Israel Rafalovich
Israel Rafalovich

The power of forgiveness in international relations

The argument about war and justice is still a political and moral issue.

Decisionmakers and victims alike have to examine the moral issues of warfare and at the same time, with the growing awareness of religion, pay attention to the status of religion on the subject of forgiveness in international relations.

The questions that arise are: what is the role of forgiveness and religion in international relations? And, how can we deal with tough issues in international relations through forgiveness?

In today’s world it is more and more clear that war and peace do not present a simple dichotomy.

Countries do not say to each other “I forgive you”. In international politics asking for forgiveness is not something that happens spontaneously, but is a rational decision that comes after a long process and sometimes an emotional motive drives the request for forgiveness as well as political pragmatism.

More than anything else, forgiveness is a conscious choice. In politics it is never about forgetting but about remembering in a certain way.

This is also the significance of image. A country that has committed a moral wrong in the past would ask for forgiveness because it wants to show its citizens and the world a different image and therefore will also engage in the ethics of forgiveness.

Forgiveness has hardly been a traditional value in world affairs, as there is a kind of resistance in linking politics with forgiveness.

Forgiveness as a political strategy has rarely appeared, until lately, on the diplomatic scene. The concept is foreign to most secular philosophies, not only because forgiveness is mostly consigned to personal matters, but also because of our geopolitical times.

Let’s make it clear, forgiveness cannot be imposed, it is a process as justice plays a large role in the political forgiveness process for there is no real justice without forgiveness.

Public confessions of wrongdoing and the request for forgiveness have been rare in modern history. But, at the same time, never before has there been an era of public contrition for mistakes and atrocities of the 20th century.

The pope has declared that the Holocaust was an “indelible stain” on the 20th century. The fact that his statement was delivered in Israel shows how remorse can be a function of politics.

Forgiveness has a marked effect and can open doors to remarkable instances of reconciliation and has the potential of being enormously influential in international relations of the 21st century.

In several of the world’s centre-stage conflicts, forgiveness has made an entrance, helping repair broken relationships in fractious societies.

Many conflicts of the past decade are rooted less in the intangible thing of religion, ethnicity and group identity.

Forgiveness has a spiritual component and involves acknowledgment, contrition and forgiveness. It cannot be imposed and depends on our acknowledgment of the power and depth of God’s love.

This is the aspect which connects us with a higher mind, our spiritual essence of who we truly are. It requires from politicians inner strength, maturity and the willingness to see a situation from a different angle.

They have to be able to develop empathy for their enemies and not invest themselves in dehumanising their enemies.

Forgiveness has to be possible in politics if there is to be any hope of former enemies being able to co-exist as members of the international community. We learn the need to forgive and be forgiven from our experience of living together with others.

In forgiveness we affirm our readiness to act anew and to establish new relationships. When we do achieve the goal of being neighbours to people who were once our enemies, then we will see forgiveness in politics in action.

In order to see things from a different angle we have to accept the belief that there is a spiritual basic goodness in each of us and this gives us the ability to love and recognise our connection with humanity.

This inner spiritual touch is the one that makes it possible for us to view the world we live in in a different way. The spiritual will to forgive frees us to do the emotional work of forgiving for it has to do with uniting people through practical politics.

The behind-the scenes efforts of religious organisations are aimed at not just reaching agreement but at healing the wounds that are the root of any conflict.

Forms of informal diplomacy had involved religious or spiritually motivated organisations such as the Quakers in Nigeria, the Mennonites in Central America and Catholics in Zimbabwe.

The challenges we face in the 21st century are severe and societies will have to undergo changes if we want to be able to face the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Forgiveness is an important factor if we want to achieve a lasting peace. Otherwise, we will hear only the voices of scepticism. The readiness to forgive will create possibilities for truth-telling and the courage to take political responsibility.

  • Israel Rafalovich, is currently writing a book on the subject of forgiveness in international relations.
    • Johan Meyer

      To the extent that forgiveness is important, it relies on the population of one country forgiving the population of another country for the latter’s government’s actions. Governments are not moral entities – as such, their own forgiveness or lack thereof strikes me as a non-issue – it is the population of each state that must undergo moral and intellectual development, and consider forgiveness – once that is obtained, their states can more easily consider cooperative actions without baleful local political consequences. Otherwise, this is a very interesting piece.

