1. Peace negotiations are, for the most part, focused on the political and economic dimensions. What is your perception of the necessity of touching deeper and more genuine aspects of reconciliation and how can this be achieved?
We must not overlook the political and economic dimensions of a conflict; but it is absolutely essential that we address the deeper issues. When people feel they have been injured, the wound can fester and become toxic ~ and this can lead to all kinds of difficulties in the future. Political and economic solutions are often tactical, and inspired by the desire of the stronger party to give away as little as possible. This kind of defensiveness is inimical to a true and lasting peace. Both sides have to be ready to meet the other, even if this means compromise, apparent loss to oneself, and an uncomfortable re-assessment of one’s own behaviour.
2. What are the conditions in which, beyond securing the interests of parties to conflict, a process that is centred on a sense of fairness and dignity can be established?
There is much talk today about “dialogue” but it is not often practised. In the Socratic dialogue, there was no victor; nobody won the argument; instead, all participants realized that even though they had imagined they were experts on the subject under discussion, in fact they knew nothing at all. They would have to go back to the beginning and start again. In order to be an effective means of philosophical enlightenment, Socrates and Plato both insisted, a dialogue must be conducted throughout with gentleness and courtesy; the desire to “win” must be held in check; each person should give his opinion as a gift to the other, who would allow it to change her own preconceptions. Unless one enters dialogue prepared to be changed at a profound level, it will degenerate into diatribe.
In the Socratic spirit, a process centred on fairness and dignity requires listening. We are a highly talkative and opinionated society; but we have often lost the art of listening ~ not simply to the external discourse but to the emotions, anger, rage, grief and distress that lie at its root. We should listen to this subterranean level with the same attention as we give to the analysis of a newspaper article, a poem, or a novel, because these undercurrents are an essential part of its meaning. Negotiators should be trained to read rhetoric, to interpret the imagery and symbolism used by protagonists, all of which is just as important as the overt sense.
We have to listen in this way to the point of view of our opponents, without interruption, without jumping in to correct their perception of events, but with an open heart and mind, even if it seems to be against our own interests. We have to listen attentively to each other’s version of history ~ not simply using it as grist to our own case. There should be impartial experts present, who are fully apprised of the history of a conflict and are not swayed by a particular point of view. History ~ even one that goes back to the distant past ~ is an essential weapon in any conflict ~ and all history ~even, perhaps especially, our own ~ simply reflects a particular point of view. As any psychiatrist knows, a story may not be factually correct, but it is a true reflection of the narrator’s state of mind, of the injury he has suffered in the past, and the pain, humiliation and outrage that he feels in the present. These should not be dismissed as fictional delusions; they are psychological realities that are just as much a part of the conflict as the external events; unless they are taken fully into account, any negotiated settlement will be purely cosmetic.
This requires a heroic effort on both sides. It is never pleasant to confront the way we are seen by our enemies; but it is essential to look for the grain of truth that lies at the heart of what we feel to be a distortion. The stories we tell ourselves are essential to our identity, but they can be inimical to our real interests, that is, a just and lasting peace.
3. To what degree is forgiveness an essential dimension of reconciliation? At the root of your political culture and religious faith, what are the principles that either imply or exclude forgiveness? Which verses or sayings that are part of your personal heritage could, in your opinion, have a universal significance?
Reconciliation will always include a degree of forgiveness, but it is a long, painful process. It is never right to tell other people that they must forgive an injury. This can be intrusive, impertinent and even insulting. That is the inalienable privilege of the person who has been wronged. Forgiveness cannot be hurried. There can be no pressure on people to forgive, no requirement that a victim meets somebody else’s schedule. All kinds of healing have to go on at a profound level of the psyche and this takes time. People must not be told that they must “forget” what has happened and start afresh. That is not always possible; and this kind of forgetting can in reality be an unhealthy denial.
All religious traditions have formulated their own version of what is known as the Golden Rule, which they say is the test of authentic spirituality: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Sometimes this is given a positive formulation: “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” The Golden Rule requires that we look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. It impels us to go beyond self interest and acknowledge our profound interconnection and interdependence. When we look into the eyes of the other, we see ourselves.
In terms of forgiveness, the Golden Rule reminds us that just as we would not like other people telling us officiously to forgive another, we must not ask it of other people. It also requires that we take other people’s pain as seriously as we take our own.
The traditions also insist that we cannot confine our compassion to our own national, ethnic or ideological group. We have to have, what the Chinese sage Mozi called jian ai, “concern for everybody;” it requires us to love even our enemies; and to honour the stranger and foreigner.
There are many texts in the monotheistic tradition that remind us of the importance of forgiveness.
The Rabbis of the Talmudic age made the Golden Rule, compassion, love of neighbour, and deeds of loving kindness to the centre of religious life and in this spirit insisted on the duty of forgiveness, as a deliberate attempt to mitigate the biblical texts that speak of vengeance and hatred, bringing the more compassionate aspects of scripture to the fore.
