Apology and Forgiveness

Charles (Chip) Hauss

September 2003

What are Apology and Forgiveness?

Apology and forgiveness are two sides of the same emotional coin. They reflect the constructive ways the oppressors and the oppressed in an intractable conflict can come to grips with the pain and suffering the conflict produced.

Making apologies and granting forgiveness are integral parts of any long-term resolution of an intractable conflict. Without them, it is all but impossible to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace.

The oppressors who committed human rights violations and other atrocities have to take responsibility for their actions and apologize. An apology has to be heartfelt and reflect true remorse for past actions. An apology can still matter if it is made by someone who is several generations removed from the abuses, something President William Clinton understood when he apologized for slavery, even though it had been brought to an end almost a century before he was born.

By the same token, the victims of those atrocities have to find the space in their hearts to forgive those who victimized them, even though the pain and suffering will never disappear. But forgiving is just as important as apologizing in any society which wishes to put its struggles behind it and create a more peaceful and cooperative future.

In fact, atrocities are committed by both sides in most intractable conflicts. As a result, there is a need for all parties to make apologies and grant forgiveness. Nonetheless, because most of those disputes are "asymmetric" in the sense that one side has a lot more power than the other, the burden of apologizing tends to lie primarily with one side and that of forgiving with the other, something we saw in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Why Apologies and Forgiveness Are Important

Additional insights into apology and forgiveness are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Apologies and forgiveness are important because intractable conflicts generate such deep and searing emotions. Even after the fighting stops, people still feel the pain, hurt, anger, fear, and hatred that produced the conflict and its horrors in the first place. Without apology and forgiveness, people remain locked in the value systems that produced the conflict. Little progress beyond a ceasefire can be made.

It is not easy, however, to apologize or forgive. To see that, consider two scenes from the remarkable documentary about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "Long Night's Journey Into Day."[1]

The film ends with the case of two policemen who had asked for amnesty for their killing of seven young black teenagers during the struggle for the townships in the 1980s. The apology made by the white officer was anything but heartfelt. He remained arrogant, and clearly was making the apology only in order to have a chance at gaining amnesty. His lack of sincerity was obvious; he was refused. The other officer was black. The film showed his hearing before the Commission, where it was clear that he truly felt remorse. Nonetheless, the mothers of the seven boys were still so grief-stricken almost 15 years after the murders that they broke down and had to be taken from the room.

The Commission then set up a meeting between the former officer and the seven women. The officer was in tears for much of the session. For much of the session, the mothers remained adamant in their refusal to forgive him. Finally, one of them noticed that his name means "prayer" in Xhosa, his native language. She told him that, as a Christian, she realized that she had a duty to forgive. At that point, you could feel the tension escape from the room. Those eight people, brought together in tragedy, were ready to move on with their personal and political lives.

The film opens with the story of the Biehl family. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright scholar working on the transition to democracy in South Africa in 1993 when she was killed by a mob of angry young black men in the Guguletu township outside of Cape Town, where the murder of those seven boys occurred. Amy's parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, decided not to seek vengeance but to continue their daughter's work by creating the Amy Biehl Foundation. Meanwhile, the four young men who killed Amy were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. They then petitioned the TRC for amnesty and release from prison. The Biehls decided to support their claim because of the young men's remorse and their own commitment to the broader process of reconciliation. The day before they testified, they met the families of two of the men. After the film was completed, the Amy Biehl Foundation not only paid for the two who had shown the most remorse to finish their education, they hired them after they graduated.

The mother of murder victim Amy Biehl, meeting with the family of one of Amy's killers, from http://www.irisfilms.org/longnight/ln-biehl.htm

To again see the importance of apology and forgiveness, consider the reactions of Germany and Japan toward the people they abused during World War II. Every German government since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949 has sought to establish good working relationships with Israel. German NGOs are actively engaged with Israel as well. All the major German political parties have active foundations which are major supporters of the social sciences and the peace process in Israel. The German national soccer team made a point of visiting Israel's Holocaust memorial when they went there to play an international match. Many -- though by no means all -- Germans have dug deeply into their own souls to try to figure out how their country could have produced the Third Reich, something the novelist Guenter Grass depicted in his novel Dog Years, in which the German teenagers born right after the war all get magic glasses that allow them to see what their parents did. The Israeli government has reciprocated. Although few politicians have ever formally forgiven the Germans, almost all of them work as comfortably with their German counterparts as they do with French, British, or American politicians.[2]

By contrast, the Japanese political elite are still divided over whether their government should apologize for some of its human-rights abuses, including forced prostitution in Korea, the "rape" of Nanjing, and the brutal treatment of British and Dutch prisoners of war. School textbooks, for instance, rarely even mention these events, whereas in Germany the rise and fall of Hitler's regime is a central theme in public education. Not surprisingly, most of the aging victims of those abuses continue to bear the Japanese considerable ill-will. While plenty of Jews are nowhere-near ready to "get over" the Holocaust, there is nothing in their public life that is anything like how the vitriol former British Prisoners of War demonstrate each year when they demand reparations for their treatment.

What Individuals, States, and Third Parties Can Do

As with everything involving reconciliation, apologizing and forgiving are, at their core, acts only individuals can perform. Of course, President Clinton could apologize for slavery or for failing to intervene in Rwanda on behalf of the American people. But his words are only empty rhetoric unless those same American people actually share those feelings.

But it is hard for people to apologize or forgive on their own. There are some remarkable human beings, like the Biehls, who can do so, but they are very much the exception to the rule. As a result, states and international NGOs normally have to take the lead and help average citizens see the need and then find the opportunity to apologize and forgive.

But Not Forget

There is an important but very common misperception about apology and forgiveness. When I talk to many of my fellow Jews about the need to forgive Germans so that we can "get beyond" the victim mentality so many of us still have following the Holocaust and the other trials we have suffered over the centuries, I'm frequently accused of saying I want them to forget those horrid events ever happened.

Absolutely not. We do have to remember the past as we consider ways of making certain holocausts never happen again. I live with the constant pain that much of my family was wiped out. We have pictures of relatives who were born at about the same time my mother was, in the early 1920s. She never met them because international travel was rare in the 1930s. She never will meet them because they are all dead. And I will never meet their children because they were never born. I once toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington with a group of CIA officers. The discussion we had during and after the visit was one of the most powerful and positive dialogues I've ever been a part of.

In other words, I can forgive because I can remember. And because I can forgive, I can work with ease with my German contemporaries, whose fathers may well have killed my cousins. And because so many Germans have apologized for what happened under the Nazis, they can work with people like me without feeling guilty for what their parents' generation did.

[1] Long Night's Journey Into Day, a documentary film written and directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann, produced by Frances Reid, Iris Films. Information about the film and a lot of associated information can be found at http://www.irisfilms.org/longnight/index.htm.

[2] For another view of German/Jew reconciliation, read about (or listen to) the "To Reflect and Trust" project described in Julia Chaitin's essay on Narratives and Storytelling. See also the project Web site at http://www.toreflectandtrust.org/ and listen to her interview segment on TRT here.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Apology and Forgiveness." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/apology-forgiveness>.

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