Father Michael Lapsley is a former South African anti-apartheid activist who has turned his personal tragedy into a clarion call for peace and forgiveness. In 1990, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela, the ruling de Klerk government sent Father Lapsley a parcel containing two religious magazines. Inside one of them was a highly sophisticated bomb. When Lapsley opened the magazine, the explosion blew off both of his hands, destroyed one eye and burned him severely. Father Lapsley went on to work at the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, South Africa, which assisted the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Father Lapsley joins us to discuss his journey and his thoughts on how Boston can begin to heal from last week’s bombings. "The journey of healing is to move from being a victim to a survivor to a victor, to take back agency," he says. "I realized that if I was filled with hatred and bitterness and desire for revenge, they would have failed to kill the body, but they would have killed the soul."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, we’re joined by a survivor of another bombing. Father Michael Lapsley is a former South African anti-apartheid activist who has turned his personal tragedy into a clarion call for peace and forgiveness. In 1993, months after the release of Nelson Mandela, the ruling de Klerk government sent Father Lapsley a parcel containing two religious magazines. Inside one of them was a highly sophisticated bomb. When Father Lapsley opened the magazine, the explosion blew off both of his hands, destroyed an eye, burned him severely. Many thought he was dead. Father Lapsley went on to work at the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, South Africa, which assisted the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Today Father Lapsley is director of the Institute for Healing of Memories. He is here in the United States talking about his new book, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back with us, Father Lapsley.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Thank you, Amy. Great to be with you and the viewers and listeners across the United States and across the world. People in South Africa also look at Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Father Lapsley, as you are here this week and you see the coverage of what happened in Boston, your thoughts?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, I think, firstly, compassion to those who died, who lost. I guess, in a particular way, I identified with those who suffered traumatic amputation. And I’m conscious that for a few moments the whole world is concentrating and responding in generosity to this terrible, terrible act. But I’m also conscious, as happened to me, that something happened in an instant, but people live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.
But my feelings have also changed, even in the days succeeding. I was watching a local television channel last night, and I was hearing a state senator defending torture. So, I had a sense of horror, as well, that the danger that people respond to horrific things bringing out the worst in them. But I’ve been encouraged that so much of the world has responded with kindness, generosity and compassion—the best which is in us.
Also, my heart reaches out to the families of those who may have been responsible, and I wonder what it is that they, as well, may be going through. I’m also concerned about Islamophobia, which has been part of the response that we have seen, and certainly identify with the previous person and the concern that, in the name of fear, rights that people in the United States developed over several centuries seem to keep being eroded, and that is, you know, a worry and a concern.
But also, in my experience, sometimes the survivor, the direct survivor, of a horrific incident, their healing journey is sometimes, in a strange kind of way, easier than people at some remove who get traumatized by what they see and what they watch. And I even wonder if these suspects were guilty, what was it that they witnessed or saw that also led to such extremist kinds of responses.
AMY GOODMAN: In your situation, explain how you learned who perpetrated the crime against you, who blew off your hands, your eye, clearly attempting to kill you.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, the overwhelming evidence was that it was part of the machinery of the de Klerk government, and I always said that I hold de Klerk politically and morally responsible, because in our case in South Africa, the death squads were part of the machinery of the state, and he knew about them and did nothing to disband them. But as I’m with you today, I don’t know who wrote my name on an envelope. I don’t know who gave the direct orders, who actually made the bomb. So, in that sense, I haven’t forgiven anybody, because there’s nobody yet to forgive.
