Building a Future of Hope: In War-Torn Communities, Reconciliation Is the Foundation of Lasting Peace. (Paths to Peace Forgiveness)

By Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire | National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Building a Future of Hope: In War-Torn Communities, Reconciliation Is the Foundation of Lasting Peace. (Paths to Peace Forgiveness)


Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, National Catholic Reporter


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.

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