- “If a man has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked his forgiveness, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask [God] to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Abraham prayed to God for Abimelech (Genesis 20:17) and Job prayed for his friends. Rabbi Gamaliel said: Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion upon you.” (Baba Kamma, 9:29,30)
- “If you have done much good, let it be in your own eyes as little. Do not say: ‘I have given from my own’ but rather, ‘I have given from what others have given to me, and for which you owe thanks to God. …Let a small wrong which you have done seem great to you, but if much wrong has been done to you, let it seem little to you, and say, ‘I have been punished less than I deserved: a bigger punishment would have been fitting’. (Derek ‘erez Zutta 2:8)
- “Learn to receive suffering, and forgive those who insult you.” (Aboth de Rabba Nathan, vers. I, 41:67a)
- “Even though a man pays another whom he has insulted, he is not forgiven by God, till he seeks forgiveness from the man he has insulted. That man, if he does not forgive the other, is called merciless.” (Baba Kamma, 8:7)
- Rabbi Hama bin Hanina said: ‘Even though your enemy has risen up early to kill you, and he comes hungry and thirsty to your house give him food and drink. Read not yeshallem, ‘God will repay’ but yashlimennu ‘God will make him at peace with you.’ (Proverbs 25:21; Midrash Proverbs 25:21, f. 49b
- “The Rabbis have taught: It says, ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.’ For a man might think, ‘I must not strike him or beat him or curse him’ [but I may hate him]. Therefore it says, ‘In thy heart.’” (Arakin 16b)
- “And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee’ (Numbers 21:7). At once Moses prayed for them. This shows you the humility of Moses in that he did not delay to seek mercy for them, and it shows further the power of repentance. As soon as they said, ‘We have sinned,’ instantly he was reconciled to them. For one who pardons can never become cruel. And how do you know that if a man asks pardon of his neighbour whom he has offended, and that if the neighbour refuses to pardon him, he, the neighbour, and not the offender, is called a sinner? Because Samuel said, ‘As for me, far be it from me to sin unto the Lord by refraining to pray for you’ (I Samuel 12:23). When was this? When the people came and said, ‘We have sinned.’ (Tanhuma, Hukkat, 63b)
The Talmud insists that two conditions are essential for reconciliation and even describes the procedure that should be adopted.
- “One who has sinned against his fellow-man must say to him, ‘I have acted wrongly against you.’” If his apology is accepted, well and good; if it is not, he calls upon witnesses and tries to reconcile in their presence (Job 33:27)…Should the offended person have died, he must conciliate him over his grave and say, ‘I have acted wrongly towards you’” (J. Joma, 45c).
But the Talmud sets a limit on the number of times such an attempt at reconciliation should be made; according to one view, not more than three times (Joma 87a). One of the Rabbis claimed that he always managed to make peace with anybody he had injured that day before he went to bed (Megillah 28a).
Secondly, it was the duty of the aggrieved party to accept the apology and not nurse his grievance:
- “‘Thou shalt not take vengeance nor bear a grudge’ (Leviticus 19:18). What means vengeance and what means a grudge? Vengeance is when a person says to his fellow, ‘Lend me your axe,’ and he replies, ‘I will not lend you anything, in the same way that you declined to lend me.’ A grudge is where a person says to his fellow, ‘Lend me your axe,’ and he refuses; and the next day the latter person says, ‘Lend me your garment,’ and he replies, ‘Here it is! I am not like you who declined to lend me what I wanted.’ They who are insulted but do not retaliate with insult, they who hear themselves reproached and make no retort, they who do [the will of God] from love, and they who are happy under affliction, of them scripture declares, ‘Let them that love Him be as the sun when it goes forth in its might’(Judges 5.31). He who forgives retaliation, his sins are remitted; when is pardon is asked he grants it’” (Joma 23a)
The Christian tradition had much the same message: God’s forgiveness of our failings is dependent on our forgiveness of others: “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.” (Matthew 6: 12)
- “You have learnt it was said to our ancestors: ‘You must not kill’; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court….So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and here remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.” (Matthew 5:21~25
Like Socrates, Jesus forgives his executioners ~ even in the extremity of agony, he puts himself in their position: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 22:34) Instead of making only three attempts at reconciliation, the duty of forgiveness never ends.
- “Then Peter went to [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven but seventy times seven times.” (Matthew 18:21).
And there is the same effort to transcend the more vindictive biblical passages:
- You have learnt that it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ (Exodus 21:24) But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.
You have learnt how it was said: ‘You must love your neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:18) and hate your ‘enemy.’ But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be the sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do the same, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not?” (Matthew 5:38~48)
A note on the word love: it does not mean emotional tenderness. Jesus is quoting Leviticus, a legal text, where talk about feelings and emotions would be out of place. “Love” was a legal term, used in international treaties. Two kings would promise to love each other. This did not mean that they would become loving friends, but that they would give each other practical aid, be loyal to one another, and seek the best for each other at all times. Like “love”, “forgiveness” is a principled attitude leading to concrete action rather than an influx of feelings, which, by their very nature, are ephemeral.
