29th September 2021

Michael Lapsley on racism, apartheid and when forgiveness requires repentance

Marina Cantacuzino talks to Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest, social justice activist and founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town. In 1990 at the height of the apartheid repression, Fr Michael received a letter bomb in the post in which he lost both his hands and one eye. He has been on a healing journey ever since.

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Show Notes

Father Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest who was sent to South Africa during the institutionalized racial segregation of apartheid. He became a chaplain to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and a target of the white supremacy government. One day Lapsley opened a package that turned out to be a bomb. He lost both hands and one eye in the attack on his life, but his faith survived. He now uses his wounds to connect with those who have experienced trauma and help them find healing. Fr Lapsley is founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories and he has also written a book about his experiences: Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer.

Read Fr Lapsley’s story

Episode Quotes

“…all of us were prisoners of apartheid and liberation and freedom had to be for everybody or it would be for nobody.”

“I also realised that if I was filled with hatred, bitterness, self-pity, desire for revenge that they would have failed to kill the body but they would have killed the soul.”

“I think I can be more of a priest with no hands than I ever was with two hands.”

“…perfection is not the human story, it’s imperfection, incompleteness and that actually we need one another to be fully human.”

“I think that we either transmit trauma or transform it. So, indeed if something terrible happens to us, we either are diminished or we grow but we never stay the same.”

“We don’t have power over what other people do to us but we do always have power over how we respond.”

“…that is the problem that often we reduce forgiveness to saying sorry, but we don’t commit ourselves to reparation and restitution…”

“…many of the people I have met around the world forgiveness is the key to their healing but for many other people it’s not.”

“When people are hurting, often what they are crying out for is for their pain to be heard and acknowledged.”

“…when people’s pain has been heard and acknowledged, sometimes they will then realise that for themselves there needs to be forgiveness as an act of freedom.”

“My experience is for most human beings forgiveness is costly, painful, difficult and messy. I forgive you today but I am not sure about tomorrow and often people do forgive in their heads and then something else happens and they realise, maybe, actually, they haven’t.”

“…what does it mean for white people to say to black people, please forgive us for what we did, but excuse me we will keep the wealth and the land and the power for ourselves.”

“Sometimes when I do preach about forgiveness in a sermon and say it is costly, painful and difficult, at the church door people often come up to me and say, ‘I am so thankful that you said that because it had meant that there was nothing wrong with me’.”

“I think hard listening and to be heard is often what many human beings crave for and find that balm to their wounds when they are truly heard.”

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Transcript

Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.

Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.

My guest today is Father Michael Lapsley an Anglian Priest and social justice activist who in 1973 left his home in New Zealand to continue his vocation in South Africa. Then, in 1990 at the height of the apartheid oppression, Father Michael by now a prominent member of the African National Congress, living in exile in Zimbabwe, received a letter bomb in the post in which he lost both his hands and one eye.

While the apartheid regime didn’t succeed in taking out their target they must have assumed Father Michael’s influence would now be permanently damaged as he lay in agonising pain in an Harare hospital. That was far from the case. In the decades since the attack Michael Lapsley has achieved an extraordinary amount. He has founded the Healing and Memories Institute in Cape Town and drawing on his own experience of trauma, dedicated his life to supporting the healing of others. He is also the author of an extremely, inspiring and courageous memoir called “Redeeming the Past, My journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer.”

It is really wonderful, Michael, to have you on the F Word Podcast today. You do a lot of travelling so I was just wondering where in the word you are speaking to me from today.

Michael: Well, I am speaking to you from Cape Town in South Africa. I still travel the world but I travel from the bedroom to the lounge and then I join Zoom!

Marina: Brilliant.

I would like to start if you don’t mind, Michael, if you could just paint a picture of what you found as a young, student priest when you arrived in Durban in South Africa aged just 24. I am wondering were you prepared for a society where everything was divided by race and where you were now not only witnessing individual acts of prejudice and racism but living under a regime that used laws and organised violence to establish the supremacy of one group over another. I mean can anything prepare you for that?

