Political forgiveness
by Russell Day

essay by Maggie Helass

Volume 1, number 8, Winter 2004

The terrain of political forgiveness is in the early days of exploration-its cartographers will be revising and refining their maps for a long time. So argues Russell Daye, a United Church of Canada minister who is currently lecturing in the Department of Theology and Ethics, Pacific Theological College, Fiji.
The evolution of international human rights has been marked by truth commissions operating in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia-usually in the period of transition from a less to a more democratic government.
Daye, author of Political Forgiveness-Lessons from South Africa, cites the current strife in the Middle East, the land struggles in Central America, the communal violence in India, the massacres in Afghanistan, and the civil wars in Central Africa as examples of fresh twists and turns in old stories of opposing interests, unequal power relationship, and ghosts of violence past.
(In his Afterword, Daye includes post 9/11 developments as another chapter of the same old story.)
"Perhaps the most remarkable illustration of this point is the seemingly endless series of hostilities in the Balkans. To quote Donald Shriver: 'The world cringes at a Serb's willingness to kill a Muslim in revenge for ancestors who fought the Battle of Kosovo in the year 1389' ."
Political forgiveness is a new realm of ethical thought, growing exponentially with the need to end stubborn conflicts and heal wounds-especially with weapons of mass destruction now on the market for anyone who can afford them.

Political Forgiveness cover

Apologies on behalf of governments, churches and other institutions have become a part of public discourse. Beneath the surface of these healing processes and acts of contrition lies a common theme-the need for forgiveness.
Daye rhetorically poses the question why social and political forgiveness has not been a larger part of public discourse, and suggests three sticking points-
· There is no consensus on the meaning of the concept of forgiveness.
· The question of who has the power to forgive.
· What are the elements of forgiveness?

During the passage from the terrain of interpersonal relationships to the realm of political relations the dynamics of forgiveness become more complex, but do overlap to a large extent.
Daye's book contributes to the work with a working model of political forgiveness.
He uses South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a case study for his model of political forgiveness. He describes the TRC as a "baptism of tears"- and indeed it earned the name "the Kleenex commission" as the entire nation engaged in the larger process of coming to terms with South Africa's past.
"(I)n restaurants and taverns, at dinner tables, at the office, on radio and television, in the newspapers the national conversation about the conflict and violence of the past and what could be done-South Africa 'pushed the envelope' further than any other country in terms of political forgiveness."
The nature of forgiveness has a "core grammar", which Daye portrays as a drama in three acts, which may be scripted in an infinite variety of ways-
1. Naming and articulation of the harm done.
2. Apology or confession.
3. Offering of forgiveness.

The complex move from the interpersonal to the socio-political realm includes the same core elements but with the addition of two more "acts"-
· Transitional justice
· Healing

"The first act in a drama of forgiveness is the articulation of the harm done. Any attempt to rush to the granting of forgiveness without a careful exposition of the unjust actions through documentation or through the generation of a broad narrative will bastardise the process," warns Daye.
This first act has to validate the perspectives and memories of survivors. "It shows that the world is a place where truth is acknowledged, and it helps them move out of a state of perpetual fear and insecurity."
"The challenge for any society trying to recover from a period of civil war or acute oppression is to find the right balance between restorative and retributive measures, and to ensure that these measures are appropriate to the context."
Daye maintains that whole communities-even societies-come to suffer from the dynamics of traumatic injury, which introduces the topic of healing. Under this heading, repair of socio-economic systems may be necessary, as large-scale injustice usually arises from economic motivations, among others.
"In transitional societies there will be families who have lost their life savings, their livelihood, and even their breadwinners. What compensation do they merit? How can they be reintegrated into the economy?"
Nationwide forgiveness has a more distant horizon than truth telling, responsibility-claiming, justice, or healing. It involves the reformation of whole communities at a level so deep that collective identities are transformed.
At the political level symbolic language takes over from emotive language.
Daye sees forgiveness as a social good, and as "something more mysterious materializing in crucibles that mix human pain, need imagination, and good will".
His discussion of forgiveness includes the vital caveat that forgiveness only constitutes a virtue when abandonment of resentment does not compromise the wronged party's self-respect.
The long association between forgiveness and Christian teachings in the West lead some thinkers to believe that it is too coloured by theology ever to be retrieved for application in such secular realms as national or international politics.
Daye comments that it is ironic that important Christian thinkers themselves-from Augustine to Luther to Neibuhr-have been complicit in the exclusion of forgiveness from politics, by identifying separate sets of ethics for the "city of God" and the "earthly city".
Contrary to popular wisdom that associates forgiving with forgetting, forgiveness begins with memory. In particular, memory that contains a moral judgment of wrong, injustice, and injury.
Agreement between two or more parties that serious wrongdoing has taken place present the first challenge of political forgiveness.
The cycle of violence is broken with the abandonment of vengeance-which does not exclude punishment for evildoers administered via due process.
According to Shriver reconciliation comes at the end of a process that forgiveness begins. Political forgiveness can take generations-witness the re-emergence of calls for apologies and restitution related to slavery in the United States.
Daye gives a useful thumbnail sketch of colonial history and the apartheid era in South Africa, with much of the mythology expunged.

