Seven years and seven months she waited. Her daughter had been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Not knowing whether her child was alive or dead, Angelina Atyam continuously called out to the Lord for the return of her child. She was not alone in her anguish. The children of other parents had also been kidnapped by the LRA – young men to be indoctrinated as soldiers, young women to be used as sex slaves for the army. Sitting on a panel at the “Love and Forgiveness in Governance: Learning from Experience” conference held at Georgetown University on November 14th, Angelina Atyam shared her story.
For myself, Angelina Atyam was the most eloquent of the speakers at the conference that day and all of the speakers were excellent, many of them renowned scholars and educators in their field. She spoke from the heart and she spoke from the gospel. She recounted a prayer service she attended with many of the parents of kidnapped children in which the words of the Our Father burned into her soul, “…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Struck by the force of these words and their blunt directness she stood up in the midst of this group and said, “Yes, we must forgive!” Through forgiveness Angelina found a different way. Neither passive resignation nor consuming anger – she found a way which gave her creative energy to advocate for the children and even reach out to the very ones that had kidnapped her child in a way that neither put them nor the government on the defensive. She had found a different way which was the way of the gospel.
“Seven years and seven months sounds very biblical,” said Angelina Atyam. After this time and after her choice for forgiveness her daughter escaped the LRA and found her way back to her mother. Angelina Atyam continues to advocate for all the children kidnapped by the LRA.
Forgiveness is not a weak choice. In a world often governed by the dynamics of power and retribution we are encouraged in the assumption that there really is no place for forgiveness and if forgiveness is exercised it is easily written off as either quaint (an interesting anomaly) or the choice of the weak. Yet, a growing body of evidence is demonstrating that forgiveness has a truly transformative power in the lives of societies and individuals (i.e. the truth and reconciliation processes held in different countries, most notably that of post-Apartheid South Africa).
Our Lord calls us to forgive seventy times seven and has given us the words of the Our Father (his own prayer) to make our own, “…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness is a deep courage as well as a process of growth. It is a deep courage rooted in the gospel itself which says there is another way other than the cycle of power and retribution. Christ has overcome all the sad logic of violence in our world and calls us into the creative energy of the Kingdom of God! How many artistic portrayals of the resurrection depict the resurrected Christ practically naked (therefore vulnerable) holding nothing but a representation of the cross triumphant while the Roman soldiers (depictions of all the sad logic of violence in our world) turn away in fear and dread. Christ is risen! The sad logic of sin, death and violence gives way to the ever new promise of the Kingdom of God! Forgiveness is possible and forgiveness breaks the cycle of power and retribution!
Forgiveness is a process of growth. Passive resignation offers no growth for the individual and neither does retribution. Both actually stunt individuals and communities in growth. When we carry resentment, when we carry anger, we only damage ourselves. Angelina Atyam recognized this truth. By embracing forgiveness, she gave all the emotions surrounding her daughter’s kidnapping both direction and purpose. This woman trained as a mid-wife became an internationally recognized spokesperson for the children of Uganda addressing presidents, heads of states and representatives of the United Nations. Rather than being consumed by anger and resignation, forgiveness let loose all those energies in her life!
As a Christian, I believe we still have so much to learn about forgiveness and it’s potentialities in our lives and in our world. We say the Lord’s Prayer and we read the Lord’s injunction to forgive yet we rarely dive into and embrace the depths of these truths and we are less for that. Our world is left impoverished. Those women and men who do embrace the truth of forgiveness astound, amaze and even frighten us. Their ways are not necessarily our ways because they know that there is a different option than just that of resignation or retribution. “Every child is my child,” said Angelina Atyam. This includes the child kidnapped by the LRA who is now a fully indoctrinated soldier – even the very ones that kidnapped her daughter. What an amazing thing to say and what an amazing freedom achieved which gave her the voice to say it!
Forgiveness is not a weak choice.