Introduction to Meditations on Forgiveness
Preface, by Maria Nicoletta Gaida
When I was a child, I spent many nights awake, wondering why the world was not just, why some had everything and even more and others had less than nothing; why there were men, women and children who had no education, no prospect or possibility; why their dignity was trampled upon and, in many cases, their human rights denied. I wondered why there was war, why the leaders of the world couldn’t share and apologize as we were taught to do at home.
Most of the time, I would cry myself to sleep.
The years went by, I was older and all the questions were still there. Then came my son, Milo Joseph, and I couldn’t keep wondering, I had to move - for him and for all the innocent, including the children who stare out from the fear-filled eyes of men and women whose lives are pained with humiliation and conflict.
But there was a new aspect to the injustices I brooded over in the days of my childhood - more and more, people kill, humiliate, terrorize in the name of God – not the God who stayed the hand of Abraham…but a god who encourages the slaughter of our children, a blood thirsty god, a god of revenge.
My days as a theatre actress came back to me one summer, in the tragically disputed region of Istria. I thought of Orestes and the Furies – of how he was hounded for having killed his mother Clitemnestra guilty of the murder of her husband, Orestes’ father, Agamemnon. Unable to comprehend why the furies are persecuting him, driving him to the brink of madness, since he had only done that which the archaic law of revenge exacted, he turns to Athena, goddess of wisdom asking to be tried justly, not by gods but by men. Athena creates an areopagus and appoints the wisest men in Athens as well as herself and Apollo to serve on a tribunal which symbolically determines the end of an eye for an eye the ius talionis of the old divinities and introduces the dawn of human justice.
Perhaps, I thought, the world needs a new areopagus composed of wise and authoritative human beings who could lead us out of this godless cycle of misery, hatred and blood. Yes, but who, today, are the wise? And who the authoritative? “I cannot speak of reconciliation until the mother who has seen her child’s blood spilled on the streets of Jerusalem forgives” - these words, uttered by the daughter of a religious extremist stuck in my mind and brought me to the answer I was seeking.
The wise are the men and the women who have suffered inhuman tragedies and yet are able to rise above the hatred and the calls for revenge, those who forgive or reconcile with the enemy. Their authority lies in the fact that they themselves, their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children grandmothers grandfathers, close and distant family members have been humiliated, raped, tortured, beaten and killed and yet they did not succumb to the darkness which claimed their hearts.
It is these ordinary and yet extraordinary human beings who must sit on the areopagus - listen to the victims and to the perpetrators, and seek to bring healing through endeavors focused on dignity, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is they who are a scandal to the greed, the spiritual obtuseness and the oppression which plague the world reducing millions to objects, deprived of livelihood and dignity. It is they who will represent the core, alongside experts on the different aspects of conflict transformation, of the Council for Dignity, Forgiveness and Reconciliation – a modern day areopagus, which proposes a new form of justice. A council which symbolically unites the human family and is at the service of peoples in conflict, that they should not be left alone in the folly of hatred and injustice, so that dignity and forgiveness can be striven for even in the heart of darkness, so that voices of sanity and of light may be heard when calls for punishment and revenge suffocate even the remotest desire for peace. So that historical wrongs, contemporary greed, spiritual derailment and the power to humiliate can be revealed and addressed in order to create space for reconciliation.
This is the mission of the Ara Pacis Initiative, which takes its name from the altar to peace erected by decision of the Roman Senate on the 4th of July XIII b.c and inaugurated by Emperor Augustus 30th January IX a. c. to celebrate the pax romana: the known world conquered with weapons. An alter which on April 21, 2010, on the occasion of its 2763rd birthday, will be symbolically rededicated by the City of Rome to a pax nova, a world conquered by dignity, forgiveness and reconciliation – the only true guarantee for lasting peace.
Maria Nicoletta Gaida, Founder and President of the Ara Pacis Initiative.
The Bible says that not even the Creator was able to stand the contempt for the other which had become the constitution of Sodom: but as He was about to destroy it, Abraham stayed His hand, beginning a bold negotiation to suspend punishment for the sake of the few righteous: perhaps one hundred, perhaps fifty, and then down to smaller and smaller numbers. Compared to the context of this ancient wisdom, the world doesn’t seem to have changed much: neither in terms of the respect of the other, nor as to the capacity of each person to bring bereavement upon others. On the contrary, in a world no longer dominated by the nuclear nightmare between superpowers – that which put before an individual the button that could bring the destruction of humanity itself – each of us once again has the possibility to wage war and to kill: in the words of Andrea Riccardi, in such a return to antiquity, if each one of us has the possibility to make war, each one of us also has the possibility to make peace.