Michael: Well, before I arrived in South Africa, I had read a great deal about it so I had a huge amount of head knowledge about the nature of apartheid but I didn’t have the experience. And, I think in my naivety I thought when I arrived in South Africa I would find three groups of people, the oppressed and the oppressor and a third group called the human race that I would belong to.

And, I think the first rude shock was realising that simply by being white I was part of the oppressor group, even if I chose to be against it. I often say that the day I arrived in South Africa I stopped being a human being and I became a white man because suddenly every single aspect of my life was decided by the colour of my skin, the university where I studied, the park bench I sat on, the toilet I could use, the lift I could enter, the side of the post office I entered and even to the part of the sea that I could swim in.

Marina: And did that effect your Ministry going forward?

Michael: Well, I was very fortunate that when I came to South Africa I was already a priest and the religious order I belonged to, the Society of The Sacred Mission, was involved in the University Chaplaincy in Durban. There were three campuses, two black and one white. As a consequence, I administered to communities of all racial backgrounds in South Africa and I think that helped me to see that whilst it was true that all white people benefitted from apartheid and that all black people suffered under apartheid that actually, all of us were prisoners of apartheid and liberation and freedom had to be for everybody or it would be for nobody.

Marina: I am guessing at this point you were a member of the ANC, the African National Congress. Is that right?

Michael: Well, I was very attracted very early on to the moral vision of the ANC of a non-racial democratic society and of a non-sexist society. My problem with the ANC was that after 50 years of non-violence they had eventually opted for arms struggle and that for me was a major stumbling block. But when in 1976 school children began to be shot in the streets of South Africa, I came to the very reluctant conclusion that in our context with our history that arms struggle had become morally legitimate, necessary and justified. So, then there was no longer an obstacle for me to join the ANC. But, I only did that, join the African National Congress of South Africa, after I was expelled from South Africa and went to live in Lesotho.

Marina: Nelson Mandela had also been involved in the arms struggle, hadn’t he? Was that an influence on you?

Michael: Yes, indeed, and of course at the time I arrived in South Africa he had already been in prison for many years, but he had accepted himself the legitimacy of that option.

Marina: Can we go forward a little bit now and could you tell me a little bit about the attack, where it happened, why it happened, why you were a target?

Michael: When I was expelled from South Africa I went first of all to live in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho which, of course, is completely surrounded by South Africa. So, you were living in a society that was not South Africa with people who were free to relate and none of the apartheid laws existed and yet people were affected in every way.

I was very much part of the exiled community, people who had been forced to leave South Africa and who had fled out of the country, either looking for education or looking for military training. But, it was after a massacre in Lesotho in 1982 when I was away from Lesotho, but was believed to be one of the targets of that massacre, that I was then forced to leave Lesotho.

After a few months spent in the United Kingdom, I then came back to Zimbabwe. I was in Zimbabwe from 1983 to 1992 and again I worked as a priest there. I completed my Master’s Degree at the University of Zimbabwe but I was also part of the community of exiles and I had a pastoral role within the African National Congress of South Africa working amongst South African exiles but, also working with education of exiles from crèche to university.

But, thirdly, a key part of my work in the liberation movement was that of mobilising the faith community internationally to see that at stake in South Africa was the truth of the Christian gospel because of course, the apartheid regime claimed divine guidance for what they were doing. But, my conclusion was apartheid was an option for death carried out in the name of the Gospel of Life and that is why in its initial phase was to say no to it.

Marina: Right. So therefore you became a target.

Michael: Yes, I mean I think that when I did become a target they never said the reason we have targeted you is ABC, but in reality I think it was my theology that was a threat to the apartheid state because my work was a work of de-legitimising, unmasking their claim to be Christian.

Marina: Would you mind just talking a little bit about that terrible day when the bomb was sent through the post to you and what happened. It was so appalling because I believe the bomb was placed between the pages of a religious magazine which was sent to you.

Michael: Well, I had been on a South African government hit list for a number of years and I had actually lived with armed police guards 24hours a day but after the apartheid regime agreed to negotiate my armed guards were taken away. We thought that war was over and we were now going to negotiate a future but of course the apartheid regime resolved talk in the day but continued to kill at night.

