A few years ago, a gutsy doctor named Susan Black strode into the merciless mess of Kosovo. She went there as a volunteer expert to help expand medical services in refugee camps, assisted by her trusty translator, Faza, an ethnic Albanian. After traveling with Faza for six weeks, 12 hours a day, she toured a clinic in the divided town of Mitrovitche in northeast Kosovo, where her translator seemed to recognize the orthopedic surgeon, a Serb.
“All of a sudden, Faza says to me, ‘You don’t want to see this’; then he shoots this guy. In front of everybody,” Black told The Lowell Sun newspaper in late 1999 after returning to her practice in Massachusetts. “To try to get close to somebody and really feel you understand them. Then to see the hatred in their heart.”
It turns out that the surgeon, whose wounds were fatal, had been Faza’s neighbor. He had reported Faza and his family to Serb authorities on suspicion of some political offense and then pillaged their home after the family fled into hiding. Somewhere along the way, police killed Faza’s cousin. Dr. Black, who happens to be my family physician, told me that at the clinic, the surgeon was wearing one of Faza’s shirts, looted from the house. For the Albanian Kosovar, this was payback time. He was then whisked away by fellow Albanians at the scene.
Around the time I heard Dr. Black’s tale, I became familiar with another story from the former Yugoslavia’s ethnic wars. This was not a story of revenge, but of forgiveness. During one of many ethnic-cleansing sweeps in Bosnia, Serb soldiers stormed the home of a Croatian man and shot him dead in front of his wife and five children. The soldiers were openly discussing whom they should shoot next, when the mother raised her voice.
“You don’t understand. We’re Catholics, and some of my boys are future priests. We’re Christians; they are not going to get into revenge. I believe that they will learn and will teach me how to forgive,” she said. This vow of forbearance threw off the assailants. Instead of slaughtering mother and children, the soldiers merely expelled them as refugees. The story was told by one of the older boys, who indeed became a priest and took part in grass-roots efforts at interethnic dialogue and healing after the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
The first account, given by Black, is painfully illustrative of numerous conflicts that have surfaced since the cold war’s end. The old East-West rivalry is nothing to be nostalgic about, but at least it was amenable to negotiation and compromise, precisely because it was linked to material interests such as power and resources, which diplomats understand well. Many conflicts of the past decade or so are different, rooted less in tangible things than in the intangibles of religion, ethnicity and group identity.
Douglas Johnston, who commanded a nuclear submarine at age 27 and now works to resolve intergroup conflicts, was among the first to see the significance of identity-based conflicts. “These are the most intractable sources of conflict, and they are the sources with which conventional diplomacy is least suited to deal,” Johnston wrote in the 1994 collection Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, which he edited with Cynthia Sampson (Oxford Univ. Press). Besides ethnic cleansing, examples of identity-based antagonism include tribal genocide in Rwanda and the varieties of Islamic extremism.
The Croatian mother’s vow of forbearance was as emblematic as Faza’s moment of revenge, though it signifies something that is talked about far less in foreign-policy circles than the religious and ethnic wars. In a number of the world’s center-stage conflicts, forgiveness has made a quiet entrance, helping to repair long-sundered relationships in fractious societies.
It surfaced after the nightmare of apartheid in South Africa, when prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela awakened many to a reality expressed later in the title of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness. The magnanimous president became an effective symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. After enduring 27 years as a political prisoner, he made his white jailer an honored guest at his 1994 presidential inauguration. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Tutu, a Nobel Peace laureate, South Africa formally abstained from revenge. Devised in the wake of elections that transferred power from a white minority regime to the black majority, the commission in effect gave notorious violators of human rights a choice: tell the whole truth or face prosecution. The truth came out—often in grisly detail about apartheid atrocities—and many went free. Those two elements helped avert a racial bloodbath.
In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have been able to imagine a different future through public acts of mutual repentance and forgiveness. Even the unforgiving Irish Republican Army must now talk the talk, if not walk the walk. Last summer, the nominally Catholic fighting force made an unprecedented gesture by offering “our sincere apologies and condolences” to the families of innocents killed during its campaigns over the past few decades. Extending its regret to fallen Protestant combatants, the I.R.A. said, “We also acknowledge the grief and pain of their relatives.”
