Volume 14 Number 5
Peace-Building and Forgiveness
01 October 2001

The first of two Agenda for Reconciliation conferences focussed on peace-building initiatives. It included private 'dialogues of the heart' between citizens from the Great Lakes area of Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda) and also among people from Sierra Leone; and a round table meeting of people from Bosnia Herzegovina involved in setting up a truth and reconciliation process there. Here we print extracts from Donald Shriver's keynote speech on forgiveness, and (below) Mary Lean meets some of the peace builders who took part.

In the past ten years, the subject of forgiveness has climbed into newspaper headlines, political speeches and scholarly literature around the world. The further we move away from the 20th century, the more we feel the burden of the violence that afflicted us all in some part of it. Between 1900 and 2000 deaths by warfare totalled some 175 million, an average of 200 every hour.

In my religious tradition, we are taught to pray: 'Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' The 21st century needs that prayer as few other centuries in human history. We who have lived in the 20th century are well acquainted with temptations to murder our neighbours. Collectively speaking we have often yielded to that temptation.

What will deliver us from these evils? Forgiveness is just one ingredient in a bundle of answers. But not every version of forgiveness will do. Here I want to offer you a brief list of questions about the difference between genuine and false forgiveness: a 'catechism on forgiveness', if you like.

Is forgiveness a synonym for forgetting?

Au contraire: 'forgive and forget' is an inhumane motto. 'Remember and forgive' is much better. How insulting it is to tell the widow of a murdered Muslim man in Srebrenica to forget that crime and her loss! If there is no other dignity we can accord the dead, we can remember them, and remember that some of their deaths were grossly unjust. Whatever else the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did, it gave victims of injustice the chance to inscribe their sufferings on a public record. Forgiveness has to begin with memory.

Does justice have anything to do with forgiveness?

It has a lot to do with it. The South African TRC came under considerable criticism for seeming to overlook justice for victims and for perpetrators. Defenders of the TRC point out that exposing the truth about crime is the first step in punishing the criminal and in justifying the victim. Historical truth is not the whole of justice, but it is the indispensable beginning.

Is justice actually compatible with forgiveness?

Yes, but not with every version of justice. One version is simply incompatible: the justice of revenge. Punishment there may have to be for unjust acts; but acts of revenge merely imitate acts of injustice. Revenge is a greedy demon: it hungers for more and more punishment of offenders and creates a new, reversed set of perpetrators and victims. It repeats the crime it presumes to punish. That is the fundamental injustice of capital punishment. Whatever else forgiveness is, it is forbearance from revenge.

Does forgiveness belong simply to the realm of personal relations and not the realm of socio-political relations?

The answer is 'no'. Berel Lang puts the matter succinctly: 'It is possible... to imagine a world without forgiveness or any of its allied concepts. But such a world would... be either more than human (that is, one in which no wrongs are committed or suffered) or less than human—one where resentment and vengeance would not only have their day, but would also continue to have it, day after day.'

In all our countries the demons of vengeance are either awake or sleeping. They are the evil spirits that continue to haunt our present with our past.

Can the past really be changed?

One might think of the past as a visitor who is always knocking on every present door. Open that door, and the past will make a demand: 'What are you going to do about us?' One answer readily springs to mind, 'We will forget about you!' And we slam the door on the past, only to hear the knock again: 'What are you going to do about us?' Second answer: 'We will not forget you, we will just smooth over the real evils of the past. We'll clothe you with an attractive cloak for concealment. We'll write comfortable history books that never name the evil- doers or their collaborators. Why should we subject our children to all those terrible facts which their ancestors suffered?'

At that answer the past puts its foot in the door and says; 'The only way to make peace with us is to remember us with such honesty that we become a permanent powerful warning to your children not to repeat the mistakes of this past.'

We change the past when we commit ourselves to preserving the good in the past and refusing to repeat its evil.

Is talk about forgiveness really a matter of religion?

Yes and no. True enough, religion, especially Christianity, speaks much of forgiveness, but churches have often confined it to the secrecy of the confessional and to the realm of personal sin only. No wonder that secular people have often assumed that forgiveness has little to do with secular, collective human relationships.

But many cultures show awareness of what happens to ordinary human society when something like forgiveness is absent. I think, for example, of an ancient Korean village tradition which calls for neighbours to offer each other rice cakes every 15 January. As the author Kyu-Tae Lee describes it, 'The more grudges [various neighbours] have, the larger a piece of rice cake they make... In this way the new year gets underway, they remove the uncomfortable relationships of the last year and get off to a fresh start.' A fresh start: that is what forgiveness is all about.

Suppose two people or two groups haven't even agreed that there is something to forgive?

Say to me, 'I forgive you for doing that to me', and I may reply with some hostility, 'What do you mean, "you forgive me", I did not do what you said I did, and even if I did, it wasn't in the least bit wrong!'

