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Healing the wounds of injustice and war

Edited by Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L. Petersen
Templeton Foundation Press, 440 pages, $34.95


Over the past decade, civil wars have given way to at least tentative peace in several parts of the world, notably in South Africa, East Timor, Northern Ireland and Central America. In all these countries open wounds remain that will probably take generations to heal. In this book 20 professional “conflict negotiators” offer their formulas for promoting the process.

“Forgiveness,” Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu writes in a foreword, “makes it possible to remember the past without being held hostage by it. Without forgiveness there is no progress, no linear history, only a return to conflict and cycles of conflict.” But what are the essentials for forgiveness? What makes us ready to forgive?

Miroslav Volf, a native of Croatia and now a professor at Yale Divinity, rejects the concept of “Forgive and forget.” Existing injustices must first be removed before one can talk of reconciliation. It would, he writes, be cheap reconciliation and a sin “to give up on the struggle for freedom, to renounce the pursuit of justice, to put up with oppression.”

Strict justice, however, is neither possible nor desirable. It is not possible, because in any protracted conflict, there is no way to reach consensus on the rights and wrongs of each discrete happening. It is not desirable, because what the offended party normally seeks is not mathematical return. If you in anger break my tooth, my first impulse might be to break yours, but on reflection I think I’d prefer you to pay my dental bill.

Several contributors discuss different aspects of the extraordinary role of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Public remembering in the form of thousands of excruciatingly painful stories was valuable in forcing all South Africans to confront the horrors of the apartheid system.

Not everyone, however, was in full agreement with the way the truth commission functioned. Some felt that the truth commission’s rhetoric of forgiveness was more a reflection of Tutu’s dominating presence than the spontaneous response of the victims. They believed that more space should have been provided for people to express feelings of sadness and rage.

Another criticism of the truth commission was that it emphasized individual examples of gross violations of human rights more than the systemic injustice of the system of apartheid. This allowed white South Africans to allocate the blame to a few and not recognize their own part as a community in defending an unjust system.

Aubrey Chapman, an ethicist who works for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, insists that “it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to build a new society without coming to terms with the past in a meaningful way.” That calls for action to bring about greater economic justice between beneficiaries and victims, an idea that may be applicable in Northern Ireland and here in the United States in the ongoing discussion of reparations for slavery.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation is not easy reading. There is far too much academic jargon and not a little repetition. But for the reader committed to practicing and promoting nonviolence, there are rewards at the end of more than 400 pages, including detailed information on more than 70 organizations promoting forgiveness and reconciliation around the world.

Gary MacEoin, who has written extensively on issues of justice in the developing world, lives in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002