How Can You Ever Forgive Those People?

Is forgiveness as impossible as it seems?

Posted Jul 01, 2019

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
The Scream
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Almost everyone has someone who has done something terrible to them. It’s one of the most painful parts of being human. And lots of times, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate way to respond.

Consider the case of Peter and Linda Biehl.

The telephone call came in the middle of the night, slicing through the darkness like a razor, dividing their life into Before and After. The message of the call was stark.

Their daughter Amy had just been stabbed to death.

The year was 1993. Amy had just graduated from Stanford University and received a Fulbright Fellowship. 

She planned to continue her work in South Africa. She was focused on the black population there, which was suffering from the results of apartheid. When the white population seized power, they instituted the government system of apartheid, which kept black people rigidly segregated in all-black townships and struggling under crushing poverty. 

Amy was an idealist and had gone to South Africa, hoping she could find some way to loosen the grip of apartheid there. 

One day, she was driving her Jeep through the black township of Guguletu, near Cape Town. There was a large crowd of people milling around on the road ahead of her. 

Four young men saw her, a young white woman driving through their black township. Blinded by fury from years of the injustice of apartheid, they dragged her out of her Jeep, stoned her, and stabbed her to death.

The call with the news reached Peter and Linda Biehl that night. They were numb with disbelief and grief.  

The police quickly apprehended the four young men who had murdered Amy and put them in prison.

A year later, in 1994, the apartheid regime was finally overturned and replaced by a democratic government. Nelson Mandela was the first president.

One of the great accomplishments of Mandela’s government was the institution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was an official, court-like body designed to bring healing and help South Africans move beyond the violence and injustice of the past. 

One of the cases the Commission heard was the case involving the murder of Amy Biehl by the four young men in the Guguletu Township. At the end of all the testimony, the four men were released from prison. Peter and Linda Biehl were present at the Commission the day the announcement was made.

I interviewed Peter and Linda Biehl in Los Angeles in 2001. They spoke of the devastation they felt when they heard the news, and the avalanche of emotions that swept through them: disbelief, anger, grief, confusion, isolation, despair. 

But finally, Peter told me, his overriding emotion came down to one thing: “I wanted to understand it.”

They flew to South Africa for an extended trip to see what Amy’s life had been like there. They were impressed at what they found.

Amy had been very active, working to improve the lives of the black people in the townships by providing more employment and educational opportunities. Peter and Linda were extremely proud of Amy’s work and commitment, and they realized they needed to help it continue. So they set up the Amy Biehl Foundation.

When the four young men involved in Amy’s killing were released from prison, two of them, Easy Nofomela and Ntbecko Penny, expressed great repentance and said they would like to meet with Amy’s parents.

Peter and Linda felt great reluctance.

But later they heard through a third party that the two young men were trying to turn their lives around by starting a youth club, so the Biehls relented.

They were terrified at the prospect of meeting them, but they also felt that it was exactly what they needed to do.

It was.

To their amazement, it turned out to be a wonderful meeting. Easy Nofumela presented them with a gift: a beautiful model sailing ship that he had made for them. In a way, the ship was the perfect gift symbolically, because they had all been on a journey together and had finally arrived at the distant shore.

Linda and Peter both expressed their great surprise at meeting the two young men. Linda said she felt a maternal feeling for them. They were almost like family.

Later, Linda visited with Easy Nofomela’s mother in her home. She said, “When I came out of the house, after having tea with Mrs. Nofomela, I looked up, and there was a rainbow overhead! It seemed like a miracle.”

“It wasn’t the young men who killed Amy,” Linda explained to me later. “It was apartheid.”

© 2019 David Evans