Forgiveness in politics? Forgiveness can surely be extended to a skeptic for doubting it. In the West, forgiveness had played little role in the history of political thought and is seldom voiced in contemporary politics.
A couple of years ago I published a book on reconciliation in global politics whose last chapter argued for the possibility of forgiveness in the wake of civil war, dictatorship, and even genocide. Barry Gewen, reviewing the book in the New Republic, offered a broadly favorable assessment but questioned forgiveness. Admitting to a “frisson of doubt,” he worried that exemplars of forgiveness are rare saints, should not be imitated, and manifest a zeal that undermines a politics of compromise. Other skeptics of forgiveness – most prevalent in the West – take the practice to task for violating victims’ autonomy, for being religious (and hence not having a place in politics), being pressured on victims, undermining just punishment, and being just too difficult.
I wanted to prove otherwise. But it could only be done empirically. I had to go to a country, talk to ordinary victims of violence, and then assess how common forgiveness is. With financial support from the Fetzer Institute, I traveled to Uganda over this past year and carried out a survey of 640 respondents, 10 focus groups, and 27 interviews with individuals. The Refugee Law Project was my able partner and organized the project logistically. We conducted the research in five different districts were war has taken place.
The initial results are startling. First, I looked at attitudes. 61% of respondents would forgive rebels; 54% would forgive members of the Ugandan military. Neither number approaches unanimity but both are far higher than the “rare saint” account would suggest. 86% said that “it is good for victims to practice forgiveness in the aftermath of armed violence.” They did not only advocate forgiveness and also gave heavy support for trials, accountability, and apology. They did not think forgiveness and punishment were contradictory,
I then looked at the practice of forgiveness among those who had experienced violence, who turned out to be some 90% of the respondents. 68% said that they had forgiven their perpetrator. Things got a bit more complex in that only 28% of practitioners of forgiveness had forgiven through words; others forgave “from the heart,” meaning that their perpetrator was no longer around to be forgiven face to face.
Despite this complexity, though, Ugandans support forgiveness in attitude and practice for more commonly than the “rare saint” model would predict. Why do Ugandans forgive? 82% pointed to their religious beliefs, in contrast to 45% tribal traditions and 22% political beliefs. Other questions showed Ugandans to be a very religious people. They also cited psychological benefits such as making them less anxious and angry. Interestingly, 58% said that they forgave because it would help the perpetrator to heal.
While some 70% said that they were encouraged to forgive by a religious leader, very few (less than 7%) said that they felt pressured to forgive by anyone – one of the key charges of the skeptics – whether it be a friend or family member or a religious or political leader.
I have only begun to analyze the results. I would like to argue, though, that they point to much greater potential for forgiveness in political life than is ordinarily allowed in the West.