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The Pope and the Politics of Forgiveness

Suicide bombings, assassinations, and unilateral wars havenít brought us any closer to peace in the Middle East. Maybe itís time to listen to the Pope.

The Pope has consistently called the international community to seek peace through reconciliation.


The self-avowed realists of the world must have rolled their steely eyes when Pope John Paul II spoke out after a recent spin of the Middle East's cycle of revenge. The Pope declared that if they want peace, Israelis and Palestinians must engage in "mutual forgiveness to heal the terrible wounds inflicted by mutual violence."

The "realists" who make foreign policy in Western capitals might have reasonably askedówhat does forgiveness have to do with fixing problems in the down-and-dirty world of geopolitics?

One could also ask what suicide bombings, payback assassinations, and unilateral wars have to do with settling conflicts (rather than scores), given the recent track record on those fronts. But that aside, forgiveness has hardly been a no-show in this dangerous world.

The most celebrated example is South Africa. A brutal white minority regime fell, and black South Africans rose to power. Practically everyone assumed that blacks would do unto whites as whites had done unto them. They didn't.

Prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela appointed a truth commission, instead. He made his white jailer an honored guest at his 1994 presidential inauguration.

Forgiveness in world politics is real, but realists could be forgiven for not knowing it when they see it.
At his own inauguration, former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung stood beside several ex-autocrats who had once been more than happy to provide him with free lodging on death row. Kim is a Catholic who has spoken movingly of how he experienced Christ's love and forgiveness while waiting to be executed for his human-rights activism.

On that day of triumph in 1998, Kim proclaimed that the "politics of retaliation" was over. And it was.

A recent sign of forgiveness at work in the down-and-dirty world comes by way of East Timor, which tore itself away from Indonesia two years ago, in May. East Timor President Xanana Gusmao marked the anniversary by reducing prison sentences handed to three pro-Indonesian militiamen who had staged a massacre in which a priest and two nuns were among those killed.

East Timor is the most Catholic country in Asia, and Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. President Gusmao called his decision a "symbolic act of forgiveness," part of a quest for reconciliation with Muslims.

Forgiveness in world politics is real, but realists could be forgiven for not knowing it when they see it.

The concept of forgiveness is foreign to not only today's policy wonks, but to the longer tradition of Western political philosophy. Arguably, it was peripheral to Christian just-war teachings, until Pope John Paul's post-September 11, 2001 message, "No Peace Without Justice, No Justice Without Forgiveness."

Talk of forgiveness may seem untimely, following 9/11 and the grisly inter-ethnic clashes of the 1990s. The world in many ways has become a less forgiving place.

At the same time, un-forgiveness is clearly getting us nowhere. Israel's assassinations of Palestinian leaders, approved by Washington's realists, do little more to end the hostilities than Palestinian suicide bombs.

If the Middle East conflict ever ends, will it be because some people like Pope John Paul dared to imagine a future of forgiveness?
What's more, we are up against the limitations of conventional statecraft. Does anyone really think a piece of paper reluctantly signed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators (if any are still at the table) would settle the matter? Lasting peace will require a deeper healing of relationships between Jews and Arabs, through acts of mutual forgiveness.

The late King Hussein of Jordan engaged in such an act when he traveled to an Israeli border town where one of his soldiers had gone berserk, fatally shooting seven Israeli school girls who were on a class outing in 1997. Hussein visited the homes of the Israeli families and knelt before the parents, begging forgiveness.

Embraced by grieving mothers and fathers, Hussein went on to repair Jordanian-Israeli relations that had sunk to their lowest point since the signing of a 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

More recently, after Israel's assassinations, 60 Palestinian intellectuals issued a plea for their people not to retaliate. It was a hint of forgiveness, a gesture of forbearance from revengeówhich "opens the door to a future that will not repeat the old crimes," writes social ethicist Donald W. Shriver.

If that horrendous conflict ever ends, will it be because of more suicide bombs, more assassinations, and more "realism," or because some people like Pope John Paul dared to imagine a future of forgiveness?

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June 22, 2004

William Bole is a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and co-author of "Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace," written with Robert T. Hennemeyer and Drew Christiansen, S.J.. He lives in Andover, Massachusetts and is a Contributing Editor of Godspy.

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06.22.04   Godspy says:
Suicide bombings, assassinations, and unilateral wars havenít brought us any closer to peace in the Middle East. Maybe itís time to listen to the Pope.

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