Participants in a forgiveness-transaction need to enter into extended discussion with each other. There is such a thing as forgiveness too soon, just as there is such a thing as forgiveness too late. Too soon is when the nature of the evil, and the evilness of the evil, have yet to be agreed upon.

Hence the need, in collective relations in particular, to allocate time for stories to be told, for different experiences to be shared, for historians to be invited to do their necessary work of interrogating the past and letting it interrogate the present. A notable work of this sort was achieved by German and Polish historians in the 1960s and 1970s as they sought to write accounts of the Nazi occupation of Poland which did justice to the experiences of both sides.

If we look at all sides of a tragic conflict, won't we find that there is guilt on all sides? Why not just call the balance even?

Every evil deed deserves acknowledgement. That is ethically fundamental. One might say, 'I cut off your arm, and you cut off my foot. So we are even.' But that's the logic of revenge. It leaves neither side—nor the relationship between them—healed.

Uncovering all sides of an evil event may be burdensome and embarrassing. But it is a burden and an embarrassment which must be endured, if persons and societies are to undergo healing.

It seems that, in human experience, everyone is at one time or another a victim or a perpetrator. What does that fact have to do with forgiveness?

The philosopher Jeffrie Murphy referred to a boy who, after learning that the class bully was a victim of child abuse, said, 'That takes all the fun out of hating her.'

Hate feeds on stereotypes, on demeaning, unidimensional images of another. Empathy for the humanity of the wrongdoer is only one element in forgiveness, but it is indispensable.

In his monumental study of the Nazi doctors in Auschwitz, Robert J Lifton demonstrates that one requirement for the culture of killing in Auschwitz was the Nazi definition of the inmates as subhuman. Define another as less than human and you have begun to prepare yourself for killing. What then, Lifton asks, about the Nazi doctors themselves? Were they subhuman? With great inner difficulty, he asks himself the question: must we not try to understand the Dr Mengeles of this world as being only too human?

But ethical judgement does not dissolve in a warm embrace of empathetic understanding. Empathy and sympathy are different, both in their Greek and English meanings.

Rather, understanding lessens the moral distance between the best of us and the worst of us. Empathy for evildoers surfaces in ourselves the disturbing thought, 'Am I really so different from this perpetrator that I could never do what he did?' Once you have asked that question, the possibility of healing a relationship begins to seem a little more possible.

Is forgiveness the same as reconciliation?

I prefer to define forgiveness as a start towards reconciliation, as an agreement between the parties to put their feet on the same road to the future, to begin to treat each other as neighbours again, but all under that caution that some evils take a long time to recover from. The effects of some evil deeds last and last and last down to one's death. It may take time to forgive and more time to reconcile.

Is forgiveness possible without repentance?

Yes, but one has to ask whether it is desirable, and my answer to this is mostly 'no'. Forgiving someone who claims not to need forgiving seems to insult the idea of forgiveness and the integrity of the forgiver. True enough, better to give up resentment than to let it gnaw away at you inwardly for year after year. Hatred, like revenge, is bad for body and soul. It is also bad for the body politic.

But full-blooded forgiveness seeks reconciliation. Forgiveness without healed relationships is like a hand extended without a handshake. It lacks completion. It leaves in the forgiver a continued yearning, a void that only repentance can fill.

Is forgiveness the ethic of the soft-hearted, the hope of the naïve?

If you have ever had to face deep, radical evil in your life or in the death of those you love, you are not likely to confuse forgiveness with a refusal to face hard fact. Forgiveness has to be hard as nails. It has to mobilize intelligence, feeling, self-assertion and other-affirmation over against the horrors of acknowledged evil. It is a complex, demanding discipline. It will test your mettle, and your ability to wrestle with evil until you defeat its power to continue harming you. It will ask you to lift heavy stones for reconstructing a home in which both you and your enemies may discover ways to live together again.

In summary: Forgiveness is an act that joins moral-historical truth, forbearance from revenge, empathy for wrongdoers, and a commitment to repair a fractured human relationship. Such a combination requires a turn from the past that neither ignores past evil nor excuses it, that neither overlooks injustice nor reduces justice to revenge, that insists on the humanity of enemies even in their commission of inhumane deeds, and that values the justice that serves reconciliation above the justice that destroys it.

So defined, forgiveness links realism to hope. What greater gift do we who were born in the 20th century have to bequeath to our descendants of the 21st?

Donald Shriver is President of the Faculty and Professor of Christian Social Ethics Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Richard Batsinduka left Rwanda in 1973 and taught in Burundi and Swaziland before settling in Canada in 1990. It was the loss of his family in the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that decided him to devote the rest of his life to conflict resolution.

