Teaching Agapē, Forgiveness and Reconciliation with Desmond Tutu: an example of an emotive narrative

As anyone reading this will undoubtedly know, on 26th December Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away after living an extraordinary life. Like many Religious Education (RE) teachers, I regularly refer to events in Tutu’s life, or statements he made, in order to illustrate various Christian beliefs and practices taught in my lessons. One example of this is an event he recounts in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness. The event described is horrific, but also phenomenally powerful. Not only does it demonstrate the depth of the Archbishop’s belief in the power of agapē (unconditional and selfless love), forgiveness and reconciliation, but it also acts as an excellent example of an emotive narrative, which is an essential teaching strategy in RE. 

Emotive narratives

Many neuroscientists and psychologists say the brain is hardwired to understand stories (or narratives) and this is why narratives can be a real asset when explaining things in the RE classroom. Importantly, a narrative is a series of connected events, real or imagined, shown in sequence via written or spoken words as well as through film and pictures. However, in terms of teaching and learning, a well chosen narrative is a little more engaging than a simple chronological or ordered series of connected events. For instance, we can: 

  • Use narratives as engaging introductions – a captivating narrative can be a great ‘hook’ into a lesson (this was advocated by Doug Lemov in the first edition of Teach Like A Champion). Ideally, they should be short and concise. The idea of a ‘narrative hook’ is also a tried and tested language device used in literature. 
  • Use narratives as illustrations and examples – this could help make abstract concepts or ideas more concrete. A very basic example is Isaac Newton’s apple falling from a tree as an explanation of gravity. 
  • Tie narratives to learning goals – listening to engaging narratives requires focus and concentration. It can develop skills to make future explanations easier to comprehend and sit through without losing track of what is being said. Essentially, narratives can be referred back to throughout a lesson or sequence of lessons. 

RE has narratives in abundance. Biblical parables like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) can be used to illustrate kindness and charity as well as prejudice (in the former) and justice (in the latter). Many can also be used to “hook” pupils into lessons on abstract concepts, especially when emotive – meaning the narrative will generate intense or strong feelings in learners. For example, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Issac to God (Genesis 22:2) not only illustrates the concepts of loyalty and obedience, but also infuriates many pupils – “how can a father contemplate such a thing!” – and subsequently engage them in the lesson. The Story of Job (Job 1: 1- 22) is similar; why would God allow such misfortune to happen to one person, especially someone with as much faith as Job? 

Demond Tutu: agapē, forgiveness and reconciliation

Any sequence of lessons or unit of work on ‘Christian beliefs’, ‘Christian practices’, ‘crime and punishment’, ‘peace and conflict’ and ‘human rights and equality’ will inevitably cover the concepts of agapē, forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, these are connected theologically – if you embrace agapē you will be better placed to forgive and reconcile your differences with others, particularly when endeavouring to resolve conflict. An example of the New Testament’s use of agapē is:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

The belief and practice of these tenets of Christian faith are also found in Jesus’ commands to “love your neighbour” (Mark 12:31) and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), which pupils find challenging to comprehend at the best of times. Aside from flippant remarks like “I hate my neighbours” in regards to the former commandment, the latter commandment is extremely problematic for pupils: why would you love someone you are at extreme odds with? Or, rather, why would you love someone you hate? 

Moreover, the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation – in relation to agapē – has a far deeper theological, spiritual and ethical purpose than banal day-to-day apologies, such as saying sorry to friends, teachers or parents for minor misdemeanours. In order to help pupils fully appreciate the theological, spiritual and ethical depth of agapē and its connection to forgiveness and reconciliation, I use the narrative alluded to above from No Future Without Forgiveness

The murder of Sicelo Mhlauli 

The narrative combines a number of emotive and sensitive issues, including racism, violent murder and the horrific loss of an immediate family member. Importantly, these issues “hook” pupils into the lesson – I have never had a class that has not been silent during the reading of this text – and it paves the way for other activities centred on the narrative or the issues it addresses. Of course, pupils will need to be forewarned and prepped for this – it is not a comfortable read and includes – again – quotations that are racially offensive and violent. 

The text used is found on pages 114 and 115 of No Future Without Forgiveness and is read as a class. The reading takes between three and four minutes. The event recounted centres on the testimonies from family members of Sicelo Mhlauli (one of the Cradock Four) – an anti-apartheid activist who was abducted and murdered by South African security police in June 1985 – at South Africa’s Truth and Reconiliation Commission, which sought to bring together perpetrators and victims of the aparthied era in order to secure a future without hate, anger and mistrust. The commission was chaired by Tutu. Here are some excerpts from the text:

“…one of my children said: ‘Mother, look here, the car belonging to my father is burnt. At that moment I was trembling because I was afraid of what might have happened to my husband…”

“… I read the post-mortem documents. In the upper abdomen were 25 wounds. These wounds indicated that different weapons were used to stab him, or a group of people stabbed him…” 

“One other thing that we understood is that they poured acid on his face. After that they chopped off his right hand below the wrist, I don’t know what they did with that hand…”

“In fact, the hand was preserved in alcohol at police headquarters in Port Elizabeth. Detainees were intimidated with it. ’The baboon’s hand’ as the police called it.”

