Do you remember learning your times tables at school? ‘Two times two is four, three times two is six, four times two is eight…’ In the days before electronic calculators took the strain, the combination of daily classroom sing songs and homework repetition rooted the multiplication tables in our brains. However, growing up in Northern Ireland, there was one times table that I did not learn in school, or church or anywhere. 

 70 times 7.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”, Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Every time I heard this story I felt inspired to practice forgiveness in my own life, but I considered ‘seventy times seven’ as a challenge towards boundless forgiveness that is impossible. All that I saw and heard around me in the church in Northern Ireland suggested that there were lots of conditions, reasons and excuses for not practicing extreme forgiveness, especially towards those who had inflicted sectarian violence on your family, friends or community. I had to leave my Northern Ireland thinking behind and go to Africa to see ‘seventy times seven’ in action. 

Last year I visited Rwanda to learn about the incredible work of reconciliation since the genocide in 1994, when a million people were killed in a hundred days. I visited genocide memorial sites that left me unable to say or pray a single word. I saw the worst that human beings can do, but I also experienced the best.

I visited a Christian project in a local village to hear stories of reconciliation from perpetrators and survivors of the genocide. One woman told the story of how she came to forgive the neighbour who had killed her husband. Then I listened to the man she had forgiven share how he took responsibility and sought forgiveness for the pain and suffering he had caused her family. Survivors and perpetrators from the same village stood up in pairs and shared similar stories of reconciliation. For the first time in my life I experienced ‘seventy times seven’ forgiveness. It was unforgettable. Bottom of Form

I asked the villagers how they had managed to find reconciliation after such horror. The answer was simple. No one mentioned theology or politics or funding. They said it was love. Then they asked me about reconciliation in my country, and guess what happened? In a remote village nestling between the beautiful hills of Rwanda, the reconciled survivors and perpetrators of genocide told me they would pray for my land, that the walls that still divide our hearts and our streets would one day be torn down forever. That we too would know forgiveness and reconciliation.

Traditional thinking by Western Christians is that we need to go to Africa to share the gospel. The missionary traffic is one way. However, if the church in Northern Ireland is to start to give prophetic leadership on dealing with our violent past and our divided present, I believe we need missionaries from Rwanda to come here and teach us to practice ‘seventy times seven’ forgiveness.

Tony Macaulay is a bestselling author, leadership consultant, peace-builder, broadcaster and suicide prevention advocate. He was introduced to the reconciliation work of in Rwanda by Diane Holt of Thrive. He is a member of the steering group for the development of the Ubwongo Peace & Reconciliation Centre in Rwanda.

 Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.