Some, like Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the infamous twin experiments at Auschwitz, are publicly known: a Holocaust survivor, she reaffirmed that yes, she had forgiven Dr. Mengele and other Nazis who killed her parents and terrorized her childhood. Jean-Paul Sambutu, a Rwandan singer, is known for his voice, but perhaps not for his forgiving those who killed his parents, brothers, and a sister in the genocide. Sambutu sang beautifully a capella in the hall, which was constructed around an ancient altar to peace, the Ara Pacis, dating back to the Roman Emperor Augustus. And the convener of the event, Maria Nicoletta Gaida, though not a victim, is well known in Italy as a charismatic former actress and peace activist.
The other speakers included a Palestinian man once shot (in the leg) and jailed by the Israeli government. His brother was killed by Israeli soldiers, and he now leads non-violent resistance to the occupation. He was partnered with an Israeli leader of the joint Israeli-Palestinian Parents Circle, whose son was killed by Palestinians. They hugged after speaking; she told me later that he was wearing her son’s jacket. The official governmental leaders Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas were initially expected at this event as well, but the announced illness of the latter made the former unwilling to come un-partnered.
An Iraqi-American who has returned to Iraq spoke, as did a Pakistani peace activist, a Sudanese, a Kosovar, a Serb, a Vietnamese story-teller paired with Ron Kovic, the wounded U.S. Vietnam veteran and author, a First Nations church-related school abuse survivor from Canada, and a man from Indonesia. Several Latin Americans spoke, including a former FARC commander from Colombia and the survivor of a massacre in Guatemala. This is not a full listing of those who spoke or were present: all were persons of great depth and understanding. Overall, the event was incredibly powerful and humbling.
How could the mayor of Rome, despite his neo-fascist past, not respond? He did so with a passionate and personal speech about reconciliation and peace and the hope that Rome itself may be known for encouraging efforts like this Ara Pacis Initiative. His remarks were not free of politics, the better to illustrate the challenges of seeking a moral foundation for the use of power, a hope of all participants.
The public and political places of forgiveness, repentance, dignity, and reconciliation are well known now in the practices of Truth and Reconciliation commissions, not only in South Africa, but in various quasi-judicial forms in El Salvador, Cambodia, and several other nations. A recent Truth Commission on Conscience and War held in New York looked at a particular part of the Iraq and Afghan wars with testimony of veterans turned conscientious objectors. The pre-supposition of all such efforts is the acknowledgement, even confession, of injustice. The hope in each is that truth is essential to healing of both victim and perpetrator, and that such efforts at reconciliation can help peoples as well as individuals regain parts of the future blocked by past atrocity and suffering.
The academics in the room included Donald Shriver, Presbyterian ethicist and former president of Union Seminary (N.Y.), whose book, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford, 1995), is one of the seminal treatments of this subject. His model, based on extensive historical analysis of U.S. African and Native American relations, and German and Japanese-American relations, has four sometimes overlapping elements: (1) acceptance of the truth of injustice, acknowledging different perspectives on that truth; (2) renunciation of vengeance, in the shared search for appropriate reparation; (3) the capacity for empathy, key to understanding shared humanity; and (4) a hope for reconciliation, even when realism would see tolerant co-existence as an achievement. Shriver’s recommendation that “justice” be added to the title of the charter of the new Council was accepted, underlining the fact that history is not to be forgotten but transformed.
For Presbyterians and others, there are several ideas to keep in mind for the future:
(1) These ideas of how justice and reconciliation can come through forgiveness, confession, repentance — applied beyond a sacramental or liturgical setting — are gaining currency. Except in the study paper on the Iraq war “commended for study” by the 2008 General Assembly, there is little treatment of these themes in Presbyterian social witness policy and social teaching. If Peacemaking: The Believer’s Calling (1980), the foundation peacemaking policy, were to be updated (as several overtures propose), this new thinking might be addressed more fully.
(2) Christian thinking and practice has been very fruitful here. A Presbyterian diplomat in a Phoenix congregation, for example, provided some of the first funding to support the South African Truth and Reconciliation initiative. Going back to Hannah Arendt’s book, The Human Condition (1958), the debate over the relevance of Jesus’s teaching speaks deeply to human aspirations for freedom and peace. Can we “name and claim” the power and truth of our faith in this area, and what does it say to our witness at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C.?
(3) The forgiveness and dignity initiatives encourage inter-religious dialogues not to avoid the tough issues of on-going injustice and systemic violence. While “forgiveness” can be seen as
“too Christian” and hence tainted from some perspectives, all traditions have dimensions that need to be accessed if reconciliation is to be achieved.
(4) Liturgical expression of the full range of justice, dignity, forgiveness (even pre-emptive forgiveness!), repentance, and reconciliation still has a place. In my own congregation, in the Declaration of Pardon, we often said: “In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, renewed, and restored.” Others may stress the healing of wounds and memories of trauma. Our worship may in fact show us the linkages between justice, moral judgment, and law (essential to human rights) and the processes of grace and transformation where the Spirit gives us more than law (even in its guiding forms).
The role of a single determined individual is also key. Maria Nicoletta Gaida considers the work of promoting the Council on Dignity, Justice, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation to be a calling from God. Her commitment to transform the heritage of even the Roman empire is seen in her work with the contemporary Romans who have physically restored the once-fragmented relic of an ancient altar. Her vision, now shared by a dedicated group from across the world, seeks to transform that ancient symbol of Augustus’s victory over enemies into an interfaith symbol of victory over enemy-making.
CHRISTian IOSSO is coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He was invited to the initial meeting of the Ara Pacis Initiative at the suggestion of Donald Shriver with the hope that not only Presbyterians but other member communions in the (U.S.) National and World Councils of Churches and the World Communion of Reformed Churches might also be made aware of this effort.