Forgiveness in Politics? Surprising Findings From Uganda

On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, we might pose the question: Does his favorite theme of mercy have relevance for politics? A report that I recently completed in partnership with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in Uganda looks at forgiveness, one dimension of mercy, and asks whether people practice it in the wake of armed conflict.

I was motivated to write the report after one reviewer of my book, Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, Barry Gewen, writing for The New Republic, cautioned that the forgiveness that I was advocating is something that only rare saints exercise and could be dangerous if advocated widely.

So I decided to investigate: Is forgiveness truly rare or are there places where it is practiced commonly among a population? With funding from The Fetzer Institute, I traveled to Uganda. I also wanted to know, in the case that people do practice forgiveness, what forgiveness entails, why they practice it, who practices it, and with what effect. The staff of RLP and I chose five districts, surveyed 640 people, conducted ten day-long focus groups, and interviewed 27 “exemplars” of forgiveness.

The results were striking. Over 590 of the 640 survey respondents had experienced actual violence or some serious form of related trauma. Yet they reported favor for forgiveness and the actual practice of forgiveness in high numbers. 68.3% of the victims said they forgave the perpetrator of violence against them. 60.94% said they would forgive members of rebel groups when presented with forgiveness among a number of options. 53.91% said they would forgive members of the Ugandan military. 85.97% said they “agreed” that “it is good for victims to practice forgiveness in the wake of armed violence.”

When I have presented these results to western audiences, they shake their heads in disbelief. Westerners are skeptical of forgiveness for several reasons. They believe that it foregoes justice. What people really want is revenge and punishment. Some think that it short-circuits resentment, an allegedly far healthier response. They also believe that forgiveness retraumatizes victims and that when it is advocated too strongly, it violates their autonomy. Some worry that forgiveness is practiced disproportionately by women, who thereby yield themselves to those who have disempowered them radically. And many think that forgiveness is just too psychologically difficult in the wake of armed violence.

Ugandans, however, find the results plausible. This is not to deny that they debate forgiveness, even vigorously, but only that they don’t find it hard to believe that their fellow citizens forgive even the worst sorts of crimes imaginable. Before I carried out the research, I conducted numerous conversations with a wide variety of Ugandans to see if they thought forgiveness plausible and common. They did. And the conversations in the focus groups and interviews corroborated the survey results.

Why do Ugandans forgive? The strongest correlate is their faith, their Christian faith. Muslims in the northwestern Yumbe district also forgave in similarly high numbers and were influenced by their faith. Others cited the psychological benefits of getting beyond the anger. Other reasons included tribal traditions, family tradition, a desire for peace in the community, and, sometimes, a judgment about the complexity of perpetrators’ motives – victims may believe that perpetrators were under duress when he committed violence, for instance.

Ugandans do not forgive wihthout demanding justice. They demand trials, compensation, the airing of truth about injustices, confession, apologies, and other forms of justice. Remarkably, however, they are willing to forgive even when these other forms of justice are absent.

Only a tiny portion of Ugandans reported being pressured to forgive by a religious, political, or tribal leader. Numerous demographic factors had little impact on forgiveness attitudes and practice, including gender. A high percentage thought that forgiveness can be a potent tool for peacebuilding in the wake of armed conflict.

This last point is the most important of the study – that forgiveness can help to build a lasting peace in places that have suffered war, genocide, and dictatorship. Western ngos, governments around the world, diplomats in international organizations, and religious leaders everywhere ought to accord forgiveness much more of an active role on peacebuilding than they have heretofore. This is not to say that forgiveness can be programmed. It is practiced most healthily and authentically when it is practiced freely, meaning that victims are not pressured or scripted into forgiveness. Still, leaders who hold moral prestige among their populations can commend forgiveness to their people and practice it through example. Nelson Mandela of South Africa is a famous exemplar. Remembering him and following the inspiration of Pope Francis, others might follow suit.

About the author

Daniel Philpott

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.