Monday, January 28, 2013

The politics of forgiveness

"For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you"  (Matthew 6:14 TNIV).

What our world today needs most urgently to solve many conflicts is "the politics of forgiveness." But you may ask: What does this phrase mean? How are politics and forgiveness related? And why is forgiveness so crucial?

I heard the phrase used recently in a sermon, thus I cannot claim it as my own. Nor, for that matter, did it originate with the preacher. This phrase was the not the theme of his message, but it did capture beautifully what he was saying about the need for forgiveness in every area of life, including politics.

The preacher dealt with the conclusion to the story of Joseph in Genesis 50, where Joseph who had become the prime minister of Egypt forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery when he was in his teens. Joseph then explained why all this had to happen:"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done."
Forgiveness is founded on love, and it is the most powerful weapon that anyone can possess. Mahatma Gandhi once affirmed, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Mark Twain described not only the power of forgiveness but also its beauty when he wrote,“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

The story is told of a Sandanista minister of government in Nicaragua who, when visiting the prisons that housed those who had killed thousands of people, noticed a former guard who had tortured him.

When the man realized that the minister had recognized him, he asked, "What are you going to do to me? What is your revenge?" The minister replied, "I forgive you, that is my revenge." He too realized the power of forgiveness. That is how he took his revenge.

Bishop Desmond Tutu relates that Nelson Mandela before he was arrested in 1962 was a relatively young but very angry man. He had founded the ANC's military wing. But when he was released in 1990, he surprised everyone because he wasno longer talking about revenge but about reconciliation and forgiveness.

For Mandela there was no further need for revenge. As C.S. Lewis explains, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Acts of forgiveness can and do occur in political contexts. Many questions relating to forgiveness are inevitably, although not exclusively, political: Who has the power to forgive? Who must ask for forgiveness? And who determines what is forgivable?

Forgiving is difficult, yet when people are forgiven, that is immensely liberating, not only for the one who is forgiven but also for the one who forgives. Lewis Smedes notes acutely, "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." 

Forgiveness is not just a personal or individual act that is limited to the private sphere. Increasingly today there is the realization that forgiveness is also necessary in the public sphere, thus also in the political realm.

The discourse about the politics of forgiveness is perhaps most evident in countries that were dictatorships at one time and are now in transition to democracy. Forgiveness is crucial if a country is to make that transition.

South Africa shows how this is possible. Mandela's willingness to forgive helped to avert a bloodbath as that country made the transition from the apartheid regime to black rule.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa provides an example of the politics of forgiveness. A similar commission was later established in Sierra Leone after the civil war there, as well as in Argentina, Brazil, Chili, Columbia, and many other countries.

Canada also practiced the politics of forgiveness when it set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the abuse of aboriginal children that was practiced in residential schools for many decades.

I have many questions about this awful poster: Is Jesus a Republican?
Is this really what Jesus would do? And where is forgiveness here?
Or are some Republicans incapable of even thinking about forgiveness?

The politics of forgiveness is urgently needed in the Unites States, where the polarization is so great that it has virtually become two nations as the rhetoric surrounding gun control illustrates.

The only way that equally polarized Republicans and Democrats can live together and stop their partisan sniping is through the politics of forgiveness. That may not happen any time soon, but is a willingness to forgive others too much to expect from politicians, many of whom call themselves Christians?

If the parents of Newtown who lost their children are able to forgive, why not these politicians? Or does politics trump their faith?

Yet these conflicts pale in comparison with those that exist elsewhere in the world. Americans, at least, have not yet started another civil war, although with the immense stockpile of weapons that already exists in that country, the tools for such a conflict are readily available.

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also require the politics of forgiveness. Is it impossible for Jews and Muslims to forgive each other and learn to live peacefully together as they did for many centuries?

Christians and Muslims in Nigeria have lived side-by-side for centuries as well until a jihad was foisted upon them that put pressure on the Christians to leave. and the latter, not surprisingly, retaliated. The politics of forgiveness is again needed to mend these broken relationships and end the violence..

Further examples can be found of similar conflicts all over the world that require the politics of forgiveness.  Yet there are also many examples where the politics of forgiveness has helped to heal old wounds, as the many truth and reconciliation commissions show.

In Northern Ireland a long peace process put an end to the "Troubles," about thirty years of armed conflict between the predominantly Catholic nationalists and the largely Protestant unionists in which thousands died.

Now Protestants and Catholics can live together there in relative peace. Only as both sides learned to forgive each other has this become possible.

The politics of forgiveness does work, even if it does so imperfectly as in the very complex environment of Northern Ireland. The many countries where truth and reconciliation commissions have been established have all had similar experiences.

But this imperfection does not negate the politics of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a long process that requires daily reinforcement whether practiced at the private or the public levels.

Public forgiveness is even messier because of the many people involved, but it is imperative that this form of politics takes root in every country of the world.

Conflicts will never cease, but how people handle them is crucial. Forgiveness is imperative for resolving these many conflicts.
Every religion preaches forgiveness. Thus this message is not unique to Christianity. And indeed all religions practice it, including the politics of forgiveness.

Let all of us pray for the strength to forgive at every level, whether public or private, so that healing may be brought to a broken world.


  1. Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Extremely helpful information particularly the last part.

  2. Very Liberating.