Forgiveness Makes Future Possible

Article excerpt

Building trust across communal lines is only way to security

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. …