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Posted June 24, 2008



George Bernard Shaw said, “The secret of forgiving everything is to understand nothing.” For all we know, this may be one way of entering into the grace of forgiveness, but growing numbers of people are, thoughtfully and creatively, taking the opposite approach. They are seeking to understand the dynamics of forgiveness and the forces of unforgiveness, not simpl y in the inter­personal context, but in various public arenas. At the Woodstock Theological Center, we have been privil eged to sponsor many of these seminal discussions over the past decade, beginning with our formal project on forgiveness and conflict resolution, which produced the 2003 book, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace, published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On many occasions, we have brought together diplomats, representatives of non­ governmental organizations, religious leaders, and other peace practitioners. And, with the help of theologians and ethicists, we have invited them to reflect on their experiences in the trenches of politics and conflict. That is part and parcel of the whole methodology that continues to drive Woodstock’s reflections on other concerns, such as economic globalization.

During our project, scholars and practitioners arrived at a rough consensus: there is a politics of forgiveness that can contribute to social healing and international conflict resolution. More recently, Woodstock has renewed this discussion while also seeking to extend it into other areas of social life, particularly the business world.

On May 16, 2006, we sponsored an evening of conversation titled “Forgiveness and Revenge, in Politics and Business,” held in the Woodstock Library at Georgetown University. The program featured presentations by William Bole, Robert T. Hennemeyer, and Robert J. Bies (each of whom will be introduced in the following sections), and was moderated by John Langan, S.J., a social ethicist at Georgetown and a former senior fell ow as well as acting director of Woodstock. What we present here is an edited version of those remarks, including responses and reflections by Father Langan; John Borrelli, who overseas inter­ religious initiatives at Georgetown University; and Sister of St. Joseph Cathy Nerney, a theologian who was a visiting Woodstock fellow last spring and has journeyed to Rwanda to understand the dynamics of forgiveness and revenge in our time.

We have come to the judgment that conventional politics and business as usual are not sufficient in dealing with the conflicts that tear our world, our communities, and our workplaces. Something more is needed, as Douglas Johnston, a scholar and former high­ranking military official, argues persuasively. “Certainly no diplomatic or military solution will ever break the cycle of revenge. Unless one can introduce a spiritual component that gets to the business of forgiveness and reconciliation, the same drumbeat is likely to repeat itself for the next few centuries,” Johnston commented during one of the Woodstock discussions.

We hope that such conversation will lead to further theological reflection upon the role of forgiveness in politics and business, and to further insights into the ways in which various social actors can contribute to heali ng in our world.

—Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J.
Director, Woodstock Theological Center

Forgiveness in Politics: Reality, Utility, and Limits

It is easy to fall back on the notion that forgiveness is little more than a lofty ideal of global politics, yet there is another way of tackling the subject, according to William Bole. He is a research fell ow of the Woodstock Theological Center, a writer and editor based in Massachusetts, and co­ author (with Robert T. Hennemeyer and Drew Christiansen, S.J.) of Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace. The 2003 book emerged from a Woodstock project that examined forgiveness as a process of peacemaking, a set of political dynamics, “moving forward, paradoxically, in some of the harshest inter­group conflicts of our time,” as Bole explains here.

It says something about the state of the world that Woodstock wasn’t sure whether to make the theme of this conversation forgiveness or revenge. Father Gap Lo Bi ondo and Ann Coughlin * and I had a three­way telephone conversation, and Gap said, “We could do revenge. We’re Sicilian.” He was referring to himself and me. I’m half­Sicilian.

