Riflessioni sul Perdono, sulla Dignità e sulla Riconciliazione

Michael Henderson

1. I negoziati di pace, generalmente, sono incentrati sulle dimensioni politica ed economica. Quale è la Sua percezione della necessità di toccare aspetti più profondi e genuini della riconciliazione e come si può ottenere questo?

It is often history and memories and even myths that have the power to destroy agreements which when reached seem reasonable and even fair at the time. When the past and what participants feel about it is not taken into account the seeds of new disagreements are sewn, if not immediately, then in succeeding generations. History healed gives greater chances that agreements will be honoured over time.
As one whose family is inextricably involved in Irish history I am well aware of this. The way a person talks, the names he uses for his towns, the things he values, his attitude to the police and to the army, all natural to him, are seen differently by the other side. The difficulty today’s generations often face is how to weigh up their present actions, even at the negotiating table, against the challenge of being faithful to their forbears. This often unspoken dilemma has to be addressed if permanent solutions are sought. Such considerations are equally valid in the Balkans, in Kenya and the Sudan, in Korea and Japan, in the United States. In fact, it would be hard to find a place where they aren’t.
As a Protestant whose family dominated the Catholic majority in Ireland, I have baggage I bring with me in any meeting with nationalists from the island. As a white man working in Oregon I could not escape the effect of the colour of my skin on blacks I met in that state, even when working for better race relations. Coming from a former colonialist land, Britain, my heritage was always an element in any interaction with people in countries which we ruled. Fortunately in many if not most situations forgiveness and time and sometimes wise policies have softened attitudes. But wherever negotiations are conducted this human factor, unseen, is an element that must be taken into consideration.
This can seem all very personal but at the same time it is the remembered slights from the past, even a tone of voice, that the recipients recall when suggestions are put forward by ‘the others’. Even when they meet at international conferences. This is where forgiveness is vital. And, I would suggest, even more importantly, repentance. Our prime minister Tony Blair was widely criticized at home for apologizing to the Irish for Britain’s role in the famine in Ireland a century and a half ago but there is no doubt that his words were widely appreciated in Ireland as a whole and added to the credibility of the British government among Catholics in negotiations over the future of Northern Ireland. Addressing past hurts, whether it effects present economic or political issues or not, have to be borne in mind. Even in Zimbabwe.
This is not political correctness, a putdown some use to discount apologies, but a recognition of unspoken influences. This is an area where Germany has given a powerful demonstration of sensitivity over the years, in, for example Willy Brandt spontaneously kneeling before the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto in 1970 as if to express repentance for Nazi crimes against the Jews.’ Or the words of Richard von Weizaecker, when president, ‘Our forefathers left us a stupendous legacy. Guilty or not guilty, young or old, all Germans must accept this past history. We are responsible for what we make of this legacy and how we relate to it. One who wishes to close his eyes to the past becomes also blind to the present. He who refuses to register in memory past acts of inhumanity runs the risk of being infected again by the same disease.’ Such acts, such words. create trust, an essential element in negotiations.
A few years ago a retired British diplomat led a British group on a mission to China. He told his Chinese hosts that he wanted the group to be taken to the old ruined summer place of the Emperor. This was a palace outside the city which a British and French force looted and destroyed in 1860 as the final act of humiliation of China at the end of the second Opium War. His hosts protested that there was nothing to see, it was just a park. He persisted and the British group went and stood for some minutes recalling what had happened. A man who was with them told me that the whole atmosphere between hosts and guests altered from that moment. ‘We only learned later,’ he said, ‘that the Chinese often find spoken apologies embarrassing because they then feel they owe something in return. The simple gesture of acknowledgment is very much appreciated and heals the past.’
Our family became involved in reconciliation and peacemaking through facing our past. In 1922 my grandfather was told to leave Ireland or be shot. That is why I am English. At the international conference center in Caux, Switzerland in 1947 my mother reacted strongly when she heard an Irish Catholic senator, Eleanor Butler, talk about European unity. ‘Who is this woman talking about unity and she chucked me out of my country,’ was her reaction. But in the spirit of that center she apologized to Senator Butler, for our behaviour to Catholics over the years. They became friends and worked together. Senator Butler said shortly afterwards, ‘I come from a nation of good haters. We enjoy feuds and we love fighting, almost for the fun of it. But in these last months I have had to do something I very much dislike. I have had to make some honest apologies for viewpoints which have divided instead of uniting me to other nations and other parts of my own nation. In every case new unity was born between myself and those from whom I had been separated.’ Senator Butler went on to become a founder of the Glencree center and my mother and the whole family took up the challenge of peace building.
As societies are becoming more open and people are more knowledgeable about each other and each other’s past, and where grievances, real or imagined, have unlimited exposure, this element of healing the past becomes increasingly important.
Today every grievance or unhealed atrocity from the past is not only headlined but immediately flashed round the world and, it would seem, be googleable in perpetuity. We need protection. Just as we fireproof garments we need to hateproof our spirits. It is too easy for some new atrocity or even unguarded remark to destroy the healing work of years. That is where forgiveness and hateproofing have their most important role. In recent months the people of Northern Ireland have demonstrated this capacity for being hateproof powerfully in the face of considerable provocation.

