Repairing Forgiveness

Excerpt taken from Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood, 2006 Intervarsity Press pp. 83-88. Used with permission.

Every relationship experiences times of broken trust. Sometimes it’s minor, such as not showing up on time; sometimes it’s major, such as violating the sanctity of marriage. When trust is broken, most want to repair it, especially if the relationship is important. Only one thing can restore broken trust: forgiveness – forgiveness sought and forgiveness received.

Westerners often transact forgiveness through a verbal exchange. One party says, “I am sorry for what I did (or said); will you forgive me?” The other party usually responds, “I forgive you.” With this brief transaction, the relationship is restored and is free to grow again, assuming both parties are sincere. Based on Matthew 18:15-17, many in the West believe the only way to resolve conflict is through direct confrontation, face-to-face; it’s verbal, one person telling another what he or she has done wrong.

In most parts of the world seeking forgiveness the Western way only makes the situations worse.1

Shame, honor, and saving face are core values in other cultures, and when violated, the relationship usually breaks. Forgiveness will repair the damage, but it must be contextually understood.

Forgiveness in Sudan. A few years ago a colleague and I went to Khartoum, Sudan, to teach on forgiveness. After lunch on the second day, laboring under intense heat and watching that glazed look come across the eyes of these dedicated pastors and church leaders, I decided to take a risk. I had to get them engaged – talking – something that would keep this from becoming a forgettable moment. I asked the group, “How do you do forgiveness?” Several responded matter-of-factly, “We say ‘I’m sorry and will you forgive me?’ Then the other party usually says, ‘I forgive you.’”

Forgiveness in Sudan
Church under a shade tree in Sudan.

“Does this work?” I asked. Many shook their heads negatively while others simultaneously uttered no. “What do you mean?” I probed. Now the glazed looks were gone and everyone seemed alive in spite of the smothering heat.

One said, “Well, we say the words but nothing changes.” Others supported his lament. “Where did you learn to do it this way?” I asked. “From people like you, Westerners,” came the quick response. A look of betrayal spread across the eighty faces crammed in a room designed for forty.

“How did your fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers respond to conflict situations?” I inquired, hoping this might prove fruitful. The room erupted in hands shooting up to answer the question. Several told their stories. The one I share was from a person of the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan, though most of the stories had common elements.

The Dinka person, now at the front of the room, began to speak with eloquent passion.

His parents and grandparents did forgiveness differently. To begin, people didn’t try to solve their conflict the way the West does, by face-to-face confrontation, speaking directly about what each other did or did not do. Instead, a mediator would be called in, a person of stature, fairness and discernment. The mediator would go first to one part and try to establish a base of understanding from that person’s perspective. Then he would do the same with the other person.2 The mediator would ask questions and continue this process until he began to sense that one or the other or both wearied of the brokenness and now longed for a restored relationship.

The mediator begins to see changing attitudes and signs of openness, and with these comes the potential for embrace. When he senses the spirit of forgiveness in both parties, he calls for a feast. He delegates each family to bring the various dishes. The party that may have been at greater fault will bring the mean, the “ram,” as the Dinka person described it. A neutral place is designated.

The family bringing the “ram” arrives earlier, builds the fire and begins cooking. The other family arrives and all joyously enter the preparations for a great festival – great because it marks the beginning of a new future, a better future. The mediator arrives, and when all is ready he washes his hands in the gourd of water. Others do the same in descending order of importance, children going last. AS they gather around the food, the mood is celebratory and the families mingle in happiness. Near the end of the meal, after several hours, the mediator stands and moves toward the fire. On the way he picks up the gourd of water, dirtied by so many hands, and pours it over the fire. The mediator turns over the stones on the perimeter of the fire to cover the ashes. Then he gives an admonition: “Let him be accursed who turns over one of these stones again.”

Of course, he is speaking symbolically. The fire represented the conflict that had “burned” and destroyed a valued relationship and alienated families. The water represented the forgiveness that emerged in their hearts and replaced the fire of conflict. The stones rolled over to cover the smoldering ashes symbolized the finality of forgiveness; we are not to dig up the old hurts and revisit them. Forgiveness means we never go there again.

In the West forgiveness is a verbal exchange. In the majority of the world, forgiveness is an attitudinal and behavioral change usually by celebration with food. Nearly always the outcome is reconciled relationships that function effectively, often better than before the broken trust.

What a beautiful picture of forgiveness from the Dinka tribe. It reminds me of our great Mediator, Jesus Christ, who restored our relationships with himself and our relationships with each other removing all our guilt and shame so that in reconciliation our relationships would be stronger than before. And it also reminds me of the communion feast, breaking bread in celebration of our forgiveness and reconciliation.

  1. See Cross Cultural Conflict, where I deal with handling conflict at length.
  2. Most mediators in this context would be men.

Author: Dr. Duane H. Elmer (Ph.D., Michigan State U.) is director of the Ph.D. program in educational studies and is the G. W. Aldeen Chair of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. In addition to traveling and teaching in over 75 countries, he has provided cross-cultural training to Fortune 500 companies, relief and development agencies, mission organizations, churches and educational institutions. 


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