Ashley Belohlavek: Holding Accountability While Encouraging Peace

Many religions regard forgiveness as a virtuous and honorable act, but it is not actually required. In Islam, for example, when one has been victimized by another, they have the option to seek rightful revenge for the wrongdoing by legal settlements or even execution if the crime is severe enough. The moral thing to do in this situation is to simply forgive the perpetrating instead of exacting revenge, but no decision is obligatory according to Islamic tradition. In Christianity, forgiveness is similarly advised but not mandatory in any given situation. It is just stressed that God will always forgive the sinner if they repent their bad actions. We forgive in order to try to regain peace and at least some level of friendship if the relationship cannot be fully repaired to its previous state. So how can we value both accountability and peace equally?

An interesting thought suggested by Digeser is that under an unjust governmental regime, morally unacceptable actions cannot be blamed on the perpetrators, since the whole system is fundamentally flawed, and likewise, a fundamentally just system welcomes the disavowal of unjust actions.[1] Of course we can all agree that in a just society, immoral actions and ideas ought to be rejected, but why would accountability be diminished under a less than just system? If anything, I would think that this requires more urgent opposition towards the immorality of the regime in place in order to bring change to an incredibly unjust system.

In Desmond Tutu’s evaluation of the outcome of exercising forgiveness towards South Africa’s white oppressors, he notes that the practice of forgiveness in this situation has been shown to hold very low standards of accountability for colonists there, which continues to perpetuate the damage done to South African natives in their tainted homeland. Continuing off of discussions that I started in my last response paper, surrounding the topic of national forgiveness in the face of mass injustices, I wonder what is more urgent: seeking immediate reparation for South Africans hurt by the rampage of Apartheid or focusing on keeping the peace. Upon careful consideration, peace is likely the more urgent of the two, as continued fighting could easily result in more carnage and loss of life. This is, of course, an incredibly complex situation, though unfortunately it is not uncommon.

An example of institutionalized peace can be the Nobel Peace Prize, an award given to those who have made outstanding strides within peace building and conflict resolution. A concept that we have no really institutionalized, however, is friendship. In my opinion, remembrance is incredibly important, especially when remembering the great struggle of people in their effort for liberation. We have museums to remember the struggle of Jewish people during the Holocaust. We still to this day, have a moment of silence for those who perished on 9/11 from terrorist attacks. Honoring the bravery and perseverance of humankind is important, but there are few museums or institutions dedicated to celebrating the positive aspects of history or the strides of minorities through tough situation after tough situation. We have Black History Month, for example, but do we really even contribute to bestowing sufficient honor upon brilliant and heroic black Americans, especially as non-black citizens? What are ways that we can improve the way we commemorate positive historic events and create more national recognition of the history of peace and friendship itself?

This is obviously a complicated and broad question. There is no one single solution. But through analyzing the ways in which forgiveness is possible, we can deduce how we can honor forgiveness without losing the importance of accountability and retribution. Glen Pettigrove says, “The recognition of even a modest flaw can chafe against love’s native impulse. Nevertheless, learning to deal with this sort of chafing while continuing to love the other is part of maturing as a lover.”[2] This concept is so important because even within friendships, people are going to make mistakes and we must all own up to these mistakes in order to continue a healthy and fair relationship. When a nation commits a crime against humanity, they have the responsibility of admitting that they have done an injustice. We have the responsibility of accosting them and acknowledging that they did something wrong. That is step one. We have reached this step in certain situations, such as Japan apologizing for its destruction of Pearl Harbor, and Spain has apologized for expelling Jews (though not Muslims) from the Peninsula with the Spanish Inquisition. This does not undo the damage, but again, it is step one: admitting one’s mistake.

From both Islamic and Christian perspectives, at least attempting to forgive one who wronged you is a duty, even if fully accepting an apology is not. Al-Ghazali says that if one gives 70 excuses for his bad actions and you are unable to accept any of them, then the problem is you.[3] This suggests that you must make a great effort to bring yourself to forgive the person who wronged you before you throw forgiveness out the window. Similarly, Bash explains, “Although, most certainly, there is not a moral duty to forgive in the New Testament, there is, I suggest, a moral duty to do all that one can so that one is able to forgive if it is possible—and this includes even the unrepentant.”[4]

With so many instances of mass injustice, it’s hard to say where exactly to draw the line for justice. So many people have been harmed and their pain can never be undone. But at the same time, continued violence and fighting will result in more harm, maybe even on those meant to be avenged. Institutionalizing friendship, however, could help with this dilemma. We cannot pretend that wars and genocides never happened (for instance, Holocaust denial is incredibly insensitive and can lead to even more trauma), but we can spend more time and energy focusing on the positive things that have happened, lives that have been saved, and friendships that have been made. We don’t have to erase the evil parts of the past, but we ought to raise up the good parts as well.

Works cited:

Digeser, P.E. 2001. Political Forgiveness. Cornell University Press.

Pettigrove, Glen. 2012. Forgiveness and Love. Oxford University Press.

al-Ghazali. The Duties of Brotherhood in Islam. The Islamic Foundation.

Bash, Anthony. 2007. Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Digeser

[2] Pettigrove, 96

[3] al-Ghazali, 67

[4] Bash, 105