In 1993, Amy Biehl, a promising American Fulbright scholar and anti-apartheid activist, found herself in the tumultuous landscape of South Africa. While driving through a township near Cape Town, she became a victim of a senseless act of violence. A mob attacked her, throwing bricks at her, beating and stabbing her. Though she was with friends at the time, they were unable to save her, and she was pronounced dead at the site. She was 26 years old.
Following her death, her parents traveled to Cape Town to both retrace their daughter’s steps in an effort to understand what happened and to collect Amy’s remains to cremate them and bring them back to the US. While packing up her belongings, her mother Linda found Amy’s journals and, upon reading them, also found a doorway to an inner resolution. Through reading about her daughter’s love of South Africa and her convictions around her work there, a beacon of light was ignited amidst her grief. She and her husband, Amy’s father, Peter, decided to reach out to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to take part in their post-apartheid hearings.
The TRC, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and its hearings aimed to address the atrocities of apartheid by providing a platform for victims and perpetrators to meet, communicate, and share their stories. It served as an opportunity for both parties to seek healing and redemption and grant forgiveness. The Biehls actively participated in this process, meeting with the men who had taken part in the attack that led to their daughter’s death.
Let’s pause here. Can you imagine sitting across from the people who murdered your child? Can you imagine electing to do this? It likely brings up overwhelming emotions of pain, outrage, and blinding heartbreak. How could it not?
These emotions were absolutely present for the Biehls, but through the process of their hearings, they discovered the complex circumstances that led to the tragedy. They learned that the men who perpetrated the crime were products of a deeply divided, violent, and oppressed society—the precise society their daughter was so committed to helping. It was at this moment they made a tremendously radical decision.
They actively supported the reintegration of the individuals into society, granting them amnesty and facilitating their employment. In fact, they helped them to secure jobs within their own organization, the Amy Biehl Foundation, which they had established in Amy’s memory to continue her work in supporting education and development in South Africa. They not only forgave the men who killed their daughter, but they also gave them jobs, becoming active participants in their rehabilitation.
Many of us understand that forgiveness is powerful, but the execution is something different altogether. This story is inspiring to me, not just because it is a truly incredible example of forgiveness but because these are people just like you and me. They embodied a level of forgiveness and compassion that we’re all capable of—even against impossible circumstances.
Because, really, how could anyone forgive someone for such an atrocity?
It may even seem like the Biehls’ forgiveness only benefited the perpetrators. Still, Linda has shared, in many interviews since, that it became a profound source of healing for her and for their entire family. Because of the magnitude of their forgiveness, it also became a source of healing and inspiration for the nation of South Africa. And it still is to this day.
The world is in need of this kind of radical forgiveness. It requires a relaxed ego and a fully open heart. It takes a dedication to compassion and kindness no matter what. It takes work, and it should. I am certainly not suggesting that anyone offer forgiveness before they are ready or before taking the time, as the Biehls did, to understand why someone would do something so hurtful. But what I am saying is that it is possible…
Can we be curious about why someone hurt us?
Can we look within ourselves and feel the judgment or fear or anger toward someone who hurt us and soften it, even just a little bit?
Can we see the fear behind someone’s hurtful words or actions? Can we have compassion?
What would it take to forgive at this level?
These questions are confronting, but they are the doorway to real forgiveness. They are the beginning steps of the journey towards being able to forgive—and transform and heal—just as the Biehls did.
“Transformation begins in you, wherever you are, whatever has happened, however you are suffering. Transformation is always possible. We do not heal in isolation. When we reach out and connect with one another—when we tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness, and renew or release the relationship—our suffering begins to transform.” —Desmond Tutu