BY SONYA RENEE
Introduction to “Radical Forgiveness”
In 2008, I had the pleasure of living with filmmaker and producer Diana Romero in Los Angeles. Diana’s debut film Niña Quebrada was a compelling tale of a young woman’s experience with sex trafficking, which won numerous awards. Living with Diana meant that I was often able to attend awards ceremonies as her sidekick. It was at one such award ceremony that I was introduced to the concept of “radical forgiveness.” As We Forgive, a painfully compelling documentary about reconciliation efforts in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, was up for an award. The film was masterfully shot and told the story of two families directly impacted by the genocide and their efforts to heal themselves and their country.
At the end of the film, I was left reeling. My mind was bombarded with a panoply of questions: “Could I forgive the man who murdered my children? How might one transmute rage into redemption? What is it about these people, in this film, that gives them the surely supernatural character to kill not the perpetrators of horrific violence against them but, instead, to kill only the venom of hatred within them?” The answer that kept swirling in my thoughts was: privilege. I decided that hatred is a manifestation of privilege. It is an emotion that separates us from each other. At its root, hate is a sort of corrupted individualism. It is born of the idea that our humanity and health is not interconnected thus it is possible, easy even, to write off another person entirely. This extreme individualism jibes well with our North American ethos of every man is an island. In a situation of the magnitude of the Rwandan genocide, there is no way to choose the island. The privilege of eternal hatred, angry individualism, is not an option when over one million members of a country are impacted by mass killings in 100 days, as either victims or perpetrators. In the Rwandan genocide those clearly drawn lines are not as clear. Everyone becomes a victim in some way. The poem Radical Forgiveness was born out of this inquiry about the privilege of hate. What might we in the U.S. do if our very livelihood was only possible at the hands of those who had harmed us? What would we do if we finally realized our very humanity is impenetrably tied to each other?
With the blood barely a decade damp on Rwandan soil
Chantal sifts through the same fragments of her father’s skull
again and again
in her dreams, she is never able to find his jaw.
Rosario still sleeps like a curled fist,
just as she lay fourteen years earlier.
An attempt to keep the machete’s kiss from her pregnant belly.
The child in her womb was the only of four
she could save.
9414 miles away
Oct. 29, 1997, Nathaniel Moore stood behind a tree on a hillside
in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan.
Aimed and fired a broken rifle at the head of Ronnie Green Jr.
Ronnie’s 18 year old body fell, slumped like Christ’s shoulders and there
in the grass, he died.
Nathaniel Moore was 11 years old.
When the child was charged with murder,
tried and convicted as an adult,
the victim’s mother Robin Adams was quoted as saying,
“Good. ”Justice has been served.”
While we pick the flesh of our young, beg gavel and gurney to deliver
our barb wired, thin needled retribution.
in Rwanda, justice clings stubborn to the bones of dead children.
A headless army of reminders that the of ugly of God’s creation looks like this,
1 million dead in 100 days
and not enough graves to bury them all.
By 2005, with justice little more than a reticent ghost,
50,000 suspected killers were released from Rwandan prison gates.
While we wait for tickets to electric chair dates.
While we co-sign a lifetime imprisonment for an eleven year old boy.
Rosario and her last salvaged joy must wake up
less than a mile from the man who slaughtered the rest of her children.
In our precious western eyes
a worthless unredeemable killer, as there will be
no wrathful God or careless court to deliver
A two faced mirage of privilege afforded any American
willing to shut up while we sell the circumstances
of poverty to the highest corporate bidder.
The bullet riddled truth is that this society
has allowed Robin Adams to kid herself
into believing that this 11 year old boy is any less a victim.
Any less part of the collision of greed, negligence and wealth.
Profit earning prisons restock themselves with the human capital of inequity.
Justice is what remains when
we’ve stripped the shared humanity from our
blameless spotless palms.
When the billows of amnesia have
ushered out our harms to others.
When our sterile hooded medicalized
malfeasance allows us to believe
as long as there are lethal fences and death penalties
we have achieved
But Rosario has learned what we have yet to.
Forgiveness is a newborn’s heartbeat you get to lay next to
or you can choose to abort it.
It will not keep you from wondering what could have grown there.
Perhaps the first house she has ever had with a door
built for Rosario by the hands of the man who killed her husband.
Maybe the 5000 watts of electricity is better used to light Chantal’s home than
wire the wood of an electric chair.
There are places on this planet that will never share our luxury
of locking up 7.3 million of its citizens.
These foolish and backward people will do the unimaginable.
They will choose to forgive.
Chose to live having unlocked the only door
that differs us from the animals we’ve slain.
In a double helix of DNA we’ve been given the ability to change
ourselves and each other.
There are two mother’s on opposite ends of this earth whose
babies lie dead in pitiless graves.
There is nothing that will bring them back.
Mandatory minimums and parole boards
will never change that fact.
So how do Chantal and Rosario and the spirits of 1 million
Tutsi even in death still live?
When a nation without any other options,
Does the unthinkable.
Summons the radical transformative power of grace
and as a country, decides to
Sonya Renee is a national and international poetry slam champion who has shared her work on stages across the world in prisons, treatment facilities, homeless shelters, universities, festivals and elementary schools. Sonya’s poetry appears in numerous journals and anthologies including Spoken Word Revolution: Redux, Growing Up Girl, Off Our Backs, Beltway Quarterly, Just Like A Girl, X Magazine and On the Issues Magazine. Ms. Renee has also appeared on HBO, Oxygen Network, BET, CNN, and MTV.