And, I can’t deny there have been some infamous acts of retribution by notorious Sicilians. Less widely known is the exquisite blend of revenge and religion that comes to us through a highli ght of that history. I’m speaking of Sicilian Vespers, the name given to a rebellion in 1282, when Sicily was ruled by the Normans, despotically. The way I heard it when I was growing up in Brooklyn, somehow all the Sicilians made a plan, and kept it secret, that when the bells toll for vespers on Easter Monday, 1282, everybody would pull out a knife and stab a Norman – in the head. Or I guess somewhere else, if you had a soldier who was so unsporting as to be wearing one of those cone­shaped Norman helmets. Later on I learned that this particular narrative was more legend than history. There was a fierce uprising, but it was more spontaneous than that. It started off in Palermo, where my maternal grandparents came from, spread from there and led to bloody massacres of Normans, not just the conquerors in conical helmets, but men, women, and children, all across the Island. So, we could do revenge. And in our time, the cycles of revenge and retribution in so many places are part of what lends an air of implausibility to forgiveness as a tool of international conflict resolution. That’s the first thing that must be said – that admittedly, the whole notion of forgiveness can seem counter­intuitive in an age when people crash planes into skyscrapers. It’s an unlikely topic, but it’s real, and that’s the second point and it’s what I’ll focus on in these remarks, drawing from headlines just in recent weeks. How real is forgiveness in today’s global politics? Is forgiveness a strategically useful concept, useful in repairing relationships that have long been sundered in a number of fractious societies? We concluded that forgiveness has been a reality and that it does have utility in peace initiatives and conflict resolution.

I think that would come as a surprise to most people, and it would stir skepticism even among many who are involved in peace work. A common impression would be that forgiveness is, at best, an ideal of global statecraft, an ideal that’s not quite realizable in this dangerous world. Many would look upon forgiveness as a counsel of perfection. And there’s truth in that, especially in light of the ultimate understanding of forgiveness that comes to us from Christian faith, comes to us from the Cross. But any real conviction of faith has to have implications for our lives, has to be translatable to some degree in a less­than­perfect world. The question is: How do you do this? How do you reason your way from deity to diplomacy? How do you argue your way from piety to strategy? Well, this is what we have Jesuits for.

In our case, we had not only Jesuits but a Presbyterian ethicist named Donald W. Shriver, Jr., who took a generous part in our project from the beginning. Shriver wrote a groundbreaking book titled An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics, and his signal contribution was to offer a workable definition of forgiveness in politics, a definition that included four basic elements: truth, forbearance, empathy, and the commitment to repair a fractured human relationship.

What this conception works against is a tendency to take forgiveness all too literally as applied to the public square, a tendency to think that forgiveness happens pretty much only when somebody says “you’re forgiven” or when somebody otherwise buries the hatchet, once and for all. You don’t want to hold your breath waiting for that to happen in the midst of extreme political conflict. And I think you could miss a lot when you’re operating with that literal, undifferentiated notion.

Our tack was different. Our tack was to look at the inner dynamics of forgiveness as they were moving forward, paradoxically, in some of the harshest inter­group conflicts of our time. To do that, you have to break up the concept of forgiveness. You have to break it into some usable parts. And one component that we found useable and effective in practical efforts of inter­group reconciliation was acknowledgment – the acknowledgment of wrongdoing by yourself or your group. That falls somewhere shy of an apology, but in our book, it’s a transaction of forgiveness. We’ve seen it many, many times in Northern Ireland. We saw it often, though less visibly, in the former Yugoslavia.

You won’t see much of it in the Israeli­Palestinian conflict, but that’s why I was struck recently to read comments by Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli naval commander, former head of the domestic security service in Israel, and a political newcomer. He recently ran on the Labor Party ticket in the Knesset election, he won a seat, and he attracted wide attention with his views on negotiating with the Hamas leadership. He said, “Should we speak with Hamas? They have blood on their hands. I have more blood on my hands. I killed more Arabs than they killed Israelis, and I say I have the right to lead any peace process.” He continued, “We should talk to anyone who accepts a two­state solution and Israel as a Jewish state.” Here you have a glimmer of forgiveness, by way of straightforward acknowledgment. What also comes through here is at least a sign of the desire to eventually reconcile. Whether that sentiment will multiply in that miserable conflict, whether it will ever nurture an atmosphere of forgiveness, nobody knows.

But we’ve seen more than mere glints of forgiveness. The most celebrated example is South Africa, where the black majority more or less abstained from revenge after overthrowing the brutal system of apartheid. And, the primary vehicle of forgiveness in South Africa was – what? – a truth commission. That’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Nelson Mandela set up and Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired.