In 1998, he was back in Kigali, Rwanda, training young people under the auspices of the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution. One morning, listening to the radio as he waited for a taxi to take him to work, he suddenly heard the name of his brother, Vincent, who had been killed with his wife while working for the Red Cross. The speaker, who had been imprisoned for his alleged role in the genocide, said that he had been responsible for these and other murders. He asked the Rwandan people to forgive him.

'I was distraught,' says Batsinduka. 'Vincent had been more than a brother to me: he was my hero.' When he got back to the hotel that evening, there were messages waiting for him from the brother and sister of Vincent's wife, and others. 'We were unanimous that we had to meet this man,' says Batsinduka. 'As the evening went on, the phone calls became more and more vengeful. I had the worst night of my life, praying to God to give me the strength and serenity to meet the man who had murdered my brother.'

Next day Batsinduka went to the prison with Vincent's in-laws. They agreed that he should meet the murderer alone. 'When he came in, I stood up, but I could not speak. I was sweating and he was shaking, avoiding my eyes.'

The murderer, Diogène, told Batsinduka how he had decided to repent, after some Christians had visited the prison. 'Most of the prisoners think I am an idiot, but if I can have your forgiveness, nothing else matters,' he said.

Batsinduka asked Diogène if he understood how, in killing these people, he had not only destroyed them, but the whole community. Would he be ready to meet the community and ask for their forgiveness?

'He did not reply, just burst into tears. After about 10 minutes, I asked again and he said yes, he would meet the community and do whatever they wanted. And if they wanted him to die, he would die happily, as long as they forgave him.

'I said, "As far as I am concerned I am forgiving you from the bottom of my heart." I felt warm in my heart: that I had done something Vincent would have wanted me to do.'

Batsinduka went back to his in-laws and explained what had happened. 'I am convinced he wants to repent,' he said. 'Now it's up to you.' Diogène's future will depend on the relatives of his other victims. 'But after I talked to him, he had hope.'

And what hope does Batsinduka have for forgiveness in Rwanda? 'It requires moral values many don't have or surrendered because of what happened in the country.' He puts his hope in education, which could free Rwandans from the prison of their own personal suffering, and help them to understand that others have suffered too.

But he knows from experience that forgiveness is not easy. Last year he heard that Vincent's six-year-old daughter had been raped. 'I can't describe my pain. I have not met that person, I don't know if I could forgive him. But we are told to forgive 70 times seven.'

'Bosnia was a poor part of the poor former Yugoslavia,' says Jakob Finci, the President of Bosnia's Jewish community and of its Association of Citizens, Truth and Reconciliation. 'Now, after being destroyed by war, the country is even poorer than ever. Dividing the country into three parts is not the solution. Truth and reconciliation is our only hope.'
Finci came to Caux with a group from his country's different communities and regions—'Bosnia in small'—involved in developing the truth and reconciliation process. 'Our approach is simple,' he says. 'The war in Bosnia finished with three losing sides. Each is teaching their children a different history, that their neighbours are their enemies. On this basis, it's hard to expect anything but war in the years ahead.'

In setting up the truth and reconciliation process, Finci and his colleagues have drawn on the experience of South Africa and South America, but there are important differences. This will be the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to be organized in Europe, and the first where there is already a special international tribunal for war criminals. The TRC is concerned with the victims and perpetrators who do not reach the tribunal in The Hague.

Finci lists three main groups who will testify: victims; those perpetrators who qualified for the general amnesty granted to all except war criminals, but still may not be able to sleep at night; and those who were regarded as traitors by their own people because they helped people of other communities. He hopes that the public hearings will act as 'some kind of psychotherapy' and provide the material for a database through which missing people can be traced and on which future history can be based.

'Clearly the TRC cannot solve all our problems,' he says. 'But if it can improve relations between our ethnic groups—even to a partial extent—that will be a huge achievement.' The cost of the process is estimated at under $15 million—'less than one per cent of one year's peacekeeping bill'.

The impetus for the TRC began with the country's religious leaders, and was taken up in February 2000 at a roundtable of over 100 Bosnian NGOs. The proposal will come before parliament this autumn and, if approved, seven Bosnian nationals will be appointed by the UN Secretary-General to sit on the Commission. The Commission should begin work in 2002 and report in 2004.

And how valuable were his group's meetings in Caux? 'The timing was excellent for our work: it was more than useful to be able to exchange views with people who have passed through similar situations.' In the same way, he hopes, Bosnia's experience today will be useful for other countries tomorrow.

As a seven-year-old in the Bronx, New York, Merri Minuskin learnt about discrimination early. 'The children used to beat me up and call me a dirty Jew.' After her family moved to Queens, she discovered prejudice from the other side, as she stood up for the black students bussed into her predominantly white high school.

During the difficult years in the Bronx, her anchor was the synagogue near her grandmother's home, where her best friend's father was rabbi. 'I used to go to their home for all the religious festivals, and I always had a feeling of being wrapped in a wonderful warm blanket.'

