The Elders and Templeton World Charity Foundation brought together three global leaders in peacebuilding and human rights to examine the role of forgiveness in a tumultuous time.
The past year has been fraught with social and political strife. From protest movements to contentious elections and debates over the response to the pandemic, no one has been insulated from conflict. And it’s easy to forget that even the scourge of the coronavirus has not tamped down political and ethnic battles in countries ranging from Myanmar to Syria.
In the face of all this turmoil, on December 16, The Elders and Templeton World Charity Foundation gathered three world leaders for a virtual Forgiveness Forum. Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, former President of Colombia and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein, who helped establish the International Criminal Court, joined Templeton World Charity Foundation President Andrew Serazin and journalist Zain Verjee for an in-depth discussion of the meaning and practice of forgiveness. The panelists were also joined by musician Peter Gabriel, one of the early proponents of The Elders. The purpose of this forum was to explore the potential for one of our innate human virtues — the ability to forgive — to help the world move forward.
It’s entirely natural for people to seek revenge after being hurt and retribution after experiencing wrongdoing. Yet these natural inclinations do little to improve mental, physical or social health and tend to kick off similar responses of vengeance from those on the receiving end, beginning a cycle. Forgiveness, on the other hand, achieves the opposite according to Templeton World Charity Foundation President Andrew Serazin, who chaired the Forgiveness Forum. Contemporary research on forgiveness — and thousands of years of philosophical and theological writing — tells us that its purpose is to help us break free from the cycle of vengeance, and the guilt and the shame that come with it. “Forgiveness is a kind of psychological alchemy that takes away all that bad stuff — the garbage that is associated with a traumatic event — and converts that garbage into gold,” Serazin said.
The forum touched on instances of radical forgiveness in political contexts, from Ireland to East Timor to South Africa, and on the role of forgiveness during processes of peacebuilding, transitional justice, and truth and reconciliation. Each of the leaders present shared stories of incredible acts of forgiveness during periods of terrible conflict. Stories of mothers forgiving those who tortured and murdered their children and of kings seeking forgiveness from grieving parents on bended knee. “It’s very clear that a traveling companion of forgiveness is asking to be forgiven. It’s not a necessary condition, but it eases the burden upon the person who is being asked to forgive,” said Al Hussein. These examples of the act of forgiveness between individuals with seemingly unbridgeable gulfs between them demonstrate humanity’s incredible capacity to forgive and the role it plays in repairing people’s psychic and emotional health.
In any of these cases, a fundamental element of successful forgiveness and peacebuilding is the element of truth. “Every peace process has two phases: peacemaking and peacebuilding,” said Santos. “Peacemaking is rather easy. You just agree on a disarmament and the reintegration of the group into a simple life. But peacebuilding means a change of attitude to learn how to forgive. Learning how to forgive requires the truth.” And according to Serazin, this sense that forgiveness is a process which requires intentional thought, planning, emotional preparation and real action is supported by science.
Put simply, to achieve the inner peace and attendant salutary effects that forgiveness offers, people must plan and act in a deliberate fashion. “We love, we grieve, we sulk, we complain. And that’s part of decoding human nature to understand that there is a path that can be helpful to all of us,” said Al Hussein. Making this process a part of our personal lives and looking for ways to incorporate it into our politics and societies may help the world collectively move on from the troubles of 2020 as we enter the new year.
The science of forgiveness
Andrew Serazin: “Studies show that people who are more likely to forgive are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like excessive drinking and smoking. And likewise, the disposition toward forgiveness is associated with reductions in anxiety and depression and other psychiatric disorders. Even more surprising, individuals who forgive may also have a better cardiovascular response to stress. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a field that is still growing. The current body of evidence suggests that forgiveness is at its strongest when it deals with interpersonal forgiveness — that is, forgiveness that relates to one individual to another.”
