The Art of Forgiveness:  Helping to Make Peace Prevail, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Apr

The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.  Mahatma Gandhi

It is rare that someone specifically asks me to take up a topic for the blog; in this instance a piece on forgiveness in the context of international security and conflict resolution.  For someone who has spent most of his adult life inside Christian churches, this might seem to be a fairly easy assignment. But as a member of the UN community for more than a decade, this task becomes sharply more challenging.   Needless to say, there will be much more than needs to be shared about this beyond what I share here.

To start, we should recognize that “forgiveness” is not a word we use at the UN.   We have in our active lexicon a full complement of justice-related terms, including the “impunity” that we are all struggling to end.   We also speak of “reconciliation” though often without pinpointing either whose responsibility this is (sometimes misapplying that to international courts) or acknowledging the slippery definitions and uses to which reconciliation so often comes attached.  Thankfully as a community, we are becoming more comfortable with the compensatory dimensions of justice, such as when we advocate for “reparations” for persons who have suffered sexual violence in armed conflict, reparations that acknowledge the long path towards healing and the services needed (but often not provided) to move that healing process along successfully.

But “forgiveness” represents a more challenging bar altogether, a bar that mostly eludes us here at the UN for better or (mostly) worse.  Forgiveness is a term that can be found in no statements that I can recall in my long years at UN headquarters, in part because forgiveness is generally attached to acts of contrition that are also highly unusual at the UN.  Here we don’t apologize for behavior; we defend behavior.  We don’t accept responsibility for behavior “on our watch”; instead we express “regret” for wrongdoing, mostly by spoilers or rogue states, sometimes by our own peacekeepers.  Responsibility for the mistakes we make ourselves — the people we failed to protect, the monetary pledges we failed to honor, the promises that we let drop by the wayside, the impunity we have allowed to continue, the vision of abundance blocked by our own narrow bureaucratic interests – is also too rare an occurrence.

And I would suggest here that an acknowledgment of responsibility, along with concrete plans to ensure non-repetition (what the church might call “amendment of life”) is indispensable if forgiveness is to mean anything to healing and wholeness beyond simply a resignation to “get over it” and “move on.”   We can “forgive” wayward actions by individuals or even states if their waywardness is accepted and recidivism is avoided going forward.  But repetitive waywardness, habits of disinterest or abuse, acts that are defended rather than confessed and that are repeated rather than shunned; in these and similar instances “forgiveness” loses much of its power.

Contrition and commitments to amendment are, of course, only one piece of this puzzle.   The other piece has to do with the one who has been wronged, their possible confusion about the motives of the perpetrator, the “confessions” designed more for “damage control” or to reduce the length of court sentences than to actually reconcile with others.   There might also be a struggle of sorts inside the hearts of victims – the struggle between a desire for vengeance against one with whom trust is broken and the allure of genuine healing.  Healing bears its own intimacies; as Gandhi insisted, it also requires its own courage.   It is not just about the promise of “feeling free” as some commentators have put it.   It is also about acknowledging that all of us are, in matters of forgiveness, a “responsible party,” responsible perhaps not for the wrongdoing itself, but certainly for at least part of any reconciliation to come. Not everyone is up to that challenge, even if it is in their best interests to accept its demands.

But it is important to be clear about a couple of things:  First, “forgiveness” at an individual level does not remove the obligation to justice at a social level.   Societies must uphold their legal obligations but should also acknowledge the degree to which punishment of offenders is itself insufficient to bring closure and healing.  We have enough testimony from victims’ family members witnessing the execution of a murderer to know how few empty emotional spaces such retribution actually fills.

Second, there are situations in which “forgiveness” itself must defer to more urgent obligations to enforce the most egregious violations of international law. Last week was rather satisfying for proponents of international justice as both Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić were convicted of horrific crimes. The emotional and physical carnage left in the wake of the violence perpetrated by these men (and others yet to face trial) almost defies imagination.  Any suggestion of “forgiveness” in a context such as this – with little remorse expressed for crimes committed that literally call our humanity into question– trivializes any potential response.  How and why would we possibly forgive those who so eagerly ordered the ruin of so many human lives?

Third, in a world that seems obsessed with pushing away responsibility or even clarity for our behavior and its consequences, there is value to understanding forgiveness as one of those things we learn to do ourselves based on our recognition of the value of having previously been forgiven by others.  We achieve kindness, generosity and even forgiveness through our own disciplines of practice.  But the inspiration for the discipline is the love and kindness we were initially shown by parents and others.  Recognizing and appreciating these points of origin are keys to our emotional well-being.

But such recognition is, more and more, hard to come by. I have had several conversations in the past few months with young people around the UN who were apparently trying to convince me (and no doubt themselves) of their deep disappointment with the behavior of others.  This disappointment is often justified to be sure.  What was less justified is the other part of their testimony – -that “I’ve never done anything wrong to anyone.”

This is where we are heading as a culture unless we are willing to take a hard emotional turn.  Not only are there monstrous and unpunished evils being perpetrated in our world.  Not only are we predisposed to posit ignoble motives to whatever few acts of contrition we can now find.  But we are also increasingly taking on a posture of hyper-sensitivity to the behavior of others all the while applying (an unconvincing) “blanket” immunity to our own.

This “everyone is out to get me, I’ve done nothing wrong” posture is anathema to intimacy, trust-building and emotional courage – the DNA of any forgiveness.  We can use the pious words all we want, but the positive consequences of forgiveness are too often swamped by lingering bitterness and self-interested assessments that make unreasonable assumptions between the ideas lodged in our brains and actual conditions in the world.

The good news about forgiveness is that we still need what it provides. We still can benefit greatly from honest, amendment-laden contrition. We still bear the need to reconcile even more than the need to punish.   The bad news is that we’re quickly losing that capacity for emotional courage and clarity that helps us to reconcile both with those who have wronged us and with our own, often-conflicted motives.

Pursuing justice and ending impunity for abuses is always the right thing to do and we should all seek ways to do so more effectively.   But it is not the final thing we need if we seek reconciled families and communities that can escape the bitterness that robs us of abundance and fuels new cycles of violence.  If reconciliation is a goal, we need to encourage more genuine contrition from ourselves and others; but also strive to establish more trusting and durable personal bonds with those who do so.

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