- “Bless those who persecute you; never curse them, bless them…Never repay evil with evil but let everyone see that you are interested only in the highest ideals. Do all you can to live at peace with everyone. Never try to get revenge; leave that, my friends to God’s anger. As scripture says; ‘Vengeance is mine ~ I will pay them back,’ the Lord promises (Deuteronomy 32:35). But there is more: ‘If your enemy is hungry, you should give him food, and if he is thirsty, let him drink. Thus you heap red-hot coals on his head’ (Proverbs 25:21~22) resist evil and conquer it with good. “ (Romans 12:14~21)
- “Love is always patient and kind; …it does not take offence, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in the wrongdoing of others but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.” (I Corinthians 13: 4~7)
Islam also preaches the virtue of forgiveness and inveighing against the ancient tribal ethos of Arabia that preached the duty of swift retaliation in order to ensure the survival of the group. The term jahiliyyah, often translated “ignorance” actually means “irascibility” ~ an acute sensitivity to honour an prestige, arrogance and, above all, a chronic tendency to violence and retaliation. Instead the Qur’an urges Muslims to behave with the traditional Arab virtue of hilm, “forbearance, patience and mercy.”
They must not hit back when they suffered injury but should be slow to retaliate and leave revenge to Allah. They must be men and women of peace and forgiveness, courtesy and gentleness:
- “For true servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk gently on the earth, and who, whenever the jahilun insult them, reply “Peace.” (25:63)
- “And let not those of you who possess plenty and ease swear not to give to kinsmen and the poor and emigrants in the way of God. Let them forgive and show indulgence (even if the latter do not satisfy them in every respect.) Do you not wish that God should forgive you? God is Forgiving, Merciful.”(24:22)
- The same word (tawbah) means “repentance” on the part of human beings and “forgiveness” on the part of God; the two are intimately related. Although God is the terrible Judge and the most unyielding avenger of evil deeds, God is also infinitely merciful and forgiving. Humans turn towards God in repentance, and God “turns” towards men and women in mercy: “God turns (yatubu, from the same root as tawbah) towards whom he will. Verity God is most forgiving, most merciful.” (9:27)
- “And how many a prophet ha had to fight [for their lives], followed by many God-devoted men; and they did not become faint of heart for all that they had to suffer in God’s cause and neither did they weaken, since God loves those who are patient in adversity, and all they said was: ‘O our Sustainer! Forgive us our sins and the lack of moderation in our doings and succour us against people who deny the truth!! (3:146~47)
- Muslims must fight bravely when they are attacked, but as soon as the enemy asks for peace, they must immediately lay down their arms (2:193~94). They must accept any offer of truce whatever conditions are imposed, however disadvantageous, even if they suspect the enemy of double-dealing (8: 62~63). And although it is important to fight persecution and oppression, the Qur’an insists that it is better to sit down and solve the problem by courteous discussion.
- In his revealed Torah to the Jewish people, God had “ordained for them an eye for an eye, and a nose for a nose, and an ear for an ear, and a tooth for a tooth, and a similar retribution for wounds; but he who shall forgo it out of charity will atone thereby for his past sins.” (5:45)
Muhammad was true to these teachings. When the war with Mecca had reached a climax, he adopted a non-violent policy and accepted a highly disadvantageous truce, which seemed to give away all that the Muslims had gained from the conflict. But the Qur’an regarded what seemed a humiliating defeat as a true victory. They had behaved like the Jews and Christians, true children of God
- “When in the hearts of those who persist in jahiliyyah arose the characteristic arrogance, the arrogance of jahiliyyah, then God sent down his peace of soul upon his Messenger and upon the faithful, imposing upon them the formula of hilm, for that was most befitting to them and they were most suited for that…..” It was not violence and self assertion but the spirit of mercy, courtesy and tranquillity that would cause the Muslim community to grow like a sown field that sends forth its shoots, then braces it so it thickens and rests firmly on its stalk.” (4:26~29)
As all the great traditions stress, “forgiveness is better for your souls;” the duty of compassion insists that we take no pleasure in the wrongdoing of others, do not hold grudges, and are willing to make major concessions in order to restore harmonious relations. Holding on to our anger imprisons us in the ego that holds us back from the divine and unless we all learn forgiveness during these polarized times, we are unlikely to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.
4. Does forgiveness require some form of repentance on the side of those to whom forgiveness is offered? Does forgiveness have conditions or is it unconditional?
As the above quotations make amply clear, forgiveness cannot be one sided. It must be reciprocal. Warfare has its own terrible dynamic and, by the time people are ready to come to the table, nobody has behaved impeccably. Often both sides are guilty of atrocities that violate the very principles for which they fought. If forgiveness is enjoined only on one side, any peace will be superficial and there can be no reconciliation. Indeed, as long as people ~ on both sides of a conflict ~ feel that their suffering and pain are not acknowledged but denied by their enemies, forgiveness will remain impossible. There will be no global community, no peace for our world, unless we all recognize that our hands are not clean, that we are all guilty of immense wrong, repent and make the supreme attempt to forgive those who have injured us.
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