness breaks them. Breaks them hard. And when they're broken, thy'll work to stop others doing what they did. It's so common it's almost a cliche. Having said that, when I think of anyone attcking my wife or something worse .............. I don't know how I could forgive. And I dont even have kids yet

    November 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Answer

      Yes, experiencing it in real life is harsher than the possibility of it in your mind's scenario.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  13. Chris

    Oh yeah and I dont think anyone is actually comparing genocide to a waitress. Americans aren't THAT well off that their only problems are good service.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Waitress #12

      I don't know, my feet pretty much feel like genocide by the end of the day.

      November 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Why are you over there chit chatting???? Where is my GOD DAM Refill??

      November 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
  14. IdahoPlant

    For those of you who don't get it, something like this breaks the cycle of hate. These men will not pass hate down to their children and grandchildren. Inherited hate is part of what caused the genocide in the first place, and is most definitely part of the problem in the Middle East too.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Chris

      Exactly exactly exactly – there is so much evidence of this. It's just ...... really hard to do until you decide to actually let it go and do it. But I'm not saying this from MY experience – only from the experience of others.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  15. Chris

    This is truly wonderful and I have the same reaction as most – that it's appalling to me to consider this forgiveness, but that I can't deny the sheer logic that if you understand then forgive your enemy, the hate, and the results go away. Im so impressed. But for the non-Christians of us who don't think you need to be Christian to adhere to this – just a good person who motivates themselves outside of a religious groups' dogma – this story alienates me. Christians – there are so many good ones of you out there. Please consider that relating every good act to your faith chases off people that would otherwise be listening. If 'good' is too 'Jesus', YOU may wonder why it scares people but those of us on the outside of your faith, where we see endless strict cultural witch-hunting going on all the time – kinda see it all too clear. So less preaching OK? It'll get you the resuts you say you want – more good in the world. Cos there's a lot more of us in the US than you guys and I'm sure we can all be friends and get good things done

    November 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Answer

      You have a good summary Chris.

      I dislike the at-t-itude that preachers herein have of their faith, that inherently christian are the only ones that DO this kind of good. That is false logic they like to preach and it doesn't hold up. Other people without faith do these acts of righteous because they know they have an impact on others.

      When a christian comes online and says to you "name ONE atheist or some other person OTHER than a christian that is like that" .. you feel a sense of their ignorance of their grasp for the vast scope that is society.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  16. Rachel

    I do think the comparisons in this article are a bit odd. A 3rd grade bully or a waitress compared with a murderer.......hm.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  17. IdahoPlant

    Wonderful article! However, forgiveness and facing earthly consequences aren't mutually exclusive. In this case, the man served his time and asked for forgiveness. This is truly a beautiful article and proves there is hope.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  18. hippypoet

    thou i find it amazing that these people are this forgiving i don't think there problems will ever cease because of importance of Rwanda in the diamond trade...it sucks .....if you live over in africa and your town produces diamonds then you are most likely very poor and either have been or will be under oppression. One can only hope that there show of compassion will grow and stretch thoughtout the world. Maybe one day the world could forgive past transgressions. Truly a high hope, but i am high so who cares... lets hope for the best possible outcome.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      What?? Pass the blunt bogarter!

      November 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • hippypoet

      lol, yup, i blazed a fat one on my lunch break... only because i hired a person finally cover the walk-ins... i could be down there right now as high as i am, but we have a few cops that are clients – i don;t need the stress!

      November 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Chris

      Well said hippy poet

      November 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Answer

      I hope that there are more cases of this happening all around the other tribal areas in Africa. They could use more peace.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • hippypoet

      it is very sad to think that since africans first saw white man was the last time they had there own issues as issues – now they bare the weight of the world, and once more the world seerms to always forget africa! pathic – makes me wish i never left.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Answer

      Ahh hippy .. then you couldn't be the person who you are today. That is a sad fact.
      The past is something to think back on, but not necessarily the most envious when you have your life at present in comparison.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • hippypoet

      hence my love of history.... we may all not be here if not thanks to a certain island nation that was destoryed....no not atlantis! the minoan people! trace there history and look at 1700 b.c. and 1450 b.c. take those events away and the world changes completely!