And there are many unheralded examples. I’d be interested in an inside account of what led up to the announcement some weeks ago by the Basque separatists that they were laying down their arms. These are the folks who have been wreaking terror in Spain for almost four decades, and they held a press conference declaring an unconditional, permanent cease­ fire. But to me, the most interesting detail in the news reports was that lurking at the press conference were fellows – and I don’t mean research fellows – from the Irish Republican Army. Over the years, IRA leaders had been drawn or dragged into a broad process of not simply demilitarization, but mutual repentance and forgiveness in Northern Ireland. The Boston Globe, always alert to the Irish angle, interviewed some of the Basques, who explained that the IRA had encouraged them along the political path, had advised them on the advantages of entering a reconciliation process, of not continuing down the road of retribution. And the IRA people there said they had simply done for the Basques what the black South Africans, through the African National Congress, had done for them in the late 1990s, which was, roughly speaking, to tutor them in the politics and strategy of forgiveness. Would it be grossly exaggerating to say that here you have something of a globalization of forgiveness?

Assembling the Parts of Forgiveness

In these political contexts, sometimes people have used the word “forgiveness.” Usually they don’t, and they don’t need to. Nelson Mandela didn’t gush about forgiveness when he made his white jailer – the guy who kept the keys when he was a political prisoner – an honored guest at his presidential inauguration. But Mandela’s gesture was a transaction of forgiveness, a gesture of forbearance from revenge, an expression of the will to reconcile. In South Korea, Kim Dae Jung didn’t say, “I forgive you,” at his presidential inauguration, where he stood beside several ex­autocrats who had made many sincere efforts over the years to kill him. He didn’t need to. He simply declared – the politi cs of retaliation is over. And it was. Sometimes all you’ll find is a decision to not to seek retribution, to not settle the score. That counts. That’s all part of the politics of forgiveness, at least as we parsed it in the book, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace, and in the Woodstock project that produced the book in 2004. I think one benefit of the Shriver/Woodstock approach is that

it helps you see forgiveness as a process, a social process, not as an isolated act between two consenting individuals, not something that happens all at once, I’d say not something that should happen all at once. And this approach also helps you see how the process can break down or stall at the starting gate when it’s lacking essential dynamics.

In El Salvador, the Jesuit community called for a process of forgiving those responsible for assassinating the six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, at the University of Central America. But there were conditions: the perpetrators had to acknowledge their crimes and repent in some way. That’s the element of moral truth. It didn’t happen. The official reconciliation process there wasn’t structured in a way to make it happen. So that’s one lesson in the annals of forgiveness in politics.

One more thing that ought to be said has to do with the limits of forgiveness in politics, and this is where you’d find some of Father John Langan’s fingerprints on our text. Not every act of forgiveness will be efficacious. There will ambiguities, and there have been plent y of those, often having to do with the proper doses of mercy and justice, in places like South Africa and East Timor. There will be miscalculations and unintended consequences. That’s another way of italicizing that forgiveness in politics is in politics.

I know part of the purpose of this conversation is to help steer this topic toward other routes of reflection, such as business ethics. In that spirit, I’ll close with a few questions in that proximate direction. I’ve wondered if forgiveness might have a role in addressing the deepening economic divisions in our own society. I’ve also wondered if there might be a place for forgiveness in repairing the fractured relationships that exist between cit y and suburb or between the parts of core cities not yet gentrified and upscale suburbs.

I live in an affluent town next door to one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in New England – Lawrence, Massachusetts. I live almost literally next door to Lawrence. I think there’s a lot of fear and resentment in our town, directed at Lawrence, and there’s also, I should say, a lot of sympathy and generosity. A lot of the distaste for the city is gratuitous, I think, but certainly not all of it. My famil y recentl y had a night out at the emergency room of Lawrence General Hospital. My wife sli pped on a toy and tumbled down the stairs, disl ocating her knee and busting her knee cap. I wasn’t there. I was here, at Georgetown, a few weeks ago. They went to Lawrence General, and my kids had to encounter, among others, a gentleman who had been stabbed in the stomach. This is the view of the city that many people have, but it’s a diminished view.

What’s the truth about the relationship between our town and that city? Are there things to acknowledge about our mutual inter­dependence? How do we begin to repair these fractured social relationships? And I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.