2. Quali sono le condizioni nelle quali, al di là dell’assicurare gli interessi della parti in conflitto, può essere stabilito un processo incentrato su un senso di equità e dignità?

In London’s business district there is an old church, St. Ethelburga’s, which was destroyed by the IRA and re-opened in 2002 as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Over the following years it did excellent work but it soon recognized a situation that faces many who enter in good-willed fashion into dialogues with faiths other than their own. The fact that it was a Christian church meant that Christians were always the hosts and non-Christians the guests, which could put limits on frank discussion.
In a deliberate attempt to create a space where religious dialogue could exist between equals, a ‘tent’ was built which through its architecture recalls the desert from which many faiths have emerged. Its opening was attended by the Prince of Wales and leaders of nine faith traditions in Britain who all brought to the occasion copies of their respective holy books. Its manifesto, ‘Sharing the Space’, proclaims: ‘Christian and Muslim scriptures endorse neither coercion nor violence in pursuit of their invitational missions. However, the reality round the world is that tension between Christianity and Islam is expressed in form of violence and other forms of conflict and repression. No conversation that ignores the reality of these issues will be fully grounded in truth.’
So a space where participants feel at home is essential.
This where a secluded house in England played a part in hosting off-the-record talks between South African Afrikaner and black leaders in preparing the changeover to majority rule in that country. In fact one Afrikaner told me about a certain black leader he had got to know, ‘I would trust my life to him.’ This is where the seclusion and length of stay at Camp David helped to produce the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. It is what has been lost in the British Commonwealth since the regular weekend retreats away from the conference agenda have been done away with. In such relaxed encounters people who have perhaps been stereotyped in the media reveal their human face.
Places are needed, like Caux, where, for instance, Germans and Japanese met with former enemies. A venue where guests feel they are equal, that confidentiality is respected, faith traditions are honoured, and even meal times and menus take their interests into account. Above all a place where everyone feels they are heard and listened to. As Caux demonstrates and Initiatives of Change has emphasized in its work in bringing people together, particularly through Hope in the Cities in the field of race relations, there is a need for ‘honest conversation’. Honest conversation is defined as ‘conversation that includes everyone and excludes no-one; focuses not on identifying enemies, but working together towards solutions; affirms the best and does not confirm the worst; looks for what is right rather than who is right; and moves beyond blame and personal pain to constructive action.’

