Before you read this story, have you ever experienced forgiveness that has brought tears to your eyes? Forgiveness can only truly come from the one who has been wronged, hurt or offended. It’s one thing for a system to go through a process and to grant a technical forgiveness. That provides technical relief. But true inner peace cannot be experienced by you, the offender, until the actual person or family you have wronged says: “We forgive you.”

Student Fighting for Equality

He was only seventeen when he joined the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. As a young white, Jewish student pursuing a law career, the racial injustices and brutality he observed against the indigenous peoples of South Africa were appalling to his sense of right and wrong.

Young Lawyer Hounded and Harassed

When young Albie Sachs graduated as a lawyer he began defending the activists who were against the apartheid government and its the laws that sanctioned such discrimination and moral cruelty against fellow humans. He represented members of the African National Congress (ANC) who were being imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death for the ‘crime’ of promoting respect and equality for all.

But young lawyer Sachs was risking his own life by supporting those who were fighting for equality. The powerful machinery of government was on his heels. He was arrested and without being charged he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for six months.

Flees but Doesn’t Escape

After being tortured in a second arrest, Mr. Sachs fled to a neighbouring country. But the long arm of the government’s security forces eventually tracked him down and one of its officers planted a bomb in his car. The blast resulted in the loss of Sachs’ right arm and permanent blindness in one eye. The loss of the arm you shake hands with and an eye is no small loss for anyone.

Battling for his life in a London hospital, a friend sent Sachs a note: “We will avenge you.” In other words, the people who did this to you will pay! But the young lawyer didn’t appreciate the attitude in the note. “I felt very uncomfortable with that. We’re going to cut off the arms of the people who did this to me? Are we going to blind them in one eye? What sort of a country is that? Is this what we are fighting for?” That was in 1988.

Dream Comes True – South Africa Changes

But in 1994 the historic upheaval in South Africa occurred through a peaceful democratic election. The racist laws and practises were about to end. After 24 years in exile, Mr. Sachs returned to South Africa to help establish the new government.

The newly appointed justices responsible for drafting a new non-racial constitution and set of laws had to decide whether past offenders should be prosecuted under the old apartheid law or under the new law. Some felt the officers of the old government who had inflicted such hurt should have to be punished according to their own laws that once authorized them to do such things. But when it was Justice Sachs turn to speak he blurted out: “No!”

A New Approach to the Law

Reflecting on the debate Sachs said: “I just knew something was wrong.” For him it was to be a ‘new’ constitution. He wanted nothing to do with the heavy-handed, authoritarian and racist old ways of doing things. He argued for a new law that treated all people the way he himself would like to be treated. And his view won the day with a 7-4 vote.

Ideals for a new law sound great but could people really forgive and forget?  What about the people like Mr. Sachs who personally suffered under the old system?

Bomber Visits Justice Sachs

One day, Henri, living with guilt as a former security officer and terrified of what awaited him under the new government made an appointment. Henri came to see Justice Sachs in his court chambers to seek forgiveness. No doubt weighing heavily on Henri’s mind was a bomb he had planted years earlier.

No Handshake – Why?

Justice Sachs and Henri talked for a long time. Finally Justice Sachs said to Henri: “Normally when I say goodbye to somebody I shake their hand. I can’t shake your hand. Go to the Truth Commission – tell them what you did and maybe we will talk again.”

Months later at a crowded social event the Judge heard his name being called: “Albie!”  It was Henri. The two went to a quiet corner and talked. Henri told him he had gone to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and told them everything he knew. He held nothing back.

How did Justice Sachs respond? He said: “Henri, I’ve only got your face to tell me what you’re saying is the truth,” and he put out his left hand and shook Henri’s hand.

Forgiven but Not Friends

Sachs recalled: “He [Henri] went away absolutely elated and I almost fainted. It was a real shock to me. Later I heard, he went home and cried for two weeks. And that moved me. I’m not Henri’s friend and I don’t want to go to the movies with him but we are starting to live in the same country together – and that’s more meaningful to me than if he had been sent to jail.”

Justice Sachs said: “Hard vengeance leaves you still at the level of the people who did these awful things. Soft vengeance is the triumph of your life, your ideals and of your goals.”

“Forgive, yes. Forget, No,” says Sachs.

We understand this type of forgiveness and it is very noble and exceedingly rare. Allow your mind just now to think about things in your past and how this affects your relationship with God – the Chief Justice of the Universe. Has God ever been offended by anything you have ever thought or done or said?

Five Lessons Spiritual Lessons

1.  CHIEF JUSTICE DETERMINES OFFENSES AND PENALTY: Every wrong thing we have ever done is always ‘first’ against God. We may forget this reality but God has determined what is sin in His universe and all sin is an offense against His holy character. All have sinned. Romans 3:23. God has determined that the penalty for sin is death. Romans 6:23

2.  CHIEF JUSTICE WANTS TO FORGIVE: Although God hates the offenses, He genuinely loves the offenders. God wants to show mercy and He delights to give offenders what they do not deserve. He wants to grant full and unconditional forgiveness. That’s the desire of His heart.

 “For You, Lord, are good,
and ready to forgive,
and abundant in loving-kindness to all who call upon You.”
Psalm 86:5

God desires your forgiveness and mine to such an extent, He sent His Son to earth to take the punishment for our sins. Christ died for our sins. 1Corinthians 15:3.  Jesus Christ, all by Himself, bore our sins in His own body on the Cross. 1Peter 2:24.

3.  CHIEF JUSTICE NOW READY TO FORGIVE: God offers you full and free forgiveness. How can He do that? The old law demanded you bear the penalty for your sin. God’s law of grace wants to bless the offender with forgiveness. Because every sin has been accounted for and judged at the Cross to God’s satisfaction, God can offer you forgiveness – through the blood of His Son. Ephesians 1:7 basically says: “through His blood we have the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.” Read also 1John 1:7.

4.  AVAILABLE TO ALL WHO CALL: No matter what the offense, forgiveness is available to every single person who is willing to face their guilt and call on God. The greatest possible blessing is available to any ‘taker’ today. Are you a ‘taker’? God is ready to forgive. Maybe you are not ready to accept. Have you faced your guilt?

5.  HAPPY FORGIVENESS: With both arms and with hands that were pierced with nails, He is longing to embrace the sinner. “Come to me everyone who is weary and burdened with their sin, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28. Forgive, yes! Forget? The Bible is clear; God says: “I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:34. Is it a forgiveness that adds: but don’t hang around with me? Absolutely not. God forgives and fully accepts you as a child into His eternal family with all the family privileges. John 1:12

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Source for Story:
Information and quotes taken from NPR story entitled: From South Africa, Lessons In ‘Soft Vengeance’ by Nina Totenberg