Forgiveness and Macro Conflict by Jaime Cardenas

It is in the field of macro conflict and great offenses where the effects of violence are most clearly revealed. Here, we will see how the offense-forgiveness process works. Then we will delve into how forgiveness relates to truth and justice.

The Offense-Forgiveness Process Insofar as the process of violence, what is perceived is, that once violence has been activated, it takes on a life of its own and tends to reproduce itself like a metastatic cancer. It takes on a dynamic offense-retaliation cycle. This is known as violent escalation. It is represented as a destructive centripetal force (Desmond Tutu), as a tornado that absorbs everything that circles around its center and grows as it progresses. The larger the weight of mutual blame and new offenses, the harder it is to reconcile.

A few years ago, in a peaceful resort town, ETA killed two police officers by placing a bomb under their car. A few months later interviews with the officers’ mothers appeared in the media. One of the questions was whether it is possible to forgive. One of the mothers said: “Yes, of course you can. That’s what my parents taught me” . The other one replied to the same question by saying: “I’m not one of those people that say that they forgive. I hate them”.

As we can see, the response to offense differs. There is room for freedom in the face of offense. But forgiveness is difficult and requires an inner strength that is not always found. Forgiveness depends on the severity of the harm, the loss, one’s upbringing, culture, religion, feelings and other factors. What seems clear is that it is an act of self-giving in which something good is given in exchange for something evil. It is also a free interpersonal action which cannot be obligatory and which cannot be compelled by law. Only the offended person can forgive. No one can forgive for you. It is usually attained as a process, but not always. Some people forgive instantly, some do so after the passage of time, while others never forgive at all. Not forgiving does not necessarily mean that revenge will be taken, but it does indicate that the path to reconciliation has not been completed.

But, let’s move on. Last December, a Spanish newspaper held a chat session with an ETA victim who explained his own personal process. When he was 14, his father was murdered in San Sebastian in the eighties. I joined the chat session and asked him: “I do not know if your ethics contemplates the possibility of forgiveness. If so, could you describe the process of forgiveness that you experienced?”. -He replied by saying: “Personally, I believe that forgiveness and reconciliation are the basis for lasting peace. The human process that I went through from hatred to forgiveness was long. It didn’t happen overnight. During the process, you realize that hate destroys everything: everything around you, yourself, your family and social relationships … Hatred permeates everything and demands your attention 24 hours a day. So I said to myself, ‘do I want this for me and my loved ones? Well, no, I don’t.’ And I decided to get out of there and transform that energy into working for peace” .

We can distinguish several stages in the process but, in essence, forgiveness changes feelings and becomes a powerful force for reconciliation. Thus is the healing power of forgiveness.

Time plays a role, especially with respect to emotions. Forgiveness implies pain and the overcoming of pain. Above all, on the part of the person who has been hurt. It takes a special energy at a moment when sensibilities may be so accutely affected by the injury, that the person is off-balance. For these reasons, attending to victims and the passage of time is so necessary for the process of forgiveness.

However, the passage of time alone does not resolve conflicts. It can help provide emotional distance or, on the contrary, it may allow hatred and resentment to form, grow, and become the center of existence.

In the face of injury, there is always some kind of attitude. As the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch puts it, time itself is neutral . Therefore, reponses to conflict based on forgetting, that oblige forgiveness or forgetting the unforgetable have been proved mistaken. Poorly healed wounds lead to painful reopenings, and poisonous undercurrents may develop in society.

The purpose of forgiveness is not to forget. The purpose of forgiveness is being able to see the offense with new feelings. To remember in a different way. A memory that will not stir up hatred, but the possibility of transformation.

Forgiveness and Truth.

The issue of memory and forgetting refers to the truth. Truth and forgiveness is therefore the second point that I am going to examine in this section. Another response from the chat session I mentioned earlier deals with truth. The victim was asked regarding his fundamental requests, and he replied: “One of my basic requests is truth and memory. The truth of knowing everything that happened. Let me tell you an anecdote. A prisoner once told me that they had killed someone but they had got the wrong person. Before admitting his error, he was accused of being a snitch and a police informer. There are thousands of little stories that must be known, murders still unsolved, responsibilities to be attributed (…). Memory to remember the past, because those who forget the past are apt to make the same mistakes. Because we cannot act as if nothing had happened”.