Act One of the drama of forgiveness is about opening a good conversation. Due to tightly restricted media and access to information most South Africans had little idea of what was going on in their own country. Perceptions of "the truth" was influenced by such factors as the part of the country where one lived, one's exposure to international media or publications (wh9ich was tightly restricted), one's type and level of education, and to whom one chose to listen. Hence the TRC launched a great discourse about truth telling in the early 1990s, when South Africa initiated the most ambitious process of historical remembering that the world had ever seen.
As apartheid was coming to an end, millions of South Africans found themselves in a strange relationship with truth-they were on existentially unstable ground, unsure of the "facts" that had served as foundations for their lives.
The fact is that "What is truth?" has no simple answer. The TRC would have to be a forum that allowed for multiple perspectives but also demanded a certain level of rigour in terms of the verification of historical facts. Daye: "I juxtapose here a kind of truth that gives primary attention to forensic, detailed evidence with another kind that seeks to interpret evidence so as to paint an evaluative history in broader strokes."
In its final report the TRC acknowledged four different kinds of truth-
· Forensic or objective truth.
· Personal, narrative truth.
· Social or dialogical truth.
· Restorative truth.

Daye uses cameo studies of victims and perpetrators of violence throughout his book, which is helpful in combating the inevitable tendency to stereotyping both perpetrators and survivors.
He does not reify the TRC. Particularly the TRCs Committee on Human Rights Violations was a venue for many dramas of personal forgiveness, but failure to act on its recommendations for reparations have hobbled the process of political forgiveness.
Daye uses sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis analysis of apology. Even at the interpersonal level apology is not a private matter but speaks to something larger-the grounds for membership in a moral community.
An apology offered by an offender to a victim contains a subtext that says, "I was wrong to believe that my humanity and your humanity were not of the same order".
Herein lies the clue as to why, for instance, the churches did not perceive the need to apologise, or how the Church could have allowed itself to become an instrument of government oppression in the first place. Like society at large, church members did not see indigenous people as belonging to the same moral community as themselves until they were assimilated into "European" society.
Moral community is taken to mean a fellowship of persons who believe that they owe one another "good treatment" or behaviour guided by accepted human standards.
The most controversial part of the TRCs work was the amnesty process, but one of its great innovations was the constitution of an amnesty that had revelation as one of its by-products.
Perpetrators who applied for amnesty were obliged to tell the truth of their deeds in public hearings, which often included their victims.
Public apology gains reparative capability through the symbolic import of putting things on the record, of documentation as a prelude to reconciliation.
South Africa now has more information about its past than it would have if the new government had decided to go the alternative route of trials or tribunals.
The question still remains whether justice was done to reconciliation?
Daye quotes Ronald C Slye who does not fully accept the position that truth-telling by nature advances the cause of reconciliation, but that successful post-conflict reconciliations can only bear so much fact and that there is a necessary element of myth-making as well. He points to the myth of the clean hands of the French resistance and to the suppression of information regarding the complicity of other governments and institutions with the Nazis as abridgments of truth that served stability and cohesion in post-war Europe.
"It may be that the de facto path taken by Europe-a combination of the paths with a temporal dimension: short-term myth-making combined with periodic revelation in the future-is the best one for moving forward and adequately confronting the past."

