On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working on—of all things—a book about forgiveness and international politics.
I was at my desk at home, and spoke briefly by phone with a Georgetown University colleague who said she had just overheard something about a plane crash in Lower Manhattan. Oblivious to the scale of the catastrophe and the cascading irony of my theme, I kept my head down and dug into case studies of political forgiveness around the world.
That I might be onto an idea whose time had passed almost as soon as it arrived did not set in until the next day when I heard from friends who had seen or been close to the horror in my hometown. They were, as they had every right to be, unforgiving.
Did it make sense to continue talking about forgiveness as a geopolitical option, as I and many others did? A decade into the war on terrorism, is forgiveness a useful way to think about international relations and conflict resolution?
A Political Theology of Forgiveness
The answer depends on your concept or theology of forgiveness.
There is the pietistic view that assigns forgiveness to the realm of personal faith. In this spiritual milieu, forgiveness is an unconditional act. It happens when one person musters the inner strength to say to another, “You’re forgiven,” or otherwise buries the hatchet, once and for all.
This concept of forgiveness does not travel well from faith to politics. No one should hold her breath waiting for such a sweeping, unilateral act of mercy involving extremely fractious groups. And it’s easy to miss the real story, when forgiveness is understood in that literal fashion.
Then there is a political theology of forgiveness articulated by such thinkers as Donald W. Shriver, Jr., in his 1995 book, An Ethic for Enemies. In his rendering, forgiveness is not a single act; it is a process with a range of transactions that look to a new political future together.
Truth—the acknowledgment of wrongdoing or misguided thinking—is one such transaction. Another is the decision to steer away from revenge and retribution.
There should also be clear signals of a desire to eventually repair the fractured social relationship. In the years leading up to 9/11, such strategies helped transform conflicts in places ranging from South Africa and Rwanda to Northern Ireland and South Korea.
Conditionality is a must, in the politics of forgiveness.
For instance, at the end of white minority rule in 1994, South Africa’s black leadership offered amnesty to human-rights violators—with one stipulation. Those perpetrators had to publicly divulge the truth about atrocities committed under the apartheid system. Without conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution.
What has altered this picture distinctly since 9/11 is the challenge of Islamic extremism. Is forgiveness an improbable way to conceive of a response to such a worldwide threat? Perhaps, but some practitioners of conflict resolution have found ways to begin reconciling locally with radical Islamic movements.
Among the most unlikely of them is General Raymundo Ferrer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, whose command covers most of Mindanao, the nation’s second-largest island. The Filipino military has waged counterinsurgency campaigns against Islamic rebels in the southern islands since the 1970s, working hand in glove with the United States military since 9/11. During this past decade, however, Ferrer began to realize that an absolute reliance on hard power was foolish and misguided.
In his rethinking, the notion of a final military victory by the Armed Forces became far-fetched. He began repairing ties with long-aggrieved Muslims in little ways. For example, Ferrer ordered his troops to point their guns down and smile at Muslims when passing them on the street, as political scientist Maryann Cusimano Love describes in a case study published earlier this year by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Ferrer himself began striking up conversations on the sidewalks near his post in Basilian, Mindanao, meeting the locals, among them a Catholic social worker who wasted no time linking him up with interfaith peace activists. These are Christians and Muslims who had begun holding grassroots interreligious dialogues between members of their communities years earlier.
They, in turn, encouraged him to sign up for “peacebuilding” training conducted jointly by Catholic Relief Services, the American-based international aid organization, and the Mindanao Peace Institute, a Mennonite-Catholic collaboration. Ferrer did so in 2005, in the face of resistance from both fellow generals and church human-rights activists who distrusted the military.
Since then the general has sent his colonels to classes in “nonviolent communications,” mediation, religion and culture, reconciliation, and other peaceable subjects.
Love’s case study throws light on the possible utility of forgiveness—understood as a way of reconstructing social relationships, piece by piece. Stemming from his acknowledgment of misguided thinking, Ferrer’s overtures were essentially signals of his commitment to rebuild relations with Muslim populations. Those are transactions of political forgiveness.
Together, the Filipino government and Islamic rebel movements have made strides toward reconciliation, but this story continues, partly due to the splintered nature of those insurgencies.
Approaches involving truth telling, forbearance from revenge, and empathy have entered into the toolkits of many religious and secular peacemakers around the world. Whether these initiatives multiply will depend in part on leaders like a Filipino general who is not afraid to wield the soft power of forgiveness and reconciliation.