From the standpoint of the offender, the truth is an obligation in order to ask forgiveness. Truth means saying it out loud. Truth is an anthropological step in the chain of forgiveness. Facing the truth helps to acknowledge guilt and to apologize. Failing to recognize the truth means closing the way to forgiveness. The offender will not become free from blame until the price of the offense is redeemed through truth and reparation.

I think that the Truth Commissions are one of the tools that best reflect the importance of knowing the facts. United Nations documents currently exist, that recognize the right to the truth . Another interesting tool for seeking truth are the healing encounters between victims and aggressors. Not surprisingly, in both cases, the truth differs from the one found in court.

Forgiveness and Justice

In addition to truth, the other major demand made by victims is justice. Both forgiveness and justice enlighten each other, and play on different planes, but converge on the road to reconciliation.

With regard to this, a victim of terrorism once said: “Forgiveness does not negate justice. The rule of law should act regardless of whether a victim forgives or not. Let no one think that forgiveness means prisoners will automatically be released onto the streets. Justice must be done, because otherwise impunity would victimize us again” .
These words clarify a fairly widespread misunderstanding: that forgiveness necessarily implies giving up justice. In fact, justice makes one inclined to forgive. The person that recognizes the truth and tries to make amends, paves the way for the victim.

The fulfillment of justice is a minimum demand that does not imply forgiveness, but may create spaces in which living together is possible; something akin to a buffer zone. Acceptance by victims of the course of justice is important, because it means renouncing revenge. A widow whose husband was murdered and whose grave desecrated said: “My revenge is the law. Let justice be done” . In the same line, revealing the proper role for justice, another widow of terrorism said: “First there must be recognition of the damage done and justice. When we stop looking at each other with hate, we will be able to argue. I do not forgive, but nor do I hate.”

Then there are post-conflictual situations in which even minimal justice is not possible. For example, when the offenses have been massive and reciprocal, and it is impossible to reach everyone. Or, perhaps, when the judicial system is very weak. At the beginning we mentioned Maggy Barankitse. The Burundian woman witnessed the slaughter of everyone in her village in the civil war that ended in 2003. She fled with her daughter and the orphans of the massacre. After an internal journey, she decided to forgive and now she leads an institution that shelters ten thousand orphans of war. It is not her intention to substitute justice for forgiveness. She says, “Forgiveness would be easier if justice were carried out with more resources, more fairness and more respect for the law. But in wartime and in a society undermined by political, regional, social and ethnic exclusion, one must adapt” . For her, the “priority of priorities is breaking the cycle of revenge” , even if it means doing without the proper justice.

Thus we can see that justice does not necessarily mean reconciliation. The victim may have obtained justice and reparation and yet be unwilling to forgive. Conversely, we see that it is also possible to forgive even in the absence of justice, truth, or apology. Forgiveness appears as the ultimate leveler that can produce reconciliation.

If there is impunity as a result of an intentional action by the State, forgiveness and reconciliation become very difficult. Impunity represents an additional offense that can lead to the belief that revenge is the only means of asserting one’s own dignity. The first role of government in the aftermath of conflict is to see that justice is done and to arrive at the truth. It is responsible for creating a climate conducive to reconciliation. It is also up to the State to establish reparations that go beyond mere economics, such as providing health care or improving area development.

Truth, justice and forgiveness are the pillars of reconciliation among people. What comes to my mind is John Paul II, who suffered an attack in 1981. Three days later, he publicly forgave the terrorist who had shot him. Yet he did not interfere with the course of justice. His are these words: “truth and justice are prerequisites for forgiveness”.

Accordingly, each of the elements must play its part whenever possible. Only in this way can the door be opened for reconciliation and a genuine social coexistence, to ensure the present and the future.


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