So perhaps it was not surprising that when she arrived in Israel, at the age of 17, she knew she had come home. Or that she soon found herself speaking out about the inequalities in the country.

Minuskin now teaches at the Arab teachers' training college in Beit Berl, and is head of the Middle East Division at the International Institute in the same town. The Institute runs training programmes for people from different countries and also organizes 'people to people' meetings between Israelis and those of other nations and faiths.

In her peace work, Minuskin meets with people who have lost everything and are searching for inner peace. 'The only way they can find this is through reaching out to the people who have hurt them most. I have sat in groups where people have screamed, yelled, released so much hate: but they still come back week after week because it is in the human spirit to forgive. I have never seen an outstretched hand turned aside in the end.'

Minuskin seized the chance of speaking in Caux to make a startling apology to the Palestinians present: 'for the sorrow and loss of dignity my people in Israel have inflicted on them and for the choice to be ignorant that my people make every day. Unfortunately, there is pain and loss and unfairness on both sides, and the media—both Israeli and international—have caused much pain by misinformation or "leaving out" important information. Every morning I make a choice to make a difference. Sometimes I stop short of losing my own position, because I think too much of myself and of my own children. In front of you today, and with God as my witness, I want to promise to do more.'

The mounting violence between Israelis and Palestinians has made it harder to convince people that reconciliation is possible, Minuskin told me later. It is a struggle to raise funds for the Institute's work and to obtain permission for Palestinians from outside Israel to cross borders to take part in it. And, although she stresses that there are many people in Israel like her and that most of the money she raises for relief to Palestinians is given by Jewish people, she finds it a 'tremendous struggle to convince people in Israel that we need to start working from within'.

Last year she taught a course in reconciliation to 60 Arab women. 'They went through all the steps of pain and anger.' Then she invited two visitors from overseas to speak to the class. When they began, the women started to weep. When asked why, the women replied, 'We're crying because when you speak we hear Merri.' They had realized for the first time that Minuskin was not just a lone voice, that peace between people was possible.

It is the same knowledge—and the support of the people she works with—which gives Minuskin the strength to carry on. 'Sometimes I feel as if I am walking into a wall again and again.' But, she told the Caux conference, 'It is this house, the people here, who give me the courage to continue.'


Ever since leaving Ivory Coast to study abroad in 1984, Amah Assiama had dreamed of returning to Africa. So when she attended a conference in Caux in 1994, she took her chance to apply to a number of Geneva-based international organizations.

Shortly after returning to her work as a corporate lawyer in Montreal, Canada, she received a phone call from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 'They wanted to send me to Rwanda for three months. It was 6am, and I said yes, without thinking. When I put the phone down, I realized what I'd done—it was September and the genocide had only ended in July. But I didn't know who to call back to say I'd changed my mind!'

Her misgivings only grew when she reached Rwanda. 'There were bullet holes in the walls of the airport, there were bullet holes in the road signs, there were burnt-out, abandoned cars in the streets.' Her colleagues, veterans of Cambodia, Myanmar and other crisis spots, laughed at her fear of insects, her anxieties about the food and water, and her desire to shower twice a day. 'They thought I wouldn't last.'

In spite of this, by the time the first two months were over, Assiama had become enthusiastic about her work. 'When people came to us you could see the fear. You'd end with five children hanging onto you.' She found there were things she could do to help—whether taking the details of a woman's missing child or husband and passing them on to those who could trace them, obtaining the materials to build a roof, or even giving a police station a pad and pen so they could write down the names of the people they arrested.

In the end, Assiama stayed three years in Rwanda, and then another three in Ethiopia. She is now UNHCR's Deputy Representative in Burundi.

'I learnt a lot in Rwanda,' she says. 'Academic degrees do not teach you how to cry with people, find someone a blanket, help to bury a child, help someone get to the hospital to die, build a house. It's an honour to take part in nation building, to help people pick themselves up.'

This summer, Assiama brought two people from Burundi to Caux for the citizens' dialogue between people from the Great Lakes region. 'On one level it seems nuts, to say "800,000 people have been killed, let's go to Caux, maybe it's possible to rebuild." But I'm capable of believing in the miraculous.' And the exchanges, some between former enemies, had been 'fantastic' she said.

She sees in her life since 1994 the evidence that 'Somebody is working'. 'In Burundi, the mobile phones are not very powerful. You get an announcement, "You have moved out of the périmètre cellulaire (the range of the cellular phone)." One step in the right direction can re-establish that. That's what I believe about trying to listen to God—it's about placing yourself in the périmètre cellulaire.'

Assiama has returned to Rwanda since her tour of duty there, to find formerly deserted roads bustling with life or blocked by traffic jams, children back at school, houses being built. 'Life has returned,' she says. 'People laugh. We used to think that Rwandans didn't laugh.'
Mary Lean

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