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Paths to Peace

Building a future of hope


After Sept. 11, forgiveness took a beating. It was the “ ‘f’ word,” according to one expert on the subject. Yet that disdain was deceptive and fleeting. Forgiveness and reconciliation, once just the stuff of good homilies, are attracting the attention of academics and being practiced in some of the most blood-soaked communities of the world.

In a statement given on World Peace Day, Jan. 1, 2001 -- “No Peace Without Justice, No Justice Without Forgiveness” -- Pope John Paul II articulated what many are coming to realize: Forgiveness is the necessary mortar for building a lasting peace.

“Culturally, interest in forgiveness skyrocketed around the late ’80s and early ’90s,” prompted by changing world events, said Everett Worthington Jr., chair of the psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1989, “the Berlin Wall collapsed, and suddenly the world was faced with the question of how can people from opposing sides live together,” he said.

A year later, South Africa released Nelson Mandela and soon became a country in transition, grappling with the possibilities of peaceful coexistence between the races.

Meanwhile, in contrast to Germany and South Africa, the “stark events” of ethnic wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda reinforced the need for reconciliation.

Focus of research

Forgiveness began to attract the attention of researchers in academia. Prior to 1985, the total number of forgiveness studies completed was five. Today there are approximately 55, and research continues, according to A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, a nonprofit organization directed by Worthington. Some of the newest studies look at how forgiveness can assist at-risk adolescents, Vietnam veterans and victims of domestic violence.

Established in 1998, the campaign funds research on forgiveness and reconciliation. Its co-chairs include South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Coles and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Much of the impetus for forgiveness research came from developmental psychologist Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1994, Enright created the International Forgiveness Institute, a private non-profit organization, to disseminate his research and that of his colleagues. In March of 1995, the institute hosted the first national conference on forgiveness covering topics as diverse as the restorative justice movement, international efforts at reconciliation and the dynamics of interpersonal forgiveness.

Since the late 1990s, the institute has become more action-oriented, taking its work to war-torn lands, Enright said. “This summer, we are going to be doing a lot in Northern Ireland, working with Protestants and Catholics in forgiving the hatred that has built up over 400 years.”

Experts point out that forgiveness and reconciliation are not one and the same. “Reconciliation is about the restoration of trust and is profoundly interpersonal,” Worthington said. “I can work with someone and have some degree of trust and not forgive them.”

Forgiveness, however, is intrapersonal; it can be offered even in the absence of the other. Enright describes the virtue as both moral and paradoxical, a “foregoing of resentment or revenge when the wrongdoer’s actions deserve it,” and a giving of the undeserved gifts of “mercy, generosity and love.”

Demand outweighs supply

With or without forgiveness, reconciliation work has become an increasingly important occupation for human rights activists and peace builders worldwide. And at this point, demand outweighs supply. Priscilla Hayner, program director for research and technical assistance with the International Center for Transitional Justice, says her organization, which operates on an annual budget of $5 million dollars, is currently assisting “at least 14 countries” grappling with their bloody past.

Center president Alex Boraine, architect of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established the New York-based center in March 2001 to help meet the overwhelming demand for his assistance from governments in transition. The center’s stated aim is “to promote accountability” for past human rights abuses. Its strategies include helping countries develop truth commissions, promoting reconciliation, and working through the nitty-gritty of reparations and prosecutions.

The best-known truth and reconciliation commission is South Africa’s. When testifying before the commission, victims and perpetrators disclosed atrocities committed during the era of apartheid. The public airings often lead to moving and dramatic requests for forgiveness. Particularly Christian in tenor, the South African proceedings granted amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for telling all.

Hayner reports that there are 25 truth commissions operating worldwide with four or five more gearing up. Not all have an amnesty clause. Some countries combine a reliance on truth commissions and courts with indigenous traditions for righting a wrong. In Sierra Leone, for example, the reintegration of a child soldier into the community might require a cleansing ceremony as well as community service, Hayner said. “The people view the children as both victims and perpetrators. They say, ‘These kids are our brothers, cousins,’ but they are also the ones who killed relatives.”

Political expediency often propels national reconciliation efforts. During the early ’90s, “there was actually peace breaking out all over the world,” said Tristan Borer, associate professor of government at Connecticut College. Numerous negotiated peace agreements gave former regimes some form of power within the new government, and the traditional divisions of victor and vanquished did not apply. “In those situations, it doesn’t make sense to have political trials,” she said.

Borer, a visiting fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Studies at Notre Dame University, is working on her second book about South Africa’s truth commission. “The Nuremberg Trials were the exact opposite of what happened in South Africa,” she said. The post-World War II proceedings emphasized “determining culpability and exposing criminality.” But Borer and other experts in reconciliation say that punitive justice is impractical for societies recovering from the divisions of war. In instances of genocide, it is impossible to bring all the perpetrators to court. Issues of guilt may encompass an entire community.

