No Future Without Forgiveness: Desmond Tutu’s Big Idea

“To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

― Desmond Tutu (1931-2021), No Future Without Forgivenes

The death of a great person gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ways that their lives have touched ours. Few people impacted the 20th century as profoundly, or as positively, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did, so I expect (and hope) to see a lot of reflections about him in the coming weeks. In writing my own I hope only to be part of a long line celebrating a wonderful life.

Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the year that I graduated from High School, moved to Provo, and started my college career at the BYU. At the time, South Africa was still under apartheid, Nelson Mandella was still in jail, and the United States was split between those who wanted to engage with the apartheid regime and those who wanted to boycott it and turn it into a pariah state. I didn’t pay much attention to Bishop Tutu at the time, other than noting that he seemed to be pretty important to whatever was going on over there.

Much later, I read Tutu’s’ book No Future Without Forgiveness—a reflection on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and discovered the big idea that animated Tutu’s life and career. The big idea is right there in the title—forgiveness, but not forgiveness as a theological virtue or a form of self-sacrifice or universal love. Tutu was too much of an activist for such pure theology. For him, forgiveness was an act of political necessity. It was the only way that his country could move forward after apartheid and still be a country.

I wrestled with this idea when I anthologized one of the chapters of that book in the textbook that I have edited since 2006. The chapter “Nuremberg or National Amnesia: A Third Way” has been part of the last three editions of Reading the World: Ideas that Matter, and I have used it heavily for ancillary materials for the text. Over the past ten years or so, his thinking in this chapter has become a cornerstone of my own thinking about political matters.

This chapter describes the basic operation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: After a long period of civil war, direct action movements, responses, and reprisals, the country was torn apart. People on both sides had suffered, and people on both sides had committed, horrible atrocities. Tutu and others created a process that, in effect, traded amnesty for truth. People also had to acknowledge the atrocities that they committed, and, if they did so, they were granted both civil and criminal immunity. It was one of the world’s first large-scale experiments with forgiveness as a political tool.

And it had plenty of problems. I don’t want to pretend that it created utopia; it didn’t, but it worked better than the other two possibilities named in the chapter title. Tutu is crystal clear in this chapter that it was not Christlike love or virtue that prompted him to advocate this approach. It was cold, hard Machiavellian reality. Nobody had the power to conduct Nuremberg-like trials. There were no unconditional surrenders. Both sides still had power, both controlled important resources, and both had to live together when the hearings were over:

Some South Africans—and others in the international community—enjoy the luxury of complaining that all the perpetrators ought to have been brought to justice. The fact of the matter is that we do unfortunately have remarkably short memories. We have forgotten that we were on tenterhooks until 1994, within a trice of the most comprehensive disaster, but that, in God’s mercy, we were spared all of this. . . . The miracle was the result of a negotiated settlement. There would have been no negotiated settlement and so no new democratic South Africa had the negotiators on one side insisted that all perpetrators be brought to trial. While the allies could pack up and go home after Nuremberg, we in South Africa had to live with one another.

This, for me, is the core of Tutu’s big idea. Forgiveness is not an exercise in personal morality, or a test of obedience, or even an acknowledgment that hatred and resentment are toxic to us so we should throw them away for our own benefit. None of these other views of forgiveness is wrong, per se, but none of them capture what is really at stake: regular forgiveness is the only way that human beings can live with each other in any productive way. This is true in families, places of business, religious congregations, nations, and the whole world. Forgiveness is the only way that imperfect people can move forward together in the absence of perfect justice, which is impossible, or uncontestable power, which always ends being worse than whatever problems it may solve.

I continued to wrestle with Tutu when I recently wrote a book on civic friendship and on having debates with political opponents without falling into outrage and hatred. It has been difficult to talk about this book publically (the way one must when promoting books these days) because most people, on both sides of our current political divide, don’t want to get along with their enemies. They believe that the other side is so corrupt, and so past feeling, that any kind of compromise is a betrayal.

My response to this has always been that we don’t have a choice. The other side is not going away. One of the great fantasies of American politics is that, in some coming election, the masses will come to their senses and we will vanquish the other side so completely that weTM will be able to rule as if they were not an issue. This fantasy, in my opinion, has done more damage to our public sphere than any other bit of ideology ever has or ever will. Once we accept that we will always have to share our nation, and our world, with people we disagree with, even about really important things, then Archbishop Tutu’s philosophy of forgiveness becomes the only rational way to govern ourselves.

