After years of civil war, the people living in the country of Sierra Leone returned to communities in which neighbors had experienced trauma at the hands of one another. The fabric of community had been torn apart and the reunification of these areas was vital to resettling and restoring peace. The relational ties that form the foundation of local culture needed to be restored and one way that the people engaged in forgiveness and “peace-building” was through a ceremony called Fambul Tok.
Fambul Tok, or “family talk” is a sacred bonfire that creates a space for victims and perpetrators to tell their story, ask for, and receive forgiveness from the people they had wronged. Following the bonfires, victim and perpetrator will join in planting crops or playing games together as a sign of forgiveness and restoration.
How can the church learn from this example of radical forgiveness of deeply personal and traumatic grievances?
Westerns struggle to understand forgiveness without retribution. This is true even for Christians, who believe we have been reconciled to God through Christ while we were still his enemies. The grace and forgiveness we have received is completely unmerited, and we’re instructed to go and do likewise, laying down our lives for others.
But when it comes to those who have wronged us, it doesn’t always follow that we automatically forgive. After all, shouldn’t the perpetrator be made to pay for his crime? Does it really do justice to simply forgive him? Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, offers a meditation on God’s character as one who freely gives and forgives and then asks how followers of Christ should give and forgive in return. “the heart of forgiveness,” he writes, “is a generous release of a genuine debt.”
“When we forgive,” he continues, “we acknowledge the offenses and blame the perpetrator. But we treat the person as if the offense did not happen. To forgive means most basically to give a person the gift of existing as if they had not committed the offense at all.” (Click to Tweet)
That is precisely what happens in those truth-telling bonfires: The victim gives the perpetrator the gift of existing not as a killer or a rapist but as a friend, a neighbor, a part of the family. And in turn the community is made whole and finds peace. But peace, Volf writes, “is not the indifference that leads each to his or her own little island, unconcerned for and unengaged with others. Peace is the flourishing of the community and of each person within it.”
Our world is hungry for that kind of flourishing. Creation groans for that kind of peace.