Reconciling with those who have wronged us asks a lot from us – to forgo retaliation, to acknowledge the “other” as a fellow human being motivated by similar, or at least understandable, emotions and interests, and perhaps to recognize our own responsibilities in contributing to the situation. Sometimes the wrongs are on such a huge scale that the possibility seems unimaginable. If we look, though, we can find many accounts of people not only acknowledging the other’s genuine apology, but offering their forgiveness in turn and in some cases showing a willingness to establish or rebuild a relationship. Peacebuilding truly is a human capacity.
For most of us, there are actions that are unforgivable – the personal loss is too great or the crimes committed are so massive that no individual can surely take that power onto themselves. Such was the dilemma expressed by Simon Wiesenthal, when as a concentration camp prisoner, he was suddenly brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wished to confess his sins and ask for a Jew’s forgiveness. The act seems profoundly selfish, but the lifelong doubt that Wiesenthal shared in his book, The Sunflower, as to whether he had done the right thing by walking out without saying a word, speaks volumes about the power of truth-telling and genuine remorse.
Forgiveness, as Martha Minow says, is necessarily an individual act. Official forgiveness indeed suggests public forgetting, and the old adage “forgive and forget” really should be replaced by “remember and forgive”. Victims who forgive do not forget the wrongs committed, nor should they be asked to, but victims frequently assert that the power of the event to continue causing pain is greatly lessened through the act of forgiving. Forgiveness is a complicated concept and is often done for very personal reasons that have nothing to do with the perpetrator, but genuine forgiveness can also be provoked spontaneously by an honest display of remorse, as happened to Eric Lomax, who had been tortured in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. After meeting the interpreter, who had been the source of his hatred and desires for vengeance for 50 years, he found that his anger simply disappeared, when seeing that his perpetrator’s grief was “far more acute than mine” (quoted in Lazare, 245). As Minow cautions, forgiveness though must never be demanded: “it must remain a choice by individuals; the power to forgive must be inextricable from the power to choose not to do so” (18).
It is important to not over-exaggerate the positive impact of the truth on the promotion of reconciliation. Speaking the truth can of course sometimes cause individual harm and fuel conflicts. Anthropologist Douglas Fry emphasizes that toleration, where a conflict “is simply ignored, and the relationship with the offending party is continued” has been a common response to conflict and is often used effectively to preserve peaceful relationships. Furthermore, studies conducted in the years following South Africa’s TRC have offered a more nuanced conclusion about its significance for individual victims. Many were truly helped by a chance to share their suffering with a wider community, but some found the telling of their story brought simply the re-living of a traumatizing experience; moreover, many perpetrators testified to their crimes to obtain amnesty, but offered no remorse, which often intensified the suffering of their victims who were in attendance.
However, speaking the personal truths of our lives, particularly when we are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position, has the power to transform relationships. This is revealed so poignantly by one of this newsletter’s contributors, Libby Hoffman, whose work with a community-focused reconciliation project in Sierra Leone, called Fambul Tok (Family Talk), offers incredible examples of the power of storytelling, while providing lessons to all of us about how international peacebuilding initiatives often fail precisely because they do next to nothing to rebuild broken human relationships torn apart by hatred, fear, and guilt.
In addition, we have a powerful article by award-winning author and University of Regina historian James Daschuk that reveals how our nation was built on the intentional destruction of our land’s original settlers. Montreal author Judith Kalman reflects on her experiences as a witness at what will likely be one of the last Nazi war crimes trials, and reveals the value of a country confronting its past. We end the collection with two inspiring contributions from Christina Ma and Dawson’s Ivan Freud: the first an account of a wonderful initiative at Simon Fraser University to foster reconciliation among students of diverse backgrounds; the second an invitation to consider how the world’s religions can foster peace. While diverse, each one of these pieces reveals the paths to a more peaceful world – one that arguably is attainable if we start bringing more openness, creativity and compassion to our thinking about the conflicts that too often plague our relationships.
Fry, Douglas P. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Minow, Martha.. “Memory and Hate: Are There Lessons from Around the World?” Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law and Repair. Ed. Martha Minow. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 14-30.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower. New York: Schocken, 1998.
Humanities, Dawson College
For recent comparative research on truth and reconciliation commissions, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, launched in the aftermath of South Africa’s TRC, is a wonderful source.