Forgiveness is the best form of love
Mary Robinson: “It takes a strong person to say sorry and an even stronger person to forgive. During my presidency, in June 1997, we had been commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine, the potato famine in 1845, 1846 and 1847. It was 150 years later and Tony Blair, as the Prime Minister of Great Britain, decided to make a statement. The Irish people took it as an apology for what Britain had done or actually failed to do during the famine. Tony Blair and his government said it was an expression of deep regret…. The interesting thing to me was that, well, every single person in Ireland seemed to hear that. I’ve never known an event that so drew people in, and everybody mentioned it afterwards. It was somehow a really compelling moment for the Irish people. It’s hard to fathom why it would mean so much to apologize for a famine 150 years before.”
Freedom from hate
Juan Manuel Santos: “During the peace process, I was advised that I should hear the story of the victims, that it would re-energize me and give me the strength to continue on a very difficult path. One of those stories was the story of a lady. Her name is Pastoramina. She lives in the coffee regions in Colombia. Her father had been killed by the war. Her two brothers had been killed. Her husband was killed. And her son was tortured and killed three or four years after her husband was killed. About 15 days after her son was buried, somebody came to her house seeking help. He was wounded, and she opened her house and helped him and when he was cured, he was going out again to continue the war, and he saw a photograph of her son. And he was shocked, and he asked her, ‘Is that your son?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And he started crying and said, ‘Forgive me, but I was the one. I need to tell you, I was the one who tortured and killed your son.’ She was shocked, but about 20 second later, she embraced him. And he was even more shocked about her attitude. He said, ‘Why, why are you saying thank you to me? I killed your son. I tortured him.’ And she said, ‘Well, what you just did, telling me what you did, and by crying, you liberated me from hating for the rest of my life.’”
Forgiveness takes many forms
Mary Robinson: “When Queen Elizabeth came to Ireland and she stood on the first day in a formal ceremony with our then president, President McAleese, at the Garden of Remembrance, which commemorates all of those who fought in the struggle against Britain and for freedom and independence in Ireland. The queen bowed her head, and Queen Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. I got to know her, I visited her in Buckingham Palace, and I know how she understood symbols. Her symbol was to bow her head and seek forgiveness in that way. If anything, that was more impactful.”
On seeking forgiveness
Zeid Raad Al Hussein: “It’s very clear that a traveling companion of forgiveness is asking to be forgiven. It’s not a necessary condition, but it eases the burden upon the person who is being asked to forgive. Growing up, the role model for me was the late king of Jordan, His Majesty King Hussein, who had this enormous capacity to ask for forgiveness. In 1996 a Jordanian soldier murdered 16 Israeli school children and the late king visited each family on his knees and appealed for forgiveness. And he himself could forgive…. But there is a difficult tension with justice. It’s not a given that your pardons are considered to be a part of this in the judicial manner in which we view stable societies. That requires further teasing on a personal level. It’s wrestling with issues of identity, issues of emotional positioning and how one constantly has to battle various thoughts within and recognize these thoughts and be self-aware. It’s extremely, extremely difficult. And that’s why those who share this enormous capacity are those to be admired always.”
Forgiveness and transitional justice
Mary Robinson: “Forgiveness is an important dimension of a part of peacebuilding, which I call transitional justice. There are many ways in which you can try to build peace. One of them is to have even symbols of mutual help. And that can be part of transitional justice, and in particular a part of a truth commission…. There is an example from my UN High Commissioner days of a truth commission in [what] was then East Timor, now Timor-Leste. At that stage, they had been able to establish a truth and reparations commission.
“Out in the countryside there was a village where there were two young male perpetrators, as they were called, and they were sitting on two chairs. And opposite them were the victims, those who had been affected when they burned houses. And then at one side there was the whole village, and on the other side was a woman who was the regional commissioner. She had a sash to show her authority, and she had behind the elders of the village. It was a ceremony that went on all day. I asked, ‘What happens afterwards?’ The perpetrators did admit their guilt. The victims complained that the whole thing was they could only come back to the village if they were forgiven. And I thought they might be forgiven then required to build houses or something to make up for what they’ve done. No, as it happened, the two perpetrators were forgiven, period. Forgiven totally. That was it. And they were allowed back to the village. So that was really important.”