What I admire the most about Desmond Tutu is the hard-headed pragmatism of his profoundly Christian message. Yes, he, said, you have to love your enemies. Yes, you have to bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. And unless you do these things, you can’t have a democratic society or a lifetime of civic peace, because the teachings of Christ are not for the next world; they are the only way we can have a good life in this one.


  1. A challenge that most Christians have is in acknowledging and accepting that forgiveness does not begin or end with Christ, that forgiveness predated his ministry, and that forgiveness exists in the world even outside of Christianity. Forgiveness is a moral and practical principle with power and effect outside of the realms of religion. That religions choose to emphasize or co-opt forgiveness is irrelevant. It is good for any institution or ideology to promote the value of forgiveness, but it is more important to understand the universality of forgiveness outside of a pure theological or commandment concept. As the OP points out, Tutu and others had the wisdom to expound on the importance of forgiveness from a civic, political, and social benefit perspective irrespective of any theological redemptive perspective.
    Morality must be rational.
    “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humanity.” – Benedict de Spinoza

  2. I am not going to say that I don’t like the idea of forgiveness, I do, but the biggest comparison that I have is for the US Civil War, and I feel that all of the forgiveness shown to the Confederates is still causing problems today.
    If the South Africans pulled off everyone understanding that they’re going to need to work together, that’s great. But waving symbols of the Confederacy around and shouting “The South shall rise again.” has created festering wounds.

  3. Michael Austin says:


    There is one overwhelming difference between the American Civil War and the South African apartheid state, which is that the South actually lost a war and surrendered unconditionally, whereas the apartheid state was dismantled through a negotiated settlement. Whatever coercive instruments were available to the Union after Lee’s unconditional surrender at Appomattox were, like the Nuremberg trials that followed Germany’s unconditional surrender, unavailable to the ANC when they were negotiating an end to apartheid.

    As to the question of forgiveness and the South, I think I would phrase it differently. Lincoln and Grant both agreed that the South should be forgiven in that its leaders were not tried for war crimes or for treason. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and all of the rest of the generals and politicians of the confederacy were allowed to live the rest of their lives in peace. That was a controversial call, but I think it was the right one. It made reintegration possible.

    The huge mistake that the Union made, in my opinion at least, was in ending Reconstruction before there were institutions in place to protect the franchise. This was not Lincoln’s call, of course, since he had been assassinated. And it was not Grant’s call. Grant, while advocating forgiveness in one sense, was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. He committed federal troops to ensure the integrity of elections, and he used the army to put down the Ku Klux Klan. He was willing to stay as long as necessary to protect the vote that was guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

    But when Grant left office, the Republican Party caved in to the demands of White Southerners. The Republican nominee to replace Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, almost lost to Samuel Tilden. It was a disputed vote that came down to exactly the question of whether or not the vote in three key states was fair. Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina each elected two sets of electors. Republicans claimed that the black vote was suppressed in the state counts (which was true), and Democrats claimed that the state had a right to choose its own electors its own way. So it came down to a compromise: Hayes won the election, and the Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction.

    That was a disastrous decision. It allowed the Southern Democratic Party to effectively end African-American voting for a hundred years, and it purchased Southern reconciliation with black lives. But it was not a mistake brought about by forgiveness. Lincoln’s original plan not to prosecute Southerners for the war had created an atmosphere that made Reconstruction at least possible, and requiring the Southern States to Ratify the Civil War Amendments before rejoining the Union at least created a legal environment in which meaningful reconciliation was, after a few generations, within our grasp. Reconstruction was not abandoned out of forgiveness, but because there were short-term political advantages to be had by hurling millions of freed slaves under the bus–and creating an apartheid state within the United States that would endure almost as long as the one in South Africa.

    To put this another way, forgiving someone, or some group, for injustices and atrocities in the past is not the same thing as permitting that group to commit injustices and atrocities in the present or the future. What Tutu argued was that the past had to be forgiven for the nation to move forward after apartheid had ended. That is not the same as permitting an apartheid state to emerge as the cost of reconciliation, which is what America, collectively, did in 1876 that led to the deep injustices that you correctly bring up.

    tl;dr: Insisting on punishment for past actions is not the same as insisting on changes to present and future laws and behaviors. One is judgment and the other is justice.

  4. I think everything that Michael says about the end of Reconstruction is correct, but there is still more to say about why the American apartheid legal regime took root.

    Perhaps the most important additional thing to recognize is that there was a limit to the measures that Northern whites would tolerate in giving civil liberties and civil rights to Blacks. Northern whites had achieved a consensus in opposition to slavery. However, that consensus did not extend to the idea that Blacks were genuinely equal to whites. Once the embarrassing barbarity of slavery was eliminated, a majority of whites in the North were frankly untroubled by the idea that Blacks should not gain real political power or social equality.