So what happened to me was a straw in the wind. In that negotiating period we actually lost thousands of lives as the policy of de-stabilisation of Southern Africa was brought back into South Africa. But, as you commented, I received a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines. When the bomb went off, firstly I had a sense that God was with me somehow in the midst of my pain but also I knew immediately that the apartheid regime had got me and that I was already in a sense a victor because I was alive and so they had failed.

Marina: Yes.

Michael: And so then the next period of many months was the period of appropriating that victory. So, I was to spend a month in hospital in Zimbabwe and then seven months in two Australian hospitals. But, for the years before the bomb went off, I had lived in the countries of Southern Africa, firstly Lesotho and then Zimbabwe but I had also travelled the world as part of the struggle against apartheid. So, when I was bombed there were messages of prayer, love and support from all over the world. I could say when I die I won’t need a funeral because people said all the nice things then!

So, my story was acknowledged, reverenced, recognised, given a moral content. Another way of putting it, I was able to travel a journey from being a victim, which I was, a survivor which I was, but also to victory in a sense of taking back agency. I also realised that if I was filled with hatred, bitterness, self-pity, desire for revenge that they would have failed to kill the body but they would have killed the soul.

Marina: But, there must have been rage there too?

Michael: Not really rage. I think I was saved from rage. I think the dominant feeling was one of grief. You know if you lose a loved one part of you will always grieve for that person and it is like that when you lose limbs as well. You are losing part of yourself. So, a part of me will always grieve for the hands that I have lost. So, grief, yes. Permanent grief. Sometimes there can be moments of frustration. There can be some small thing you are trying to do and you can’t do it because you have got no hands.

I think anger rather than rage. Anger against some of the, if you like, the political leaders of the old order who didn’t kill anybody. They didn’t torture anybody. They sat in parliament and they passed laws that meant immense pain and suffering to millions of people and insofar many of them remain in denial about that that brings about some anger in me in relation to that.

Marina: I suppose when you returned to South Africa you now belonged to this new outsider group, where I mean you for you that disabled people, where you must have been reminded every minute of the day, because of your extreme disability, of the trauma that had happened to you.

Michael: Yes, I thank you for that. Interestingly, when I came back to Zimbabwe I was supposed to have become the priest in a new parish in Bulawayo at the time of the bombing. So, I came back to my bishop and I said, “Well here I am” and he said, “but you are disabled now, what can you do?” I said, “Well, I can drive a car.” At which point he looked very scared in case he was going to be on the same road that I was but I said, “I think I can be more of a priest with no hands than I ever was with two hands”.

Through the years I found that my traumatic, obvious physical disability, often gives other people permission to share their disability, their brokenness, which for so many of us as people is not visible but is no less real. So, that was why I could say in the bomb I lost a lot, I still have a lot and I gained. I would say I am a better human being because of the journey that I have travelled. It’s helped me realise that actually perfection is not the human story, it’s imperfection, incompleteness and that actually we need one another to be fully human.

Marina: There is a wonderful quote by the spiritual thinker and writer, Richard Rohr. He says, “If we do not transform our pain we will most assuredly transmit it.” But, I wonder what you think of that in relation to trauma?

Michael: I think that we either transmit trauma or transform it. So, indeed if something terrible happens to us, we either are diminished or we grow but we never stay the same. We don’t have power over what other people do to us but we do always have power over how we respond.

But, I think also, we need support from other people to be able to make life-giving responses, which is key to the work that I do, integral to African philosophy is that we can’t be fully human by ourselves. So, in order to heal we often need other people to accompany us on that journey, not to live our lives for us, but to walk beside us.

Marina: Yes, I imagine, Michael, you have thought very often about this difficult and controversial subject of forgiveness and I wondered if you could just explain your position around that because I know you have got some really interesting things to say, especially in relation to bicycle theology.

Michael: Often when I tell my story I say I am not filled, as I said earlier, with hatred, bitterness, self-pity or the desire for revenge and then people say to me, “Oh, you are a wonderful example of forgiveness”. And I say but actually I didn’t mention the word “forgiveness”.

So, even as we talk today, Marina, I don’t know who sent the bomb. I don’t know who made it. I don’t know what the chain of command is. So, for me in a way forgiveness is not yet on the table. I continue to travel my journey and knowing the answer to those questions are abiding questions, but they are not consuming questions.