In South Korea, the former dissident Kim Dae Jung acted as an agent of forgiveness when he declared at his presidential inauguration five years ago: “This new government will not practice the politics of retaliation.” In the Balkans, some religious voices of forgiveness have transcended the obsessive nationalism and ethnocentrism that drove the region to war on several fronts. 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, but Cambodians need more time.
These and other merciful acts point to a “politics of forgiveness.” Admittedly, those words echo with implausibility, not only because forgiveness is usually consigned to personal religious practice, but also because of our geopolitical times, highlighted by a permanent war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.
Even apart from the recent predicament, forgiveness has hardly been a traditional value in world affairs. The concept is foreign to most secular political philosophies and peripheral at best to Christian theories of just war and the common good. Among 20th-century philosophers, the German-Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt stood out for her thinking about forgiveness. Writing after the Holocaust, she saw forgiveness, along with the ability to enter into covenants, as one of two human capacities that make it possible to alter the political future to save it from determinism.
To look at forgiveness as a political prospect is to look away from some conventional wisdom. For one thing, forgiveness in politics is never about forgetting, but about remembering in a certain way, as the South Africans chose to do in establishing their truth commission—“The past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past,” William Faulkner once said. Forgiveness is not simply about personal piety, but about social change. “To be social is to be forgiving,” Robert Frost wrote in his poem “The Star-Splitter.” 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. As Hannah Arendt said, “Men cannot forgive what they cannot punish.”
Some theorists have reintroduced forgiveness in this textured, political sense. In An Ethic for Enemies (1995), the Christian ethicist Donald W. Shriver Jr. defined forgiveness as “an act that joins moral truth, forbearance, empathy, and commitment to repair a fractured human relation.” This definition has guided practitioners of international conflict resolution who have participated in years of dialogue on forgiveness coordinated by the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Moral truth, in particular the social catharsis of truth- telling and public confession, is what South Africa pursued in setting up the Tutu commission. Forbearance is what Presidents Mandela and Kim signaled at their respective inaugurations. Empathy is what the late King Hussein of Jordan had for eight Israeli families whose children were gunned down by a rogue Jordanian soldier six years ago. Hussein went to their homes and knelt before the parents, begging forgiveness.
At Kim’s inauguration in South Korea, seated front and center were four ex-presidents, including General Chun Doo Hwan, who, in 1980, arranged a court decision to sentence Kim to death. Shriver, who was there, said during a dialogue at Woodstock: “That, it seems to me, in all of its ambiguity, is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the possibility, after a relationship has been deeply damaged, that it can be repaired.”
Forgiveness as a political strategy has seldom appeared on the diplomatic radar screen. Nevertheless, the notion has slipped into an array of initiatives aimed at building trust and relationships, especially in post-conflict societies. Behind these initiatives is the sobering view that in many places, a durable peace requires more than political accords and ceasefires. It requires social healing, which may come only through the introduction of a radical new factor, such as forgiveness.
The South African experience suggests that truth commissions, depending on circumstances and structure, can help bring societies to the verge of forgiveness. Within the religious sphere, collaborative calls for peace and mutual understanding have shown some potential in nurturing atmospheres of forgiveness, though relentless work is needed to counter the multiple forces of unforgiveness. In stepping warily toward interreligious dialogue, spiritual leaders of strife-torn societies often need a push from so-called “outsider-neutral” organizations, like the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace.
At the practical level, a growing number of outsider-neutral parties are taking the concept of forgiveness into reconciliation workshops. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has sponsored dozens of seminars in the former Yugoslavia that bring together lay members of the Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim faiths. After speaking of their own grief and suffering, they are asked to acknowledge atrocities committed by their ethnic and religious groups against the others. This is tough but necessary. “What people are constantly looking for is acknowledgment of those things that have terribly injured their communities,” a seminar facilitator, David Steele, a United Church of Christ minister, told me recently. Only then is the possibility of forgiveness broached.
Forgiveness is not and will not be all the rage in international relations. But the concept, or its components, can be of use in conflict resolution, especially if forgiveness can leave behind some of its privatized religious and therapeutic baggage, and if it is recognized as a process, not a single, instantaneous act.
Our notion of forgiveness needs to be strong enough to allow for justice. It needs to be open enough to let aggrieved people voice their anger, as we Americans needed to do after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And it has to be challenging so that people examine their own faults, as we Americans also needed to do after Sept. 11. These and other dimensions of forgiveness make possible “a future society marked by justice and solidarity,” to use the words of Pope John Paul II, because there really is no future without forgiveness.