Fine: but we see with our own eyes that this possibility appears to be deceitfully close but at the same time is the wind pushes it away as it progresses alongside the debris which rise up before the impotent eyes of Angelus Novus whose wings are caught as he awaits a redemption which is stronger than any efforts. It becomes ever longer the list of cities where peace agreements were signed, prompting intense and false hopes: against the backdrop of Versailles or a Paris street, the Lake of Geneva or the lawn of Camp David, the halls of the UN headquarters in New York is the shine mockingly behind efforts that are the maximum today conceded to the charge of international relations. The hope for peace that so many have recited, as they go through the rosary of different denominations, singing psalms with the words of various alphabets, and holding their breath before a silent sky; this prayer has been tried by disillusionment and frustrated by the feelings of impotency, which have overtaken nearly everyone.
Almost: because in the last decades, a choice deeply rooted in single individuals has become a common patrimony of not insignificant groups and has gained importance on the international stage. Many who suffered tremendous injustice have chosen to address their anger, the pain of intimate loss, and to heal themselves: there have been men and women, some very famous and others unknown to most, who have taken from the politicians the possibility to exploit their condition, and who have asked themselves the question “how to come out of it together”, as Don Milani would have said. The South African experience with truth and reconciliation was the first to catch the attention of the world as it was a transition that neither sought winners’ justice nor amnesty-centered blackmail of the defeated, but rather something completely new, even for scholars of politics, international relations, history and theology. Finding in Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela its icons, the experience has shed light on an ample theory of similar experiences which were sometimes successful, sometimes not, but which embody such a charge of originality as to affect the worldview of each person of goodwill.
Who, for the weak and unsuppressible intolerance towards the contempt of human dignity, which is part of man’s imago Dei, wanted to dream of making a better world should stop, like Abraham’s interlocutor, to consider that maybe the world is already being made better by the humanizing imagination of people who have faced an inaccessible path of reconciliation, of restoration of human dignity – which at times we refer to, for the sake of convenience, as “forgiveness”, well knowing that this very eloquent category for some is not adaptable to the experience of others. The studies on these cases tell us that here we are not faced with a psychotherapeutic experience, by which people who have suffered trauma come out of the tunnel of their pain through a higher socialization of the atrocities suffered. And a look to the historic-religious side of these events tells us that, thank God, every spiritual experience lends itself to be at times the indirect or justifying cause of violence, while at others it is the matrix of a humble and titanic effort to come out of the violence, not infrequently through the encounter between different or antagonist faiths.
These stories of women and men who have taken “the” step certainly rouse the human psyche and humankind’s faith, but above all they represent a challenge for politics, they crush the voices with their silence, they scrutinize - with a gaze of proven power - the palaces of kings, with their obsolete posturing and hypocrisy. Could it be that these experiences in their variety may suggest something to those who, due to political choice (be it democratic, dynastic or other), have the charge to govern? The answer is yes, and in many parts of the world this has happened and is happening de die in die, as an ancient Christian hymn says. This book was created so that they, as a whole, may be a common and “universal” treasure, available to each and everyone.
Four questions on forgiveness were posed to one hundred people qualified by their direct and personal experience in this field of conflict and reconciliation, mourning and forgiveness, of human dignity violations and re-establishment by the Ara Pacis Initiative led by Maria Nicoletta Gaida.
- The first question concerned “that which is written”: we asked which verses and sayings about reconciliation from religious traditions or personal belief systems may be proclaimed and understood in a universal sense.
- The second question concerned the “definition”: we asked which forms and interpretations of one’s life made possible an experience of reconciliation and forgiveness.
- The third question concerned the “meaning”: we asked respondents to look far beyond themselves, to look to the otherness within the human family for that event which best embodied general and universal meaning.
- The fourth concerned “you”: we asked respondents how and when the forgiveness paradigm seemed necessary for them.
Jaia Pasquini, Foundation for Religious Sciences - Bologna
Alberto Melloni, UNESCO Chair on Religious Pluralism and Peace - Bologna