From peacemaking to peacebuilding
Juan Manuel Santos: “Every peace process has two phases: peacemaking and peacebuilding. Peacemaking is rather easy. You just agree on a disarmament and the reintegration of the group into a simple life. But peacebuilding means a change of attitude to learn how to forgive. Learning how to forgive requires the truth. Many people and many victims that I talked to said to me, ‘I don’t want reparations. My daughter, who was raped and murdered, she does not have a price. You cannot pay me to repair my situation, my sorrow, but I need to know the truth. Why did they do that?’
“So the truth becomes extremely, extremely important, and that’s why in the peace process in Colombia, the truth is the most important right of the victims in this transitional justice that we created. What we created in Colombia was unprecedented. It was the first peace agreement that was negotiated under the umbrella of the Rome treaty, and it included the rights of the victims to justice, the rights to reparations, the rights to the truth and to non-repetition. The truth is the most important word. [NB: the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty that established the court, was adopted in 1998 and came into force in 2002.] The truth hurts, but it’s a necessary catharsis for a society that lived 50 years in the war and is trying to heal the wounds. The truth has to come out.”
Forgiveness without a reckoning
Zeid Raad Al Hussein: “Hans Frank famously at Nuremberg spoke in a manner where he acknowledged the crimes of the Nazi regime, but I don’t think anyone really believed he was speaking from the heart. Reckoning is often seen as the precondition for forgiveness. The more difficult thing is to forgive where there is no reckoning. This forgiveness brings a sense of liberation or relief. I’m always reminded of the 14th-century poet Hafez’s beautiful poem about forgiveness. He said, ‘Look, they cannot jump high or laugh long when they’re running.’ In other words, when they’re caught up in these emotions. ‘And the moon and the stars become sad when their tender light is used for night wars.’ And instead of understanding the beauty of the world, you are just completely bound in a close quarter, fighting and seeking revenge. The spiritual and religious traditions had this a long time ago. It’s not a revelation for us, but it’s hard if there’s no prior acknowledgement that there is wrongdoing by that person or those communities causing harm. That’s really hard.
“How many countries around the world have acknowledged the harm they’ve done within their societies — to others or to their neighbors — and then written it into their educational curriculum? It is a very, very small number. Look at familial relations. Why is it so difficult for us to maintain consistent relations over a lifetime with our families? The relations are subject to all sorts of battering up and down. We love, we grieve, we sulk, we complain. And that’s part of decoding human nature to understand that there is a path that can be helpful to all of us.”
On the need for peacemaking
Peter Gabriel: “We have hundreds of thousands of people dying from a pandemic. Our planet faces perhaps its first real existential threat with climate change, or at least for us. And then I thought about it a little more, and I thought, well, actually, people are being pulled apart. We’re being divided. We’re learning to hate each other. And populist politicians are exploiting that and riding very high into power on the back of it, social media and making money out of it because they get more advertising when we get pulled to extreme positions and we get emotional. So what are the tools that might get us out of all this, that might allow us to reach consensus? And forgiveness is going to be a pretty powerful one. I’m always impressed by the words of the founder of The Elders, Nelson Mandela, when asked about what it was like to stand alongside the people who been part of an institution in South Africa that had imprisoned him for 27 years, that had killed many of his colleagues. He said he felt fear, but he knew that the only way out for him was to forgive them and to work with them. And that really struck me. When I look back in my own life and thought of the things that I had really been hurt by and couldn’t forgive, that actually I did become a piece of property. I was owned by that act. I was owned by those people, and in some ways just weighed down with this stuff. I think if you can find a way out — and forgiveness is probably the most powerful tool — you can move on. You can let go of all this load that has been weighing you down on your back and just fly away, a free person.”