Still, stories are important. They enable us to share our understanding of this world, impart important lessons and simplify topics to convey important details. Sometimes artistic licence is used. Sometimes some facts are sacrificed to make the story more memorable, or to take students to a more accurate picture of real world phenomena.
One example is atoms. In school I learned that electrons orbit the nucleus in much the same way as a planet orbits a star. This is a very useful way of thinking about atoms, but it's also wrong - the electron is more of a fuzzy cloud.
I've spoken to many biblical inerrantists, but I've yet to encounter one who thinks that the parable of the prodigal son involved an actual son, father, fatted calf and brother.
We can look at stories that are fiction, but intended to convey an important message. We can also look at stories that are thought to hold factual accuracy in the highest regard. Today I'd like to look at a story that seems to have jumped between the two categories.
In a court stands Officer Van de Broek (aka Vanderbrook, Van Der Broek) who tortured and killed both the husband and the son of a nameless South African woman during apartheid. We are in a sitting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the officer has just admitted his crimes, including shooting the widow’s son, burning his body and holding a party nearby.
The judge asks the grieving woman “How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?”. She asks to be taken to the site where she witnessed her husband’s murder so she can gather the dust for a burial. She tells the officer that she wants for him to visit her twice a month so she could be a mother to him and share her love. Finally, she asks to hug him so he can know that God has forgiven him through Jesus. Those assembled break into a rendition of Amazing Grace so rousing that officer Van de Broek faints.
Heartrending, and inspiring on some levels, but is it true? After apartheid there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which functioned to decide on amnesties for those facing criminal charges for political activity. This included murder. Amnesty was not automatic. It was a famous process, widely seen as successful and well documented. Translators and interpreters were available for all 11 indigenous languages and Polish. (I’m unsure why Polish was included.) Transcripts of all proceedings are freely available here:
By going to http://www.google.ie/advanced_search you can search within a specific site or domain (bottommost field) and I invite you to do so. You will not find a variant of the officer’s name, nor references to Amazing Grace or an officer fainting during proceedings. I whiled away an afternoon reviewing every hit for ‘Jesus’ and ‘forgive’ / ‘forgiveness’ – there are many interesting stories, but none that share any of the distinctive features of this tale.
But is this fair?
I have no immediate reason to doubt the accuracy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s record keeping, but for the sake of confirmation let’s try a control group.
Long Night’s Journey into Day is a documentary on the subject with four case studies. I searched for supporting records and found the following:
All were found easily, on the first page of search results.
Some additional thoughts:
- No legal professional would utter the phrase “How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?” before a legally binding decision had been taken. It’s prejudicial and would result in a rapid career change and the equivalent of a mistrial.
- I’ve never met anyone who would issue an invitation to their ‘ghetto’. Township, maybe.
- Given the high standard of transcripts it’s unlikely the woman’s name would be lost.
- When one witnesses the murder of a loved one, one does not forget the location easily.
- This was a time of violence and unrest on both sides. It seems improbable in the extreme to think that white officers would enter a ‘ghetto’, shoot a man in the face, burn his corpse and then drink beers nearby. (They would have been easy targets for reprisal.)
The story is widely available, so for brevity I've limited myself to 10 links.
- http://gospelblog.net/?p=77 A modern, updated version that puts the action in 2003 and removes any reference to the commission
Those that cite sources refer the interested reader to Rumours of Another World by Philip Yancey.
So, has he been economical with the truth? I haven't purchased the book so I don't want to assume too much. It may be clear from the context that it is intended as a work of fiction, although many seem to have misread it as truth.
Let's try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who initially presented this as hard truth. Undeserved forgiveness is a theme that permeates Christianity. There are many Christians in South Africa. We have the aforementioned example of Amy Biel's parents which is truly inspiring forgiveness, but without a strong Christian element. (I've been unable to find details of Amy's beliefs, bar a reference to her coming from a Roman Catholic family. I found it interesting that she was not described as Catholic.) Unfortunately the well-documented transcripts did not contain a story which gave a suitable example of the forgiveness they wished to portray. Perhaps, fully confident that such forgiveness must have occurred, they judged it reasonable to invent such a tale?
Christian apologists are fond of quoting A.N. Sherwin-White, who said that "...even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core".
I respectfully disagree.