When you lose both hands, an eye, and part of your ability to hear in a letter bomb attack by an agent of the apartheid state, it would be reasonable to assume that you would find it difficult to forgive the people who were responsible for the attack.
Michael Lapsley did not respond in that way. This is what makes him both remarkable and at the same time deeply human. To understand what happened, it is necessary to know his story, and that is what this book sets out to do.
He was born in New Zealand, and at a very young age he realised that he had a vocation for the priesthood. At 17, he went to an Anglican Seminary in Australia and it was there that he was ordained and became a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission His order sent him to South Africa in 1973, when he was only 24 years of age. This was the furthest he had ever been from his native New Zealand, and he knew that it was going to be a challenging experience. What he did not know was how challenging it would be.
[I am of the same age as Michael Lapsley. At 24 I was actively involved in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, but I was safe. Events were to show that he was not. He soon became a target of the apartheid state.]
Michael Lapsley soon found himself involved in two kinds of conflict. There was the conflict with the apartheid state, which his conscience demanded of him more or less as soon as he set foot in the country. Then there was the conflict with the members of his own order who wished that he would keep quiet The only thing that I can find to be said in their defence was that coming into conflict with the apartheid state meant that he was not safe. The truth is probably closer to their finding his commitment to principle embarrassing. This was no different to the way in which other Anglican clergy in South Africa were treated if they opposed apartheid. Trevor Huddleston was called home by his order because Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was embarrassed by his open opposition to the National Party government.
Michael soon found himself forced out of South Africa by the government, and he continued his ministry in Lesotho and then Zimbabwe. It was in Lesotho that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and so attracted the absolute loathing of the apartheid state. It was this that made him a target.
The ANC was unbanned in February 1990. The bomb attack on Michael Lapsley took place in April 1990. It was one of the first signs that the apartheid regime did not intend to go quietly and, in the subsequent four years of negotiations, something like 10,000 people were killed.
For Michael Lapsley this was a new beginning. He had to learn how to live without his hands. We take them for granted when we do simple things like go to the toilet, wash, eat, write, shake hands. All this had to be learned again. And for a priest there is the whole process of celebrating the Eucharist – making the sign of the cross, elevating the host and distributing the wafers – without hands. There was the interminable surgery, the physiotherapy, the adapting to life. It was the discovery of simple things like door handles could be opened but doorknobs could not.
But most of all there was the way in which Michael Lapsley chose to deal with the psychological damage. He chose not to hate. He chose to forgive. Most of the book is about that process of forgiveness, and especially about his new ministry of the healing of memories. He now spends his life bringing victims and perpetrators together to talk through their brokenness, and to recognise that they are all damaged. He uses the visibility of his own brokenness to facilitate the process, whether it is in Southern Africa, Rwanda, Latin America or, closer to home, in Northern Ireland. In all these places his compassion has made a considerable difference.
Michael Lapsley does however recognise his own needs and limitations. Adriaan Vlok, the Minister of Law and Order, who probably ordered Michael Lapsley’s bombing and the murders of many others, has had a Road to Damascus experience. He now recognises that what the apartheid state did to preserve its power was wrong, and has apologised for that. But he is claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he did not know what was happening on his watch, and that he was not responsible for it. [It could be argued that not being in control of his own department means that he was responsible]. Michael Lapsley wants people like this to go much further than they have and to face up to the consequences of what they ordered or let happen.
What we have in this book is an astonishing account of what one person can do if that person sets his or her mind to it. He says that he is not a saint. He says that he is very human. But he has taken the option of not taking the path of hatred. He has recognised that hatred does not hurt anyone other than himself. He is trying, through his work at the Centre for the Healing of Memories, to get people to make themselves better, to heal themselves of whatever trauma they have been through.
He is a remarkable man. His is an astonishing story. This is a necessary book.