    • Ben

      This sounds fascinating – I look forward to reading your book when it comes out.

    • Peter Joffe

      Dear Israel, although I fully agree with you it does not and will not work in a world where wrongs are committed for political ends. It does not matter what the State of Israel may do to protect itself, it will always be seen as ‘extreme’ and unjustified.
      Those who oppose Israel will always hold the high ground because they have the PR apparatus to do this.
      Sadly truth and justice do not apply to politics. Its only those who can make the other party smell like a rat and, if you have oil, then those in need will either say nothing, or support the lies that are purported by the owners of that oil.
      More people have died over the centuries, in the name of God, or a God, than for any other reason and this will continue until God Himself intervenes and stops the carnage in His name.
      The law only applies to the good guys as the bad guys can and usually do as they please.
      An act of forgiveness as far as Israel is concerned is and always will be rewarded with more attacks on them and as sign of weakness.
      Ask a hangman to hang you ‘nicely’. If one nation wants the other one eliminated there is no amount of forgiveness that will stop this.
      Israel will not even be applauded if they lie down and die. Their enemies will simply claim victory. Politically correct has nothing to do with truth.

    • hope havemore

      This is a good post and good thinking. I support you – especially about peoeple and collective society benefitting from actions of forgiveness. Real, tangible progress follows from forgiveness at an individual level. The difficulty is moving this truth to the level of international relations. I fear this is much harder; as if states function at a inferior level compared to individuals – sort of like petulant children. So, while I agree with what you write it seems like a long shot. I prefer to work at the individual level – which can hopefully one day produce societies better able to produce governments that can forgive and through this build a global collective of progressive nations. Anyway – as they say – keep on pushin’

    • Ernst Marais

      @Israel Rafalovich:
      The Jewish community and Israel has really paid the Holocaust to its maximum effect. However, even nations that carry a never diminishing Holocaust guilt are appalled by Israel’s treatment of the Palestine’s.
      I for one cannot equate the South African Jewish community sanctimonious stance against Apartheid and what Israel is doing.

      Coming from a non-Jew, these statements are bound to elicit a strong response from the Jewish lobby.
      However, if a Jew makes similar statements, it is maybe time for the Jewish community to sit up and listen.

      Even South Africa is not free from the politics of the Holocaust. The Apartheid Museum, financed by the Krok Brothers, is not too subtle in drawing a parallel between Apartheid and the Holocaust – enticing hatred towards Afrikaners. This hatred is manifested in the brutal farm murders.

    • Rejoice Ngwenya

      Israel has got it right. I am a Zimbabwean involved in a campaign to request Robert Mugabe to say “Sorry!” for being responsible for 5th Brigade that murdered 20 000 innocent citizens of Matebeleland. I will be the first to read his book.

    • Simon Chilembo

      Both in my private and professional lives I’m ever fascinated by the theoretical, philosophical, and political discourses on forgiveness as a concept on the one hand and a process on the other. As a concept, the potential life-supporting and life-enhancing outcomes of forgiveness at both the individual and collective levels are as clear as the brightest day in the heart of SA. Bring in God and religion (with all due respect) and all is rosy: Pray, forgive, cleanse your soul of anger and bitterness, and then paradise and heaven are all yours (but then again others blow themselves up in the air for this); God will take care of those who cause/ have caused you harm. Amen.

      Yes, @Rejoice Ngwenya, there is hardly any emphasis on penance. As a process, I believe that forgiveness on the part of the offended must be encouraged parallel with seeking atonement from the wrongdoers also. Failure to achieve the latter, I can and will argue, is a sure guarantee for the perpetuation of the series of personal racial conflict tragedies still flourishing in today’s SA. Reconciliation has to be a two-way traffic. It is unfair to expect the (formerly) abused and brutalized to just forgive, and hope for God and the global civil society to take care of the rest. Real life is much harsher than that; and in my view this is one of the major challenges in/ of International Relations.

    • shasa

      “More than anything else, forgiveness is a conscious choice. In politics it is never about forgetting but about remembering in a certain way.” Wise words, true of any situation I think – because I choose to forgive, I am not forgetting, just remembering in a certain way.