The Interruption of Forgiveness: An Interview with Angelina Atyam of Uganda
I am blogging from Teaching Communities Week at Duke Divinity School. This year’s theme is An Oasis of Peace: Forgiveness, Advocacy, and Community with Angelina Atyam of Uganda, Bishop Paride Taban of Sudan, and theological narration by my colleague Emmanuel Katongole. The previous post introduced The Midwife and the Bishop: New African Chapters in the Book of Acts.
The story of the “invisible children” of northern Uganda is a great tragedy of our time. You pay attention when an everyday person in that struggle wins the United Nations’ highest human rights award, putting her in the company of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.
Angelina Atyam (see five-minute video) is a midwife, mother, and grassroots activist from northern Uganda. In 1996 Angelina’s 14-year old daughter and 138 of her classmates were abducted from their high school by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Out of her journey of pain and eventual advocacy for all the children of northern Uganda, Angelina founded the Concerned Parents Association. Her presence this week at Duke have borne witness to the scandal and gift of forgiveness, the tensions between mercy and justice, and the power of prayer and advocacy.
Angelina’s smile, joy, tenderness, and prayers—like an Old Testament prophet calling on God in our midst—are incredible gifts. To highlight her distinctive call to peacemaking, I have put her words into an interview format.
“Forgiveness is very bitter and painful.
But it is beautifully rewarding internally“
You have told the story of parents praying and fasting together every Saturday after your children were abducted. Then one week you prayed the Lord’s prayer and came to the words “forgive us our trespasses” and you were unable to continue to say “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What happened after that? We were right to be angry with the rebels [who took our children]. But we walked out and did not finish the prayer because the Lord had spoken. God said put this right. We were wasting time praying without receiving forgiveness for our bitterness toward the rebels. I went to the mother of the rebel who had taken my daughter as his wife. “He has gotten my daughter. But I need to forgive him through you.” She was very restless. Some said “Angelina what is wrong with you? Are you from another planet? This is the mother of the man who held your daughter?” But it was the beginning of comfort in our souls.
It is not easy to forgive. We find it justified not to forgive. We want to cling to bitterness. But if we don’t let go, bitterness is corrosive. God is telling us “Give it to me.” Forgiveness is very bitter and painful. But it is beautifully rewarding internally. And it gives us power over our enemies. It frees us to co-exist with them. If you keep it there it destroys you. The Word of God is real – I take it literally. You cannot belong to that community of peace if you don’t forgive. If we cling to bitterness we will destroy all the things God has in store. Forgiveness and reconciliation are a stepping stone to peace.
“Every child is my child”
You are a midwife and have said that peacemaking is like midwifery. What do you mean? It is a wonderful thing to be a midwife. We become part of the family. We start having a voice in somebody’s family – don’t eat this, eat that. They [the new-born baby] come, their eyes open then they yell, “I’m alive!” and that is something great. I see them with my other eyes, not x-rays! I am the grandmother of a multitude. I am colorless. Even in Indian communities I am a grandmother. So every child is my child. It gave me the foundation where to start from, the value of human life. The miracle of creating, of a new human being coming into the world.
The Lord’s Resistance Army offered to send your daughter back to you if you would stop advocating with the U.N. on behalf of the abducted children and you refused because of your conviction that every child is your child. What role does sacrifice play in this journey of reconciliation? Sacrifice, yes, but for the bigger thing. All children are our children. It was very painful. But it was bigger than one child going back to her family. For my daughter it was also painful. She told me “Even now I feel the pain [of having left the other abducted children]. I’m incomplete without them. We loved one another.”
“Justice will come at the expense of peace,
of co-existence. We want to co-exist”
Over these days you have spoken far more about forgiveness than justice. Why is that? One day the International Criminal Court visited me. “Don’t you want justice with all that was done by the LRA.” I told them I wish I could but when I close my eyes and look into my country I find all of us need to go into jail. I only became concerned when my own child was taken. The government documented 30,000 children taken before mine. Did I not add pain to those families whose children were abducted before mine? Is justice the solution to our problems? The ones [in power] sitting on that throne – we can find so many things against them. Forgiveness and reconciliation sustains the communities. Justice will come at the expense of peace, of co-existence. We want to co-exist.
In Africa it is the communal life that we prefer. So most times many African countries don’t have death penalties but have ways of doing restorative justice rather than taking life for life. So it’s the culture of the people in the community that drives us to think of forgiveness and reconciliation. But we must remember that even if we forgive [the LRA] they are very arrogant and don’t appreciate it. But for the sake of our own conscience we can be free.
Compassion for the enemy is very difficult to understand given how brutal you say the rebels are. When my daughter was abducted, a nun followed the LRA into the bush and pleaded with them. They released 100 of the 139 children. Even in that I see some goodness in them. There is some goodness in all. Even the rebels. That is why I want to talk to them. To understand them. The man [who took my daughter as his “wife”] is a very brutal person. I was doing a lot of lobbying. He called me and asked me to stop. I said, “Come home, I want to cook food for you. We want you at home.”
What eventually happened with your daughter? Seven years and seven months after she was taken I sat down on the floor of my house and called on the Lord. “You are Almighty. I know you do not change. But you told us the seventh year is a year of release. Have you changed? Please release my daughter.” That night [she later learned] my daughter heard a voice. “Today you will go back to your people.” The next day [through a series of miraculous events] she escaped. My daughter came home with a son [from her forced relationship with a rebel commander]. She changed my grandson’s name to God Alone. “God alone protected me.”
Next post: The Interruption of Incarnation: An Interview with Bishop Paride Taban of Sudan
About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.
Related Reconcilers posts:
- Previous post in this series The Midwife and the Bishop: New African Chapters in the Book of Acts
- Discovering John Perkins in East Africa
- Stanley Hauerwas: Bodies Matter
- Finding Forgiveness, Reconciliation Durham Herald-Sun article on Teaching Communities Week
- U.N. Gives Rights Awards to People Working at the Grass Roots New York Times, December 11, 1998
- Watch Angelina Atyam tell her story
- A Mother’s Bitter Choice: Telling Kidnappers No New York Times, January 25, 2003
- Escape From Rebels Leads To a Reunion in Uganda New York Times, October 10, 2004
- See the book Aboke Girls
Last 5 posts by Chris Rice:
- The Midwife and the Bishop: New African Chapters in the Book of Acts
- Missing From Our Hymnals
- Beyond the Busyness: Is There a Place for Wonder in Our Lives?
- The Future is Mestizo: Beyond Integration and Diversity to New Creation
- Integration and Diversity are Insufficient