Daye touches on revenge as an element in legitimate retributive justice, and also includes a discussion of resentment as protective and bolstering self-respect.
Society has achieved a balance between the restraint needed to live together with a measure of harmony and the impulse to strike back when one is harmed, through judicial systems. But this balance is fragile. It is lost when people cease to believe that, if they are wronged, a legitimate institution will act on their behalf and punish the wrongdoer.
When a person wilfully and wrongfully injures another, there is a double harm. The first harm is the injury itself. The second is the implicit statement by the wrongdoer that "I am essentially more important than you are". The generation of resentment within the injured person is a rejection of that claim and a counter-assertion of worth. Punishment for the wrong serves as an enlargement of the relative value of the victim by diminishing the value of the offender. It is therefore a rational assertion about the relative value of human beings.
The surrender of resentment is a key to forgiveness, and is more likely to happen after punishment has been administered, therefore retributive and restorative justice is compatible.
"For while retributive justice demands that the guilty be punished, restorative justice, in Tutu's words, 'is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships-with healing, harmony and reconciliation'. Thus, a key defining element of restorative justice is its privileging of reconciliation over retribution."
The recourse to the African philosophy and theology of ubuntu by Archbishop Tutu serves as an example of 'contextual vitality', which give transformative measures much of their dynamism. Daye pursues a wide-ranging review of arguments on the comparative merits of retributive and restorative justice, which proved to be one of the most contentious in the TRC experience.
Rashied Omar, a South African imam known for his progressive views and practices strongly criticised the forgiveness rhetoric of the TRC, saying that it was not a natural outgrowth of the inner transformation of people, but rather a product of both political pressures and the Western Christian theology of Chairman Tutu, Vice-Chairman Boraine, and others.
Islam teaches him that it is always better to forgive, "But if the perpetrators do not ask for forgiveness, how can we offer it?" In Islam, he argued, there is a connection between forgiveness and justice that does more to empower victims.
A major task in healing work is the transformation of traumatic memories into narrative form.
Daye does not answer the controversial question of how intertwined are the work of personal healing and the work of societal healing. Instead he describes how trauma operates for perpetrators and victims in society, both during and after the actual events.
Unless a balance between empathy and judgement is maintained during the healing process there is a danger of further fracturing the national community.
The TRC's therapeutic value is still under debate, but it did start the work of constructing a national narrative of empathy for the suffering of apartheid's victims and respect for their sacrifice, although the incompleteness of the process may have increased the woundedness of some survivors.
"It is fair to say that a traumatized nation has a real need for re-articulation of its corporate story, such that memory is "unfrozen" and freed to be built into new narratives. These narratives can then be used in identity reconstruction and the building of a new future."
However, Daye warns, myth-makers and other architects of culture will have to reach deep into the symbol systems that give shape to the cultural/ethnic groups of Afrikaner and African to rework the narratives through which they characterise each other.

It is generally true to say however, that following the TRC process, the body politic and the citizenry are learning how to disagree and debate about issues of great emotional attachment and political import.
"The lesson for future commissions seems to be to stay open to the possibility of grace, but be careful about promising that it will appear."
Daye says that his model of political forgiveness is not a theological one, he intends for it to be applicable to a wide range of contexts, both secular and religious. However, he writes, when we consider the alteration of cultures and identities, we are moving onto 'sacred ground'.
"One of history's tragic ironies is that modernity, with its ideal of inclusion, was born in Europe during the era of colonisation. The story we tell ourselves in the 'modern, democratic West" is one of progressive inclusion. That is why we are shocked when we see ethnic cleansing in Europe…. Volf challenges this smug attitude and argues that there has always been 'a momentous inner tension in the typically modern narrative of inclusion'. Following postmodern critics like Dussek, Nietzche, Derrida, and Foucault, he describes the birth of modernity as entailing exclusion of colossal proportions…. Whatever came to be characterised as "not us" was labelled as uncivilized, even barbaric."
Volf argues that a certain post-modern desire for 'purity', when projected onto society, can issue in the politics of assimilation, domination or abandonment.
The "negotiation of difference, which can never produce a final settlement" remains at the heart of embracing forgiveness.
Daye's model of political forgiveness does not apply only to post-conflict societies that are embarking upon large, well-coordinated initiatives like truth commissions or national reconciliation programs. It is appropriate for any nation that has experienced a period of civil war or gross persecution and which is moving out of this strife towards a more just and peaceful dispensation.

Political Forgiveness : lessons from South Africa, by Russell Daye Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
Rrp $46.95. pp 210. ISBN 1-57075-490-X

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