Forgiveness as an element of reconciliation can be a transformative moment that shifts focus from a traumatic past to a future of possibilities. Forgiveness can be presented in numerous forms: a personal apology, a confession, a public ceremony, reparation, or an emblematic act, such as a handshake or dance. There is much debate about the role of forgiveness and whose responsibility it is to initiate or tend to a healing process. For many, particularly those in religious communities, forgiveness is a means to restore one’s relationship with God. Forgiveness, however, can exist within a personal journey, interpersonal relations, community building, or larger scale national reconciliation. It is important to recognize the context and how individuals can forgive themselves, friends, and state actors simultaneously or in their own time.
The role of agency plays an important role in this point of reconciliation, because each individual must choose his or her own track of forgiveness as a spiritual, symbolic, or perhaps superficial journey. Throughout this ongoing progression, individuals are recovering from dehumanization and trauma to a future where opportunities are unknown but desired. Growing out of victimhood requires addressing memory and the act of forgetting. Victims of a conflict can choose to bury themselves along with their memories, or they can reconcile trauma to become part of their identity and their whole self. In doing so, individuals change their relationship with the past through an act of forgiveness that empowers daily livelihoods with a constructive, but aware, vision of the future.
Case Study – Sierra Leone
After ten years of civil war, the government and civil society of Sierra Leone had to make a major decision on how to move forward. Given the complex structure and prominence of community-based violence, the State decided to grant all citizens blanket amnesty as a solution for reconciliation. Their main priority and vehicle for obtaining justice occurred in the Special Court, which prosecuted thirteen individuals that played a leadership role in the violence. In response to the government’s inability to address a deeper conceptualization of reconciliation, a human rights advocate of Sierra Leone built Fambul Tok, a grassroots movement that promotes the healing process at a community level. Fambul Tok encourages a participatory model whereby community members can choose to come forward and tell their account as a perpetrator, or request a confession from the victim standpoint.
Fambul Tok embraced a model of forgiveness as a means of coming together. Victim and perpetrator, also known as neighbors, friends, or family, bonded through the power of speech, listening, empathy, and, most importantly, forgiveness. Communities became fond of this approach because it allowed them to release themselves from the horror and tension of the past while sharing a passion for peace and for the future. This community-based reconciliation recognized the cultural significance of storytelling, which made an uncomfortable scenario more appropriate for the given context. Citizens of Sierra Leone did not utilize religious references or practices, but rather embraced the role of conversation, just as it was employed in their day-to-day livelihoods.
According to Fambul Tok the mode of forgiveness in Sierra Leone was more relational and interpersonal, as opposed to a spiritual or national journey. This portion of reconciliation occurred around a bonfire, where one party came forward to speak, one party came forward to listen, and the community gathered around as participant observers. Forgiveness, and thus unification, was symbolized by a handshake and dance between the reconciling parties. Given that forgiveness was acknowledged and accepted, communities could then move forward to construct their own understanding of peace, which often highlighted communal projects, such as shared farms, that further strengthened relationships between prior adversaries.
Fambul Tok’s emphasis on forgiveness was even more important given that the state did not provide a space for dialogue or the recognition of suffering. The trials that focused on the organization of violence did not suit the day-to-day suffering that became too familiar within community settings. While blanket amnesty may have been a “solution” in some regards, it did not address the individual tensions or pain from the war and did not make public what a future peaceful Sierra Leone could look like.
It must be emphasized that survivors and secondary victims of trauma have the choice to participate in their own time and on their own terms. While “forgetting” may be a mode of suppressed silence for some, others may find that the internalization of pain or the quieting of memories is their own individual mechanism for coping. That being said, there is not an eraser that can eliminate the existence of the past. I really enjoyed the acceptance of trauma in the present as a component of one’s self-identity. Suffering does not have to define you, but it does contribute to who you are today and your vision for the future. Can this process be solely internal? Does it have to be externalized, as some of the authors mentioned with coming to terms with experience through words? Can superficial external apologies and forgiveness eventually be actualized in a true sense?
What I enjoyed about this chapter was the balance between victim and perpetrator. Recognizing that trials are typically perpetrator focused and commissions are victim focused, the process of forgiveness is truly a two-way street. It requires an active awareness and contemplation from all parties involved. As the readings mentioned, forgiveness does not require the presence of a perpetrator, but this is most helpful especially in a smaller community-based scale. I continue to ponder the role of silence and whether it helps or harms processes of reconciliation.
Lastly, I ponder whose responsibility it is to initiate forgiveness as a component of reconciliation (whether it be internal, interpersonal, national…). Does the state or law have the right to mandate repentance. Can an outside party or neutral third parties contribute to the process? Whose to say a victim has to forgive after all? Can forgiveness for the act and forgiveness of an actor be isolated incidents? On an end note, a phrase that really resonated with me: “too horrible to remember, too horrible to forget” (Shriver 33).