Making Wrong Right: On Whose Terms?

by Mary Hope Schwoebel

George Mason University

"All wars, including Vietnam, are a mixture of good and evil, and we are still sorting out the war in Vietnam. We cannot undo history, we cannot restore lives, but we can apologize and we can forgive." Dr. Donald Shriver, university professor and Presbyterian pastor, shared these words after a poignant video showing the reunion of three American soldiers, who were recently honored by the Pentagon for their lifesaving actions during the 1968 My Lai massacre, with the people whose lives they had saved. During a presentation entitled, "Making Wrong Right: Forgiveness in Politics," at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution on April 15, Dr. Shriver outlined the ingredients that are required for righting past political wrongs. Four ingredients go into the recipe for justice and reconciliation, according to Dr. Shriver. The first is the acknowledgement that violence and injustice have occurred. The second is forbearance from vengeance and retribution. The third is empathy. And the fourth and final ingredient is forgiveness and repentance. But are repentance and forgiveness meaningful and necessary to perpetrators and victims of violent conflict and injustice alike? And are they enough for victims? The answers to these questions were offered recently by a speaker at a seminar on reconstruction and reconciliation in post-conflict societies." Following a presentation by a Rwandan who had witnessed massacres of men, women and children of his tribe, several individuals in the audience suggested to the speaker that he must forgive the perpetrators of the massacres in order to bring about reconciliation. He responded, "I do not forget and I do not forgive; but I do get on with rebuilding my life and rebuilding my country." Although the first three ingredients in Dr. Shriver's recipe for righting political wrongs seem unequivocal, the Rwandan showed how the fourth may be problematic. The concepts of repentance and forgiveness may or may not be universal ones. This is not to say that the perpetrators of violence and injustice should not offer apologies. They should, but they should do so knowing that the apologies may not be meaningful to the victims, who are not obliged to forgive. In situations of ongoing conflict, structural changes may have to be made before forgiveness is possible. In post-conflict situations, restitution and reparation may be necessary.

Forgiveness may be less about interpersonal relations, and more about intrapersonal restoration. Forgiveness may be necessary for some people in order to continue to live and to grow, so that anger does not stunt growth and undermine life - whether the injustice continues to exist or not. Forgiveness, in this sense, is something that one engages in for oneself. For others, forgiveness may not be necessary to "get on with rebuilding [one's] life and [one's] country." Ultimately only the victims of violence and injustice can decide whether forgiveness of their persecutors is necessary, meaningful or important.

"We cannot change history, but we can change our relation to it," said Dr. Shriver. One of the ways we can do so is by accepting that it is the victims who should determine how wrongs done to them should be righted -not the perpetrators, and not third parties. We should not take it upon ourselves to advise the victims to forgive, nor should we advise the perpetrators how to make things right for those whom they have wronged.