3. Quanto il perdono è essenziale alla dimensione della riconciliazione? Alla radice della Sua cultura politica e/o della Sua fede religiosa quali sono i principi che implicano o escludono il perdono? Quali versi o detti che fanno parte del Suo personale patrimonio spirituale possono, nella sua opinione, avere un significato universale

You can have some level of reconciliation without forgiveness, or at least without explicit forgiveness. Indeed an attitude of forgiveness can sometimes appear to come from an attitude of superiority and asking for forgiveness for some may be too much an admission of guilt. Political considerations alone can sometimes dictate a coming together of parties in conflict, for instance a desire for peace after prolonged war weariness. But forgiveness is always desirable because it can wipe the slate clean and address the past.
Even more important than forgiveness, however, as I have touched on, is repentance. It is often much harder. Forgiveness and repentance are at the heart of my Christian faith. And are at the heart of the teaching of all religions. They are a uniting element on which people of all religionse can draw. A Christian prays regularly, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ This implies that we are prepared to treat others as we would have God treat us. As Christians we are also aware of Jesus’ words: ‘Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye?’ and the challenge that followed: ‘Thou hypocrite first cast out the beam out of thine own eye.’
Expressed in modern secular terms: Why do you highlight the small faults in your brother while ignoring the larger ones in your own life. Start with yourself.’ It is vital to realize that we are in a world where not everyone accepts the claim of or uses the language of religion. Many acts are done, and have been done over centuries, by people supposedly of faith which discredit their religions’ professed beliefs. Therefore we should word our approaches to the subject in a way that also appeals to those who are non-religious.
In the ending of war in Northern Ireland there was nothing about forgiveness in the key principles agreed. Those included a decision to abide by the ballot box rather than the bullet, a willingness to a total and verifiable disarmament, or ‘decommissioning’ of weapons, of all paramilitary organisations, a renunciation of the use of force to influence the outcome of all-party negotiations, and action to prevent ‘punishment’ killings and beatings. The acceptance of these ‘preconditions’ was essential to ending the violence and producing a settlement. But as former Senator George Mitchell underlined, what was needed as fundamentally was a decommissioning of mindsets. It is in the maintaining of the agreement in the face of provocation where forgiveness and repentance come into play.
An essential element in any attempts to bring people together is listening, the ability to hear what lies behind the words and the expressions and identify the common interests. This was the strength of former US Senator George Mitchell in his work for peace in Northern Ireland. It is significant that in the reporting on his more recent Middle East efforts newspapers emphasize his ‘listening’. As he said at the start of his work in Northern Ireland he said, ‘At the heart of all the problems is mistrust. Each disbelieves the other. Each assumes the worst about the other.’ His six principles of non-violence became the ground rules all involved in negotiation had to affirm. Patience, persistence and an ear for what was being said and not being said was the key to his success. I don’t know that he ever used the word forgiveness.
The effectiveness of the work done over the years at and through the Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland is based on a very simple premise which I met when I first went there as a teenager. It could be called religious but it is expressed universally: If you want to equip yourself to be a peacemaker you have to start with yourself and your own nation and take blame of others out of the equation. It was at Caux just after World War II that Germans and then Japanese, as I mentioned, were welcomed as equals for the first time at an international conference. At the very first conference in 1946 priority was given to making sure Germans were present. And when they came they were welcomed by a French chorus singing in German. Other nations present including those who had suffered at their hands were encouraged to accept some shared responsibility for the past. Once trust was established the Germans were quickly open to accepting their own failures.
A memorable part was played by a French woman, Irene Laure, who had worked in the resistance when the Germans occupied her country and whose son had been tortured. At Caux in 1947, as I describe in No Enemy To Conquer, she asked the Germans for forgiveness of her hatred. Her action is credited by some historians as having a key role in laying the groundwork for the reconciliation between France and Germany we now take for granted.

4. Il perdono richiede qualche forma di pentimento da parte di coloro a cui il perdono viene offerto? Il perdono ha condizioni o è senza condizioni?