But I’ve traveled a healing journey, and I realized that I had to learn to deal with my grief. I think my Westernness made me think after the bomb, "Well, I can put on my résumé ’I’ve been bombed, now can I get on with my life?’" But, of course, I had to come to terms with the fact that I will be living with the consequences for the rest of my life. And for me, the particular thing was just to realize that grief would also be part of my life. I haven’t been filled with anger and hatred. I feel anger sometimes towards the political leaders, who didn’t kill anybody, they didn’t torture anybody, but they sat in suits in Parliament and passed laws that led to horrific pain, suffering, degradation, humiliation to millions and millions of people, and who still deny their responsibility for what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: What would you say to the person who did this to you, whether you know who that person is or not?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, of course, Amy, that’s a speculative question. I think if the person doesn’t care about what happened to them—what they did to me and maybe to others, I’m not sure that I want to meet them. If, however, they’re a prisoner of what they did to me, I have a key, and I would be very open to using that key. And if they ask for my forgiveness, one of the things I might say to them: "Well, excuse me, sir, do you still make letter bombs?" And they say, "No, no, no. Actually I work at the local hospital." My response would be, "I forgive you. And I would prefer you spend the next 50 years working in that hospital, because I believe a thousand times more in the justice of restoration than the justice of punishment." So often when we say "justice," we mean punishment, if not revenge. But there’s another kind of justice: the justice of the journey of restoring relationships. But I might also say to them, "Well, yes, I have forgiven you, but I still only have one eye. I still have no hands. I’ll always need someone to assist me for the rest of my life. Of course, you will help pay for that person," so that reparation and restitution are also part of the journey of forgiveness.
AMY GOODMAN: Nelson Mandela said about you, "Michael’s life represents a compelling metaphor ... a foreigner who came to our country and was transformed. ... [His] life is part of the tapestry of the many long journeys and struggles of our people." As you are here in the United States, finally, the definition of restorative justice, what it is you speak about and hold workshops about all over the world, Father Lapsley?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, retributive justice asks the question, "How can you punish them for what they did?" Restorative justice asks a different kind of question. It says, "This reality of life has been destroyed or broken by what has happened. How can we restore the relationship?" And so often in restorative justice, the key actors in the process are central, where often when retributive justice happens, the actual direct survivors and victims are swept aside, and the state then acts on their behalf.
But, of course, key in my work is healing of memories. You know, if horrible things have been done to us or to our loved ones, people are justified to hate, to be bitter, even want revenge. But the problem is, if we keep those feelings inside of us, it doesn’t destroy our enemies, it destroys us. So my work is about giving people what we call safe and sacred spaces, where people can detoxify, where they can deal with the like poison inside them, so that they may be free. One of our great leaders in South Africa once said, "Those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the victimizers of others." So if horrible things happen to us, then maybe the journey of victim-victimizer, victim-victimizer—true of individuals, communities and nations—the journey of healing is to move from being a victim to a survivor to a victor, to take back agency. I realized that if I was filled with hatred and bitterness and desire for revenge, they would have failed to kill the body, but they would have killed the soul. So, in doing the healing work, it’s what Albie Sachs calls the "soft vengeance of a freedom fighter," working for a different kind of society, a gentler, kinder, more just kind of society.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, there have been a number of acts of attacks on people who are believed to be Muslim in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. I’m wondering, as a religious leader yourself, what do you think are the role of religious leaders across different religions at a time like this?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, I always remember meeting a very wise person in Sri Lanka, who said to me, "Don’t look at what is done in the name of a religion. Don’t look at what is done in the name of the founder of a religion. Look at its core teachings. And all the great faith traditions of the world have at their core justice, peace, kindness, generosity, compassion." But I think there’s a great urgency in the world for interfaith work, and leaders need to help us to not just tolerate other religions, but learn about them, reverence, and respect them. And I think we should worry about all fundamentalisms—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, secular—because they all lead to this absoluteness. And so, we should encourage a depth of respect and reverence for each other’s faith traditions and see that, no matter what my faith is, there are—there are riches to receive and learn. But we need to reach out and learn about Islam, about Judaism, about Buddhism, about Christianity. These are the riches of the human family.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, and I hope to have you back on before you return to South Africa, as you travel this country. Father Michael Lapsley, director of the Institute for Healing of Memories, previously worked at the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, South Africa, which assisted the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His most recent book, writing about his own experiences, is called Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, an Earth Day exclusive. Tim DeChristopher just left a halfway house yesterday in Salt Lake City. We’ll speak to him in this first public conversation he has. Stay with us.