Obviously, the above is awful. No one should have to experience anything like this. However, when pupils read the next section, a statement given by the Sicelo’s daughter, the full force of Tutu’s understanding of agapē, forgiveness and reconciliation hits home:  

“When she had finished telling her story, she said she wanted to know who had killed her father. She spoke quietly and, for someone so young, with much maturity and dignity. You could have heard a pin drop in the hushed City Hall when she said, ‘We do want to forgive, but we don’t know whom to forgive’”. 

This emotive narrative works in three key ways. One is that it is a story – most of us ‘like’ (or at least engage in) listening to stories, even if the story is not particularly nice. The second is the emotional appeal of the narrative, which is clearly hard-hitting. Thirdly, it is a challenging – if not controversial – premise: if one believes in Christ, they should practice agapē and allow those seeking atonement to be offered forgiveness and reconciliation (it is important to note that Tutu’s views are controversial and have been criticised: see below). Subsequently, this allows for:

  • silent contemplation
  • think-pair-share
  • group discussion
  • class debate
  • evaluation (in the sense that there are limits to forgiveness – as well as counter arguments, such as retribution/”an eye for an eye”).   

Evaluation and criticism

Although a lot of responses to this narrative will be immediate and centre on pupils’ initial feelings of injustice on behalf of the victims (despite the bereaved family’s willingness to publicly forgive the perpetrators), Tutu has his critics and, for older pupils in particular, this narrative can be evaluated on a number of levels. 

Firstly, not all Christians will interpret agapē, forgiveness and reconciliation in this way. Many would point out that Sicelo Mhlauli’s killers were never identified. If reconciliation is reciprocal, then – in this instance – it has not been achieved. Secondly, other commandments have been broken, such as the commandment not to kill. Without the murderers seeking atonement for their sins, surely this sin (cardinal or mortal if Roman Catholic) cannot go unpunished (in this life or, indeed, the next). Moreover, reconciliation is more than seeking amends with others. It is also seeking reconciliation with God. It is not up to us to say someone can be reconciled with God unless that person seeks atonement and wants redemption. Thirdly, Maria Mayo argues, in her book The Limits of Forgiveness, that Tutu sets an “…almost impossibly high and disproportionate standard for victims of systematic abuse who are asked to move forward and live in love peacefully alongside those who had abused them” (2015, p. 131). Essentially, is the whole process fair and serving the purposes of justice?

On a deeper theological level, Thomas Brudholm and Arne Grøn also ask whether “… the victims of gross injustices should be held to the example of the crucified Christ. After all there are a number of silent moral and ontological differences between the situation of Christ and that of the human survivor of genocidal violence” (2011, p. 169). We are not God. 

Nevertheless, Tutu was aware of this. He considered this kind of forgiveness to be Christ-like:  “Jesus did not wait until those who were nailing him to the cross had asked for forgiveness. He was ready as they drove in the nails to pray to his father to forgive them” (1999, p. 272; 2004, p. 56). In this sense, forgiveness – like agapē – is purely unconditional. Furthemore, and as already suggested, he could point to the Bible itself: “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).


This example of an emotive narrative is extreme, but it is a narrative that will hook pupils into the lesson, illustrate the concepts being taught and tie into the wider learning objectives of a lesson on agapē, forgiveness and/or reconciliation, especially as it allows for considerable evaluation of the issues raised. I often use this with the reconciliation component of AQA’s ‘Religion, Peace and Conflict’ unit (I use the just as harrowing and powerful narrative of Anthony Walker’s family’s forgiveness of his killers for ‘Religion, Crime and Punishment’). 

Pupils tend to regularly refer to this narrative in assessments and often use the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work as an example of agapē, forgiveness and reconciliation in assessments, even if they find this particular case hard to accept or disagree with it entirely.   

Importantly, Desmond Tutu offers more in terms of teaching agapē, forgiveness and reconciliation. One resource worth using is this video. Tutu comes across as both fun, kind and loving, but also uses language pupils can relate to. At about 2 minutes 16 seconds in you will hear the Archbishop say, “When you nurse a grudge, your blood pressure rises, you can feel it in your tum tum”. I have lost count  of the times I have read that quote in assessments. He is also useful elsewhere, whether countering homophobia – “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place” – or his relationship with the Dalai Lama acting as an example of interfaith dialogue and harmony. 

On a personal note, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu (1931-2021) remains one of my heroes and I look forward to continuing using his beliefs, teachings and experiences in my lessons  – R.I.P.


Bible – mostly the New International Version, but Matthew 5:44 uses the King James version. 

Brudholm, T. & Grøn, A. (2011). Picturing Forgiveness after Atrocity. Studies in Christian Ethics, 24 (2): 159-170.

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mayo, M. (2015). The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Tutu, D. M. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Rider.

Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. C. (2005). God Has A Dream: A vision of hope for our time. London: Rider.

See also: 

Allen, J. (2008). Desmond Tutu: Rabble-rouser for peace, the authorised biography. London: Rider. 

English teacher Jordan Catapano’s TeachHub article on storytelling.  

A previous blog on ‘enacted narratives’ (relates to Holy Communion).

A previous blog on using narratives in relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy (relates to the story of Ganesha and the life of the Buddha).

Photo credit: Wikicommons (used under a Creative Common Licence)

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