On a personal level there must always be a certain ambiguity about forgiveness. I have come to the conclusion that one cannot make rules about it. Some will forgive where others won’t and may even feel that it is wrong to do so. Some faiths set conditions, including repentance and remorse and even restitution. In the legal system of some countries such matters are taken into account. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set certain conditions which had to be fulfilled before amnesty was granted. Possibly the most important requirement of the TRC before amnesty was granted was complete disclosure. The mother of Steve Biko, who died in prison made the point that as a Christian she was ready to forgive but she also needed to know what happened to her son. On restitution, Archbishop Tutu famously made the point to Dutch Reformed Church leaders in South Africa that if a pen was stolen it wasn’t enough to apologize, the pen had to be given back.
When applied to national apology or repentance it is best where possible to prepare the public for such actions which may seem to involve a lot of people who haven’t been consulted. More than ten years ago I attended a National Sorry Day in Australia which had been called to apologize for the way part Aboriginal children (the stolen generation) had been taken away from their families by government action. The prime minister of the day was not willing to accept the need for an apology. But by last year after dedicated work the government and the country was ready and there was a 70% support nationwide, and all party support for the moving apology made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Parliament. And the Aboriginal people had been thoroughly included in the plan for and the wording of a national monument to the stolen generation.
Take race relations. A statement of apology or repentance can show that the hurt of years has registered. Sometimes a date, an anniversary, makes it an appropriate time for a public gesture. Such as the 2007 bicentenary commemoration of legislation that ended the slave trade which was held in Westminster Abbey. In 1999 the city of Liverpool, as the last act before the millennium, passed a unanimous motion recognizing the ‘trade in human misery’ through which it had become rich. In Oregon when we wanted to reach out to the non-white population who sometimes felt no one was listening to them we seized on the opportunity of the 150th anniversary of legislation excluding blacks from Oregon (legislation later repealed) to hold a Day of Acknowledgment in the state capital, Salem.
Sometimes a government action provides the setting. It was a moving moment when in 1990 the US Attorney General knelt before a 107-year-old Japanese American and presented him with a cheque for $20,000 and an apology for the illegal interning of Japanese American in World War II. It had been authorized by Congress. The apology and restitution went to sixty-five thousand surviving internees. The venue was also appropriate: the Justice Department. Similarly, on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Chapultepec President Truman laid a wreath to Mexico’s tomb of the ‘Boy Heroes’. Truman’s biographer, David McCullough wrote that the president’s act ‘did more to improve Mexican-American relations than had any president in a century.

Based on your experience on working with reconciliation and forgiveness what are the structure and activities you would suggest for a universal council on reconciliation?

In so far as suggesting how a universal council might be set up I would leave that to those who have more experience of organizing society than I do. They must draw on best practice and on the lessons from other think tanks who have studied the issues. I think, for instance, of the work of Donald Shriver. As far as possible its members should be able to draw on their own first hand experience and mirror in their own lives what they want to see in others. I would also suggest that the importance of forgiveness not be inflated. It is just one element, albeit a significant one.
One can say that today’s Europe is built on forgiveness. Anyone who died sixty years ago and awoke today would be amazed at its undefended borders. Many elements played their part. It was produced by wise statesmanship from men like Adenauer and Schuman and Monnet that enlisted public and parliamentary support; by generous economic policies from the United States which refused to go the route of revenge and the pastoralization of Germany and produced the Marshall Plan; and accompanied by forgiveness and repentance furthered by centres like that in Caux, Switzerland which today carries on that work it started in 1946.
Mahatma Gandhi made an interesting remark to an English friend of mine many years ago. It was in the 1940s and this friend had told Gandhi about some startling changes in attitude of a number of senior British officials in the Northwest Frontier province. They had apologized to Indians working under them for their superior attitude with the result that unlike in the rest of India at that pre-independence time there was peace in the Frontier, with blood feuds being settled and the leader of a radical wing renouncing violence. Gandhi was sceptical but, having had the situation investigated and finding it was true, said, ‘Politics has become like a great game of chess. Both sides know the value of the pieces and the moves to make. But when men’s motives and aims are changed, as these have been, the board is upset and we can begin again.’
That is a small example of the political power and ramifications of repentance and forgiveness.
I am grateful that the Holy Father, at celebrations marking the anniversary of the start of World War II, called for a renewed effort to build a culture of peace for future generations. ‘In this perspective,’ said Pope Benedict XVI, ‘what is especially important is the contributions that religions can and must make in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation against violence, racism, totalitarianism and the extremism that disfigures the image of the Creator in man, erase God from the horizon and, consequently, lead to the scorn of man himself.’

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