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Forgiveness and reconciliation as applied to national and international conflicts.

Helmick, R.G. & Petersen, R. L., Editors. (2002)

Forgiveness and reconciliation: Religion, public policy and conflict transformation. Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press. Paperback. xxvii + 450 pages. Paperback. $22.95. ISBN. 1-890151-84X. Hardcover $34.95. ISBN. 1-89015149-1.

Raymond G. Helmick, S. J., teaches conflict resolution in the department of theology at Boston College. He has mediated in conflicts in many countries and is the author of numerous monographs and articles. Rodney L. Petersen is executive director of the Boston Theological Institute where he teaches in the areas of history and ethics, currently focusing on issues of religion and violence.

This book grew out of a symposium entitled, "Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religious Contributions to Conflict Resolution," held at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in October 1999, and sponsored by the Sir John Templeton Foundation. It is the second in a series of books published by the Templeton Foundation Press on the subject of forgiveness. The contributors to this volume represent an impressive range of experts in the field, writing from diverse national, professional, and religious perspectives. There is sufficient disagreement among the contributors to generate much further research and thinking on this subject.

The brief Foreword is written by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and is the author of one of the seminal books on the subject of forgiveness and national reconciliation, No Future Without Forgiveness. In the Foreword, Archbishop Tutu reflects on and gives concrete examples of "the abyss of human evil"; but he also testifies to the fact that "one comes away from the experience of some of the most gruesome evil, exhilarated at the fact that people can be so good, that people can be filled with such magnanimity, that people can have certain incredible gifts of generosity" (p. xii).

The book itself is divided into four sections. The first of these is, "The Theology of Forgiveness." There are three papers in this section. Noteworthy is Miroslav Volf's essay where he "contest(s) the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence and assert (s), instead, that it should be seen as a contributor to a more peaceful social environment." Much of what follows in the book supports his contention. Also very helpful is the Rev. Dr. Stanley Harakas' contribution on the Orthodox perspective on forgiveness and reconciliation. He skillfully illuminates the tension underlying different aspects of the doctrine and practice of forgiveness and suggests how the Christian teaching "can also serve as a model for attitudes and modalities for those in other venues who seek to foster forgiveness and reconciliation" (p. 78).

The second part of the book deals with "Forgiveness and Public Policy." Raymond Helmick, S. J., again addresses the issue of religion's role in either fueling or healing conflicts. Church bodies seem often to be co-opted by governments intent on pursuing their particular ideological goals. Helmick reminds us that, "All governments have caught on to the fact that churches are the custodians of the Just War theory. When the war begins, every government appeals at once to the church to get up in the cheering section and proclaim that 'God is on our side.' We never belong there" (p. 87). Joseph Montville, a former career diplomat who coined the term "track two diplomacy" to describe unofficial diplomatic efforts, reminds us both of the universal tendency to dehumanize our enemies as well as the "focus on the dignity and rights of the individual as central to all religion" (p. 107).

Douglas Johnston is a co-editor of Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, one of the books most frequently referenced by the contributors to this volume. His essay reviews some of the reasons for the broad acceptance and positive impact of his book. Donna Hicks, deputy director of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, spells out the importance of identity reconstruction in promoting reconciliation. Hers is one of the voices in this book that questions the preeminent role accorded to forgiveness in the settlement of national and international conflicts. "I would like to balance the scales by suggesting that we focus more attention on what it takes to break the denial of high power groups so that they can come to terms with what they have done in a way that protects their human dignity" (p. 148).

Donald Shriver, an ordained Presbyterian minister who is also author of an oft-cited book, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics, deals realistically with the issues that must be faced if forgiveness is to occur. In his essay, "A Bridge Across Abysses of Revenge", Shriver reminds us that "Citizens must cope with the injustices that have divided them before they contract for a justice that will unite them. Politicians who tell their constituents to 'forget about the past' are asking some to forget pain and others to forget guilt" (p. 155).

Part three of the book is titled "Forgiveness and Reconciliation." The first essay in this section is by Everett Worthington, Ph.D., the editor of the first volume in the Templeton Foundation's series on forgiveness. Worthington paints a stark contrast between forgiveness and unforgiveness, and then suggests a number of ways of reducing unforgiveness, primarily at the societal level. The following chapter, by John Paul Lederach, deals with the qualities that support the reconciliation process. A very significant chapter on healing, reconciliation, and forgiving after genocide is authored by Ervin Staub and Laurie Anne Pearlman, based on their experiences working in Rwanda. The final chapter of the section, "Hatred's End", by John Dawson, the founder and director of the International Reconciliation Coalition, embodies "a Christian proposal to peacemaking in a new century", and gives a series of very practical suggestions to aid those who wish to become reconcilers.

The fourth and final section of the book is titled "Seeking Forgiveness after Tragedy." Its opening chapter, by Audrey R. Chapman, examines the usefulness of "truth commissions", and more specifically, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as instruments of forgiveness and reconciliation. As she points out, "truth finding does not automatically promote forgiveness and reconciliation" (p. 261). Olga Botcharova reminds her readers that official diplomacy generally fails to produce peace, and argues for the implementation of unofficial interactions between members of adversarial groups, i.e., "track two diplomacy." The following three chapters deal with forgiveness and reconciliation in three different national settings: Anthony da Silva, S.J. writes about Gandhi's vision of reconciliation as applied to three specific incidents in India; Geraldine Smyth, O.P. writes about the process of "Brokenness, Forgiveness, Healing, and Peace in Ireland"; and Andrea Bartoli speaks about the end of 30 years of armed struggles in Mozambique. The final chapter, by Orfelia Ortega, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba argues for a "culture of solidarity" capable of overcoming "a culture of anti-life."

The book concludes with an eloquent Afterword by George F. R. Ellis of South Africa subtitled "Exploring the Unique Role of Forgiveness." There is also an appendix listing and briefly describing worldwide organizations that promote forgiveness and reconciliation.

This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation as it explores the application of what has largely been seen and experienced as an individual process to the complex topic of national and international conflicts. The book raises many questions that deserve further exploration. It is very encouraging, however, to see the attempt to live out these very basic aspects of the Christian faith in the broader arena of human society.

Reviewed by PHILLIP LEWIS, M.D.
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Author:Lewis, Phillip
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
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Date:Jun 22, 2006
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