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Forgiveness makes future possible


When word came of jets crashing into the twin towers, I was at my desk at home drafting a report about forgiveness and international conflict resolution, a notion that would seem precarious even in less dangerous times. Oblivious to the scale of the catastrophe and the cascading irony of my theme, I kept my head down and dug into case studies of political forgiveness around the world. That I might be onto an idea whose time had passed almost as soon as it arrived did not set in until I heard the next day from two friends and a cousin who had seen the horror in Lower Manhattan. They were not forgiving.

Is it purely imaginary to think of an international strategy that deploys forgiveness in the post-World Trade Center era? Forgiveness is by no means a traditional value in world affairs. The concept is foreign to most secular political philosophies and peripheral at best to Christian theories of the common good and a just war. Among 20th-century philosophers, the German-Jewish refugee Hanna Arendt stood out. Writing after the Holocaust, she saw forgiveness as one of two human capacities that make it possible to alter the political future. The other is the ability to enter into covenants.

It is not that forgiveness has been a no-show in the wide world. It surfaced after the grisly nightmare of apartheid in South Africa, when then-president Nelson Mandela awakened many to a reality expressed later in the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness. In Northern Ireland, many Catholics and Protestants have been able to imagine a different future through public acts of mutual repentance and forgiveness. In Cambodia, Buddhist primate Moha Ghosananda has struggled to release people from a paralyzing past by envisioning a future of forgiveness. He calls for selectively forgiving Khmer Rouge leaders who have repented and renounced violence after perpetrating that nation’s unspeakable genocide. Many Cambodians need more time. As these illustrate, forgiveness is not necessarily a discrete transaction between two individuals. It is also a social process that blends elements such as forbearance from revenge and the will to eventually reconcile, according to a definition by the contemporary social ethicist Donald W. Shriver Jr.

Nevertheless, there is scant place for such sentiment in the reigning doctrines of statecraft. So-called “realists” normally scoff at the idea of fractious peoples reaching beyond their group interests and horizons, which is the transcendent quality of social forgiveness. Realism seeks to rationally negotiate these interests or strike directly with political-economic pressure and armed force.

The problem with that strategy today is that realism is unrealistic. Given the changing nature of conflict in the post-Cold War period, the most intractable conflicts today are rooted not in political ideologies and palpable interests, but in ethnicity, religion and other intangibles of communal identity. These clashes are highly resistant to the standard remedies of realism. Often it is hard to see such strife ending without the introduction of a radical new factor, such as forgiveness.

Some former disciples of realism, such as Douglas Johnston, who was the youngest-ever commander of a nuclear submarine, have gone in search of this missing dimension of statecraft. Now a practitioner of faith-based conflict resolution, he sees the building of trust and relationships across communal fault lines as an inescapable route to security in the long run. It is another kind of realism.

Even Henry Kissinger, the avatar of realpolitik, has given a faint nod in that direction. Earlier this year he headed a UNESCO panel that awarded an annual peace prize to the Community of St. Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic lay organization that serves the poor and pursues alternative diplomacy in the spirit of forgiveness. Most remarkable, the community mediated an end to the Mozambique civil war in 1992.

For us in the United States, forgiving those responsible for the slaughter of Sept. 11 is nearly unthinkable. But what of the wider populations from which these terrorists came with their desperate hatred of the United States? Could we afford not to embark on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation with these communities?

To start with, we may have to lay aside some conventional wisdom. Forgiveness in politics is never about forgetting, but about remembering in a certain way, as the South Africans chose to do in establishing a truth commission after apartheid. Forgiveness is not a denial of human responsibility: Rather it rests on the moral judgment that an act was wrong. Forgiveness is compatible with justice, never with vengeance.

Some theorists and practitioners have reintroduced forgiveness in this textured, political sense. In his unequaled work, An Ethic for Enemies, Shriver defines forgiveness as an “act that joins moral truth, forbearance, empathy and commitment to repair a fractured human relation.” These elements represent a turn toward the political future.

Perhaps in our period of grief we have seen subtle openings to forgiveness. Some Islamic leaders in the United States have acknowledged they need to ask how some Muslims are getting the message that taking thousands of innocent lives is not only justifiable but the path to Paradise. President Bush asked early on why people anywhere would want to see such a thing happen to the United States.

Questions like that could give a closer view of why untold millions resent America’s overpowering world presence. This might not seem the moment for introspection, but somehow we need to reflect even as we resist. A forgiveness strategy is not incompatible with bringing terrorists and their sponsors to justice or perhaps even smoking them out of their havens. But it defies the illusion that we could be delivered from this crisis by soldiers and spies above all. After some personal reflection, I am back writing that report about forgiveness and conflict resolution, convinced once more that there really is no future without forgiveness.

William Bole is a journalist in Lowell, Mass., and an associate fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington. The center sponsors the project “Forgiveness in Conflict Resolution: Reality and Utility.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001