Now, I do speculate in my mind the possibility of somebody knocking at my door and saying “I am the one who sent you that bomb, will you forgive me?” Of course, I don’t actually know how I would respond but I speculate that I might say to that person, “Well, excuse me sir, do you still make letter bombs and he says, “No, no”, actually I work just around the corner from you at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, will you forgive me? And, my answer is, “Yes, of course, of course I forgive you”.

And, then perhaps we would sit and drink tea and I say, “Well, sir, I have forgiven you but I still have no hands. I will always need somebody to assist me for the rest of my life. Of course you will help pay for that person”. What is a condition of forgiveness but is part of reparation and restitution and the ways that are possible.

You refer, as I often do, to bicycle theology. Bicycle theology is when I come, I steal your bicycle and then I come back a few months later and I kneel in front of you and say, “I am terribly sorry that I stole your bicycle, will you forgive me?” And, you say, “Yes, yes, of course”.

But, I keep the bike and so that is the problem that often we reduce forgiveness to saying sorry, but we don’t commit ourselves to reparation and restitution and the ways that are possible, that are also key elements of the journey of forgiveness. But, also, Marina, many of the people I have met around the world forgiveness is the key to their healing but for many other people it’s not.

Marina: Yes:

Michael: When people are hurting, often what they are crying out for is for their pain to be heard and acknowledged.

Marina: I think this is such a good point. I remember hearing a South African academic and author, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela speak once. She wrote that brilliant book called, “A Human Being Died That Night” and she is an expert in memory and trauma.

She said that after years of research into the power of forgiveness she had come to the conclusion that actually it was apology and accountability and acknowledgement which were the most important things when it came to healing and moving the story along. She explained that when people have been wounded, they feel de-humanised and so the act of apology, by recognising the pain of the other, re-humanises and restores dignity.

Michael: The last thing they need is a sermon about forgiveness. That actually adds to their burdens. But, when people’s pain has been heard and acknowledged, sometimes they will then realise that for themselves there needs to be forgiveness as an act of freedom.

Marina: It was interesting because when I started to collect stories of forgiveness in 2003, I kept hearing about this Forgiveness Conference that had taken place a couple of years earlier at the Spiritual Community of Findhorn in Scotland and you had been invited to speak. And, according to these people who were telling me about the Conference, some audience members had taken issue with your position of conditional forgiveness.

So, I was just wondering, Michael, how you respond to that kind of judgement about your position, conditional forgiveness being that forgiveness has to be earned and deserved through reparation and apology.

Michael: I think, Marina, people write books that talk about stages of forgiveness and in a conceptual way they are often quite beautiful books. My experience is for most human beings forgiveness is costly, painful, difficult and messy. I forgive you today but I am not sure about tomorrow and often people do forgive in their heads and then something else happens and they realise, maybe, actually, they haven’t.

I think also from my Faith tradition I do believe that forgiveness is so big that we need often the power from God to even want to want to forgive because often we damn well don’t, actually. We want to hold on to it and I think that it is ultimately about not conditional but more about what are the consequences of journeys of forgiveness, the whole package.

You know in the Christian tradition and in the New Testament there is a beautiful story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who meets Jesus, is accepted unconditionally, has dinner with him and he is an oppressor, an exploiter, a corrupt tax collector. In the meeting with Jesus he says, “I will return times four what I took wrongfully. So I won’t return it with mathematical exactitude, I will return it with generosity of spirit”.

In other words, I will give back the bike but I will give it with new tyres and a bell and I think that is the kind of image of forgiveness that I find to be meaningful. I think also in situations of oppression like in South Africa, what does it mean for white people to say to black people, please forgive us for what we did, but excuse me we will keep the wealth and the land and the power for ourselves.

Marina: There is something here I just want to share from Father Michael’s book, “Redeeming the Past”. He talks in it about how the white community still has this massive denial of what happened in South Africa and he says that religion hasn’t helped, in fact it has hindered.

He says that people hold this fundamentalist understanding of their faith says that God has forgiven us and therefore there is this assumption that if the blacks are good Christians they must forgive. And, he talks about how there has been so little apology and acknowledgement and he writes “Most victims of apartheid are still not sure if white people feel real remorse about the past. This has serious consequences for our future.”

