Summary of "The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness"

Summary of

The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness

by Mark Amstutz

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Amstutz, Mark. The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Although regimes have rarely explicitly pursued such a strategy, this book argues for the importance of forgiveness in political ethics, especially when dealing with collective wrongdoing by political regimes. Amstutz contends that the international community's focus on retributive justice for past offenses has prevented a more active consideration of restorative justice approaches such as truth commissions, public apology and repentance, reparations, and ultimately forgiveness and the lifting of deserved penalties. His central contention is that "the most expeditious and effective way of reckoning with past collective offenses is by intentionally seeking to foster political healing through reconciliation based on moral rehabilitation of antagonists." (85) He argues that the "restoration of communal bonds and the promotion of national reconciliation can only occur when individuals and groups are deeply committed to national solidarity and are willing to treat offenders or enemies as people entitled to human dignity." (15) Forgiveness is powerful because it combines backward-looking accountability and forward-looking reconciliation. To examine the relative power of forgiving without forgetting, Amstutz looks at the cases of Argentina, Chile, Northern Ireland, and South Africa.

He proceeds to assess the ability of some common means of dealing with a history of human rights abuses to promote justice and reconciliation, i.e. amnesia, amnesty, truth telling, reparations, purges, and trials. While each strategy may contribute to overcoming the past, none is sufficient for healing and rebuilding relationships. "If societies are to fully confront and overcome past evils and injustices, they will have to come to grips with the anger, alienation, distrust, and hatred that continue to fester, even after applying some of these strategies. Forgiveness is an alternative. "Unlike other transitional justice strategies examined here, political forgiveness seeks to overcome the cycle of anger and revenge through the moral reformation of attitudes and dispositions, the "purification of memory," and the restoration of relationships through reconciliation." (40) While forgiveness is sometimes viewed as either inappropriate at the group level or simply a code word for forgetting, Amstutz avoids this conception. Rather, he considers it to be a demanding ethic. "At a minimum, offenders must be prepared to disclose and acknowledge the truth about wrongdoing, admit their own culpability, express remorse, and offer reparations; for their part, victims must avoid vengeance, express empathy toward offenders, and forgo claims of justice." (12)

Amstutz then undertakes an exploration of the concept of forgiveness, emphasizing the Judeo-Christian tradition. It would have been interesting to see further elaboration of other cultural/religious traditions, as some may question the universality of claims regarding forgiveness (with the exception of ubuntu in South Africa, the case studies do not address this gap either). He goes on to explore different theoretical conceptions of forgiveness: the classical view involving an interactive process amongst antagonists; the therapeutic perspective, which sees forgiveness as the unilateral lifting of emotional burdens by the victim; and virtue ethics, which emphasizes forgiveness as personal virtue or moral duty.

Amstutz proceeds to make the case that it is appropriate to consider collective, or political, forgiveness. Although some aspects of guilt do not translate well from the personal to collective, others do. For example, "[p]olitical guilt arises from the direct or indirect culpability of government officials for unjust public policies that result in gross violations of human rights." (72) He sees truth as essential to this process because collective forgiveness requires consensus on the nature, causes, and responsibility for events of the past. Remorse, the rejection of vengeance, empathy, and foregoing, at least in some measure, punishment are other important components. Political leaders can act as moral agents on behalf of the collective and, therefore, give and receive forgiveness.

Amstutz examines peace processes in Argentina, Chile, Northern Ireland, and South Africa and finds all wanting, at least to some degree, in fostering political forgiveness. Northern Ireland has made the least progress as the Good Friday Accords ignored the past, thereby foregoing any chance of bridging historic differences. Argentina fell short by focusing too much on backward-looking, retributive efforts and neglecting forward-looking steps toward national unity and moral reconstruction. In Chile, Amstutz finds that despite the truth commission, left and right remain fundamentally divided and the government has not prioritized reconciliation as much as necessary for forgiveness. Amstutz finds the most promise in South Africa, where the scope of information produced and the widespread engagement of society has allowed it, of any example, to facilitate peace and harmony.