When Charlotte Atyam, a 14-year-old Ugandan schoolgirl, was kidnapped by rebel forces to be forced into sex slavery with 138 of her classmates, her mother Angelina was beyond heartbroken. When 109 of the girls were released shortly after the abduction, Charlotte was not among them.
Angelina immediately took it upon herself to begin a campaign against the rebels, repeatedly bringing the story to the government and the media. After several months, the rebels became worried and agreed to free her daughter, and only her daughter, so long as she stopped her public campaign against them. Angelina refused to stop until all of the girls were freed, and Charlotte was not released.
Such was the story told by Emmanuel Katongole, associate professor of theology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, who came to speak at Boston College on behalf of the Veritas Forum. Katongole, a half-Tutsi, half-Hutu Ugandan native with a close connection to both the Rwandan genocide and the Ugandan Civil War, is particularly interested in the study of reconciliation and forgiveness.
For months, Katongole said, Angelina and her husband were unable to complete the Our Father when praying for Charlotte’s safety-unable to speak the words “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” After six years, Charlotte escaped with the two children she bore while held captive, but for a long time, Angelina struggled with the concept of forgiveness-how could she and her husband even begin to consider forgiveness in such a situation? How could the rebels deserve such a gift?
Katongole’s lecture, titled “Learning to Live with our Enemies: Why Forgiveness Requires God” addressed both of these questions and many more to a packed audience in the Walsh Function Room on Friday evening.
An expert on the study of forgiveness, Katongole began by relaying reasons that forgiveness should be considered beneficial. People who forgive often, Katongole said, have lower blood pressure, have lower levels of depression, and score generally higher on almost every psychological evaluation. “So you want to live longer?” he said. “Then you forgive.”
Additionally, many political scientists believe that forgiveness is mandatory to the healing of nations, Katongole said. This “forgiveness politics” is crucial particularly in Katongole’s native Uganda, where civil war has torn the country apart and reconciliation seems like a lost cause. “Bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul,” Katongole said. “It does more harm to those who hold it than to those it is held against.”
Katongole then told the story of Michael Lapsley, SSM, an Anglican priest who lost both hands and sight in one eye after he received a letter bomb disguised as a religious magazine from South Africa’s covert apartheid security forces. Despite the hardship he underwent, Lapsley went on to found the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, which allows South Africans to work through their trauma together. One of the many reasons forgiveness is so important, Katongole said, is because it is universal.
“Each of us is subject to a trauma of a three-fold kind: what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us,” Katongole said, paraphrasing a speech by Lapsley.
Katongole then moved to the second part of his talk, which connected the gift of forgiveness to God. The Our Father, Katongole said, is often misunderstood because it implies that forgiveness has its root in people. Instead, Katongole argued, forgiveness is always learned from God, with humans forgiving as their creator has forgiven them.
“Forgiveness is a gift not to gain control,” Katongole said. “It puts us out of control but confirms the truth of our life. This truth is that we are created.”
During the question and answer period, members of the audience texted their questions so that they appeared on a projector at the front of the room. Katongole brought BC theology professors Stephen Pope and John McDargh into the discussion, experts in love and justice, and forgiveness and psychological theological studies, respectively.