      November 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  19. justmeanddog

    I do not understand how forgiving someone who has murdered someone you love makes you a “ better person”. According to this logic if you were forced to watch someone kill a loved one and you could not stop it then all you would have to do is forgive them and you would be classified as a “good” person but if you hunted them down and killed them you would be a bad person. If that is true then the justice systems of most “civilized societies is a reflection of the fact that society “as a whole” is “bad” since society hunts down murderers and other criminals and either imprisons them or executes them. If society adhered to this so-called principle of forgiveness our streets would be full of “forgiven” murderers and rapists etc. More so than it is at the present time that is. This guy and his cohorts got away with mass murder and the only reason they are not behind bars or dead is there were far too many of them for their justice system to handle and there were very few people there with “clean hands”. I might never be able to get my hands around the throat of someone who murdered my children, but make no mistake I would despise them until the day I died and if that makes me a “ bad person” then I guess that is what I am.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Their concept of "forgiveness" amounts to racking up brownie points for the afterlife. In their minds, the ultimate justice will come from their god and not from man. Why not be nice to the psycho killer, he's going to spend an awful lot of time (eternity) in hell anyway... right?

      Only people with wild delusions of afterlife justice do stupid shit like this in real life for no reason.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Chris

      There is (unfortunately) a great big difference between society and the individual. An individual can decide to go a route less travelled if they please – find a way to break the violence cycle or create allegiances between enemies to mend and heal or truth and reconciliation experiences etc. Society isn't allowed to do that. That's why a lot of people don't really agree with abortion for themselves but they feel they must allow society to have it as an option, which is (unfortunately) an inherent contradiction. Society can't mandate forgiveness. It's none of society's business how you feel about your kids' murderer. But it also can't stop an individual from forgiving them. I wish it wasn't so hypocritical-looking but that's the way of it when you get more than one individual in a world – society becomes something different.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • notatall

      And wouldn't it be nice to have our streets full of "forgiven" criminals? It they truly want forgiveness and have turned themselves around after a few years in prison; why not? No amount of hatred will undo the act, but gaining back some of your own quality of life will mean giving up the hatred and working toward a more positive outlook. Forgiveness is not just a "religious" word; it is a human act of kindness. Have so many Americans truly forgotten what kindness is all about?

      November 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  20. Aleksandr

    Are you kidding me?! This is the dumbest story ever... if someone ever killed my brother I would chase them to the end of the earth and then push them off (by that of course I mean I'd kill them)...and guess what? I'm PROUD of that. I'm not ashamed of the fact that I, unlike this spineless fool, would actually demand justice for the death of my loved ones.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Flames8889

      agreed. Im taking lives at that point.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Kevin

      Then you're giving someone the same permission to come after you.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Aleksandr

      Well thats life for you. Loving your own family and fighting to protect and avenge them is a basic human trait.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Answer

      There are different people with different opinions out there in the world. These people have chosen their path.
      What you are innately feeling is the 'possibility' of something happening unto your family. These people have HAD it happen.
      They are moving onwards... calling them cowards. That is just an opinion. As everything is in this world.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You sound very young and very naive, Alek. It's unwise to attempt to predict how one would behave in any given situation.

      November 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      @Tom Tom
      I am almost done reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and LS just beat the crap out of Martin Vanger with a Golf Club. I KNOW she doesn't forgive!

      November 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • mina

      I think those of you yammering about your own individual cases have totally missed the point, yes as inidviduals Rwandans did forgive but as a country I think its something they understood that they had to do, one to stop the cycle of hate, two to rebuild their country, three even though it was going to be difficult they were a rilegious people, even if you're not religious, ( I'm not either) I think its very nasty, arrogant and self satisfying to say that your own ideas about a religion are the only reasons why these people decided to make the painful decision to forgive murderers forced or not and it demeans it when you yourselves have admitted you would not be able to do the same thing if you were in their position. STFU

      November 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yes, Allen, she's not terribly merciful, is she?

      November 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      mina,
      Thank you for setting everyone straight. GTFA

      November 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      @Tom Tom
      Indeed not.

      November 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • o.

      Aleksandr...sadly, you don't understand the power of forgiveness. The benefit of forgiveness runs not to the partying being forgiven, but rather to the party extending forgiveness. It is the most freeing experience you can ever imagine. No hate in your heart, not hate in your mind. The person who hurt you is no longer controlling your thoughts and actions. Give it a try.

      November 7, 2011 at 5:53 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.