Thursday, January 29, 2004

There have been quite a few items in the British media recently about forgiveness. It would seem that either the readiness to forgive is becoming more widespread or that editors are prepared to give the subject more space.

Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the current conflict are working together in the Middle East. The presidents of Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro have apologized for 'all the evils' committed by their citizens during the 1991-1995 war. Sri Lankan business leader Dr Lalith Kotelawala, who was injured when the Tamil Tigers blew up the Central Bank in Colombo, is helping to alleviate poverty in the Tigers' part of his country. British families who have lost loved ones at the hands of the IRA are reaching out to those Irish who were responsible and St Ethelburga's church in London which was destroyed by an IRA bomb has been rebuilt as a center for reconciliation and peace.

These are a few of the items gleaned from the British media recently about forgiveness. It would seem that either the readiness to forgive is becoming more widespread or that editors are prepared to give the subject more space.

It is timely that a major conference reporting the findings of 40 experts who have studied forgiveness has been held in Atlanta . Organised by the Richmond, Virginia-based Campaign for Forgiveness Research, the presentations ranged from the effect of forgiveness in decreasing the spread of AIDS to its relevance to 11 September, from intergroup forgiveness in Northern Ireland to repairing romantic relationships. I was invited to speak on 'Forgiveness and repentance: keys to nation building.'

Forgiveness has until recently often been written off by many in political life, the media and academe as just a personal or religious matter, with books on the subject relegated to self-help shelves. I attended a conference in Oregon where a veteran US ambassador spoke powerfully and positively on the subject. The meeting chair, a political science professor, dismissed the ambassador's words as 'belonging on Oprah.'

Such attitudes have been powerfully challenged, however, by the actions and attitudes of Nelson Mandela which have affected his whole country. Locked away for 27 years and emerging as the natural leader of his country, Mandela refused to operate on the basis of vengeance. His country may still face enormous problems. But no one fifteen years ago could have imagined that South Africa could have got as far as it has today without bloodshed and a civil war. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, opening the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 'One lesson that we should be able to teach the people of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Burundi, is that we are ready to forgive.' Forgiveness has been shown to have implications in nation building.

In our preoccupation with the problems of today we often overlook the progress we have made over the years. The peaceful relationship between France and Germany, the cornerstone of the new Europe, rests solidly on forgiveness and an honest facing of the past. It was achieved by thousands of post-war individual acts of repentance and forgiveness, coupled with imaginative European-wide political goals aided generously by the United States.

The UN Security Council may have unanimously approved post-war rebuilding plans for Iraq . But violence and death are daily occurrences and distrust levels are at historic proportions. As in post-war Europe, rebuilding will take time and money. It too will require large doses of forgiveness helped along by the courage with which our leaders admit our shortcomings.

Forgiveness can never be demanded of anyone, and demands for repentance are rarely productive. But my research shows that those who have dared to take that approach are not only blessed personally, but their decisions can sometimes have national, even international repercussions. As Britain 's chief rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, said last month on the BBC, 'Forgiveness is the single most important word in conflict resolution. It is too important to be confined to places of worship.'