    One of the most remarkable things about the transition to democracy in South Africa is that whites were actually willing to do it. There are many factors that led to that willingness, including the remarkable leadership of people like Tutu and Mandela. As you have explained well, Michael, these leaders somehow became at once hard-headed pragmatists and visionary idealists. They modelled the personal sacrifices that were necessary to realize reconciliation. All sides of the conflict saw their example and followed it.

    It remains astonishing to me, though, that white South Africa went along with it. Here is the core difference between white South Africa in the late 20th century and white America after (since?) the Civil War: enough white South Africans felt the moral imperative of racial equality but enough white Americans did not. This allowed South Africa to accept Black political leadership. The United States still has not done so, even after electing a Black president.

    I wonder whether Tutu’s model of reconciliation only works when, in terms of morality, there is a clear winner and a clear loser. Could there have been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa if a critical mass of South African whites had not recognized their responsibility for horrendous wrongdoing? Their moral awareness made them willing to accept forgiveness.

  5. I found Tutu’s attempt to squish Israeli-Palestinian issues into a Euro v Indigenous frame to be naive and problematic (at best).

  6. Geoff - Aus says:

    Byu, I do not see what you see. I think you may be getting your news from a right wing perspective.
    Apartite in South Africa was ended because the world boycotted South Africa. Financially, culturally, and sporting. Tutu, was asking that Israel be boycotted to bring them to the negotiating table. Most of the world is doing this but right wing America continues to support Israel no matter how they treat the palistinians. You are defending the oppressor against the victim. You are prolonging the abuse.

  7. Geoff–we can amicably disagree. But I think it’s inaccurate to say “most of the world” agrees with you and Tutu. Ask a Hindu. Or a Sikh. Or a Jain. Or a Parsi. Or a Sri Lankan Catholic. Or a Burmese Buddhist. Or a Serbian Orthodox member. And see technology and arms deals between Israel and India and numerous nations in Latin America and Southeast Asia and Africa . . .

  8. Loursat,

    I wonder whether Tutu’s model of reconciliation only works when, in terms of morality, there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

    That’s an important observation. It’s similar to the one Orwell made of Gandhi, when he argued that Gandhi’s strategy of non-violent resistance in India only worked because it could be communicated in terms of a moral and legal system that a clear majority of the British themselves accepted as normative. If that hadn’t been the case, non-violent resistance, or a Truth and Reconciliation Committee for that matter, would have been about as effective as, say, the Lakota Sioux lining up and walking peacefully towards Custer.

  9. Geoff - Aus says:

    Not a solution for America then.

  10. I agree with Orwell that non-violent resistance as practiced by Ghandi or Martin Luther King relied on the moral sense of the British people/White Americans. It drew their attention to the injustices being carried out in their name, and they decided not to tolerate them any more (or fewer of them, anyway). That would have been much more difficult if there hadn’t been clear moral winners and losers as Loursat puts it.

    On the other hand, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was probably helped by the fact that both sides had blood on their hands. The commission wasn’t there for just one side: both sides had legitimate grievances, and both sides had things they wanted forgiveness for.

    In our personal conflicts I suspect it’s much more common that there are legitimate grievances on both sides, making the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission highly relevant.

  11. Rereading my post, I’d better clarify: I’m not suggesting the apartheid regime and the African National Congress were morally equivalent. The ANC was working to overthrow a deeply unjust and racist government. But the ends did not always justify the means. Similarly, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in our personal lives does not require us to think we are equally at fault, just imperfect.

    And a caveat that probably ought to go with every discussion of forgiveness: forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation, and certainly does not require compromising on safety, either physical or emotional. It is entirely possible to say “I forgive X” and “I’m not going to have any further contact with X because it is likely to be harmful to me” at the same time. Forgiveness is about the past, safety is about the future.

  12. Let me just say that this is one of the best posts and comments of recent vintage. Alas, I wish I had something comparable to add.

  13. I listened to the Bill Evans Trio tonight then read this post. Both were examples of fine craftmanship. Thank you Michael for reminding us of something that we so rarely see in our Nation today: That self-interested politics and a charismatic individual can come together to produce BIg Ideas.

  14. Roger Hansen says:

    This Christmas season we lost several important people: pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, comedian Betty White (who came within a few days of turning 100), larger-than-life sports figure John Madden, respected politician Harry Reid, and of course Desmond Tutu. I spend 2 months a year in Africa, and I hope his vision will continue to have a positive impact on the continent, and the world.

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