Making peace with the past

Moreover, trials don’t always meet the victims’ deeper need to make peace with their past. “You didn’t get that sense of interaction between victims and perpetrators,” Borer said. “In a trial, a person will tell as little as possible, whereas in truth commissions more is disclosed. Many victims feel better knowing where the bodies of their loved ones are than knowing someone is going to jail.”

Between victims and perpetrators, there is tension around “how much of the past to dwell upon,” says Paula Green, director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Leverett, Mass. “Perpetrators want to quickly move on to ‘how do we build the future,’ but victims cannot. They need acknowledgment, atonement, apology. They also need guarantees that it won’t happen again.”

Green, a psychotherapist, has done reconciliation work in some of the most polarized places on the planet. In 1995 and 1996, her seminars introduced the nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Bible to Hutus and Tutsis still reeling from the Rwandan genocide. For the past six years, she has shuttled back and forth 18 times between two ethnically divided cities in Bosnia, working with educators and members of women’s groups. Green is now training Bosnians to become reconciliation facilitators.

“The building of peace has to be done close to where the division exists,” says John Paul Lederach, professor of International Peacebuilding and author of several books on the subject of reconciliation. Lederach, by virtue of experience, is one of the leading experts in the field. His work includes projects in Colombia, Nicaragua, Somalia, the Philippines and Northern Ireland. The vast majority of his efforts, he said, were among local communities -- what he labels the “middle range level” of peace building.

In Nicaragua, he worked with former combatants from the Sandinista and Contra Army. “The Peace Accord set up a structure where these men were given small amounts of money and training. But rearmament began to happen,” he said. So Lederach worked on an initiative that trained ex-combatants from both sides in mediation and peace-building skills. The program also provided micro-enterprise development. “The ex-combatants became some of the best mediators in the community,” said Lederach, who described the former soldiers as men “well-placed” for reconciliation work because of their local ties. They went on to establish their own national foundation, which administers loans to various reconciliation projects, he said.

Lederach believes national peace accords are important for establishing disarmament, but “on-the-ground” reconciliation assures the construction of a firm peace. “Where local networks are strong, you find less susceptibility to political manipulation and a greater ability to weather the ebb and flow of violence.”

He and Green admit that reconciliation between communities with decades of war and division between them does not come easily. But what keeps people at it, said Lederach, “is a focus on long-term hope. The focus on constructing a different future.”

Claire Schaefffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worchester, Mass.

Peace in history

  • 1350 B.C.E.: Hebrew midwives, in the first recorded act of civil disobedience, refuse to obey Pharaoh’s order to kill male Hebrew babies. After years of slavery in Egypt the Hebrew people leave in the Exodus, an experience of liberation central to both Jewish and Christian understanding of God acting in history.
  • 26 C.E.: Pilate displays emblems of Roman authority in Judea, which Jews consider idolatrous. Jews by the thousands protest by lying down around his house for five days. When Pilate threatens to kill them, they offer their necks to the sword but will not move. Pilate removes the offensive emblems.


“No Peace Without Justice, No Justice Without Forgiveness,” papal message for World Peace Day, Jan. 1, 2001

Restorative Justice: Healing the Effects of Crime by Jim Consedine, Ploughshares, Lyttleton, New Zealand, 1995

Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope by Robert Enright, APA, 2001

Forgiveness and Reconciliation, edited by Jesuit Fr. Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L. Petersen, Templeton Foundation Press, Radnor, Pa., 2001
A collection of essays from experts in the area of conflict resolution that focuses on the role forgiveness can play in the peace process. Provides an excellent list of national and international organizations involved in reconciliation efforts.

Restorative Justice: Healing the Foundations of Our Everyday Lives, Dennis Sullivan, Dennis and Larry Tifft, Willow Tree Press, Monsey, NY, 2001

International Forgiveness Institute
Communications Center
6313 Landfall Drive
Madison WI 53705
Phone: (608) 231-9117
Fax: (608) 262-9407

A Campaign for Forgiveness Research
P.O. Box 842018
Richmond VA 23284-2018
Phone: (804) 828-1193
Fax: (804) 828-1193

Karuna Center for Peacebuilding
49 Richardson Road
Leverett, MA 01054
Phone: (413) 367-9520

Nonviolence International
4545 42 St. NW
Washington DC 20016
Phone: (202) 244-0951
Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian pacifist on the adjunct faculty of American University, works with groups seeking to end Middle East violence and move warring factions to reconciliation.

Bickerman Dispute Resolution Group
1120 G St. NW
Washington DC 20005
(202) 347-8787
Works with such groups as the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Dispute Resolution to help create arbitration agreements among divided parties.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002