Yes, I think that is a really important point you make and I am totally with you on the forgiveness thing, messy and complex and about not promoting it or pushing it which I think is actually what The Forgiveness Project tries to do.

But, also, I remember you saying once that forgiveness can be an act of aggression and I was just wondering what you meant by that.

Michael: Not so much an act of aggression but it is an accusation. In other words, if is say, “Marina, I forgive you”, then I am saying you did it. So, in that sense it is an accusation and that is often a very serious accusation whether it is in intimate relations or in relation to political violence it is partly in one sense of saying you are responsible for that and often people who have been perpetrators remain in denial about their own responsibility.

Marina: Do you actually think forgiveness isn’t very helpful sometimes and do you find yourself trying to steer away from the conversation?

Michael: Well, it is interesting in our healing of memories work, we offer Healing of Memories workshops. And, having said that, especially in the South African context “forgiveness” is something that virtually every workshop the participants bring it out as something they struggle with, particularly because it is a very religious society and people have often have had “forgiveness” preached at them and they think there is something wrong with them if they are struggling with it.

But later, we developed what we call A Second Phase Workshop, called, “dealing with anger, overcoming hatred and struggling with forgiveness or whatever”. Because, we found that people very often have taken giant steps at the first workshop on the journey of healing but there is unfinished business. Often the unfinished business is, not always, but often it is around “forgiveness”. And, of course, that is also why we use the term “struggling with forgiveness”.

But, certainly, especially to ministers and pastors and very religious people I sometimes say to them, “Please be careful that you with good intentions are not actually using “forgiveness” as a weapon against hurting people. You are increasing their burden when what they want is a loving embrace. What they want is for their pain to be heard. Not to add another burden and you should “forgive” as well.”

Marina: Yes, yes, absolutely and I think that is so important and definitely there are one or two stories that we share at The Forgiveness Project which come from that perspective where people have been pressurised to forgive, whether that is from a member of a religious community or some kind of self-imposed moral obligation, but it has always been deeply unhelpful and even painful for them.

Michael: What also is quite interesting is that when we talk to clergy by themselves I will often ask them and say, “In your life do you find forgiveness easy?” They will consistently say, “No, we don’t”. So then I say, “When you preach do you tell your people that?” “Oh, no, we never tell them that”.

So, the lived experience of religious people belies sometimes the sermons they preach and some that I have worked with have said we never ever preached about forgiveness the same way once we had had that conversation.

Sometimes when I do preach about forgiveness in a sermon and say it is costly, painful and difficult, at the church door people often come up to me and say, “I am so thankful that you said that because it had meant that there was nothing wrong with me.”

Marina: Yes, I find the same when I talk and people expect The Forgiveness Project to be like sort of proselytizing about forgiveness and really trying to persuade people that it is the best and only way to deal with demons and pain and unresolved issues. And, then they are very relieved to find that we position ourselves as a place of enquiry, an exploration, an invitation even.

But, Michael, ever since the bombing you’ve told your story publicly in many different places, multiple times. Does that take its toll or is it still redemptive in some ways for you?

Michael: Well, thank you for asking that, Marina. There is a film that was made called, The Father Michael Lapsley Story and I am so relieved because I don’t have to tell the story every time. So, watch the film, read the book. It is no longer traumatic and in that sense it is boring because, oh dear, here we go again.

But, interacting with people I find often extremely rewarding as well, especially when it is a two-way street that I share something of my experience and that is key to the work of the Institute. Listening to the pain of others and to be able to be there for them. I think hard listening and to be heard is often what many human beings crave for and find that balm to their wounds when they are truly heard.

Marina: Ah, thank you so much for that and all that you have shared today and I think we covered a lot of ground in actually quite a short amount of time. But also, I just wanted to take this opportunity to say, thank you to you, Father Michael, for the work that you do and the work of The Healing of Memories Institute because I have really been influenced, informed, inspired in so many ways over the many years, so thank you.

Michael: Thank you, Marina. I appreciate and I value the times we have been together and I am looking forward to future occasions as well.

Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.

I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.

But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.

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