Forgiveness, like most concepts of any worth, is notoriously difficult to define. This is unavoidable, because such definitions must inevitably emerge from the ethos of specific times and locations in which that particular definition holds meaning. After all, the word ethos stems from the same root as ethic, both referring to character, custom, spirit, and habit. While I agree with Gayle Lenore Macnab’s statement that forgiveness is not easy or simple (53), it can at least suggest a certain rhythm because of cultivation within a community. Indeed, communities cannot survive without something like forgiveness, which is both biologically evolved and culturally refined. Perhaps forgiveness is necessary at times because some acts are so unspeakable, so unforgivable, that reparation for and sense of them can never be made. French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggested that maybe forgiveness, if it exists at all, exists only where there is the unforgivable; its possibility happens only in its impossibility. Certainly, people cannot and should not be demanded to forgive, but can we confess that the refusal to do so could produce slavery to the past that will project that fracture into the future? Forgiveness, as Macnab points out, reclaims life for the victim by leading to a path of “health and growth” (57).
Forgiveness, as Macnab rightly acknowledges, is not the longing for a different past, because “the past cannot be changed” (56). If the past could be changed, then there would be nothing to forgive, and if it could be forgotten than forgiveness would cease to exist (54). Forgiveness necessitates remembering. Like the cycle of seasons, forgiveness opens up a radical transformation of the past and a reinterpretation of time. Forgiveness is like a palimpsest: parchment on which ink has been erased to make room for something new even as the previous indentation remains. The past is not changed but re-formed, because forgiveness is going back to the future.
Macnab makes the important observation that forgiveness is not “[d]ependent on the offender’s request for forgiveness” (54), an observation which effectively reverses dominant societal logic. For many, forgiveness cannot happen unless the offender is repentant. Macnab challenges this logic, and in doing so allies herself with ancient wisdom such as the parable of the prodigal son. In that story, there is no reason to assume that the son is repentant when he decides to return home; his decision is due more to the fact that he is wallowing with the pigs. But his father, watching his son come down the road, does not know why he returns, only that he does return. The father runs out on the road and embraces his child, who now cries out that he is not worthy and should work in the fields to repay his debt. In this story, forgiveness creates repentance and the past can be transformed.
The Steps Toward Conflict Prevention Project (STEPS) is a remarkable program and an crucial conversation partner around justice and peacemaking. Marshall Wallace and his partners have recognized that communities have the unmatched potential to offer subversive alternatives to violence. Such examples are vital, life-giving, because they provide current manifestations of what resistance to violence and restoration of wholeness can look like.
Wallace notes the centrality of identity in the formation of such resistant and restorative communities (70). But identity is given an interesting and important twist: identity is often tied to ethnicity, but in STEPS cases identity is rooted in ethics (71). As mentioned in the previous reading response, ethics are closely related to ethos, which is the customs and habits and spirit of the community. In the STEPS cases, these ethics, or the ethos of the community, appear to be intentionally cultivated, which means to refine, inhabit, or till, like fertile topsoil which invites, indeed requires, future inputs and improvements. This intentionality consciously and critically joins the wisdom of the past with concrete practices in the present to address the potential of the future. The art of living together is required because radical acts such as compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, and love must be practiced with neighbors if they are ever to be offered to enemies. The alternative community from the Ghazni province in Afghanistan preserves and reinterprets local culture and tradition through music, education, and consensus-based decision-making (72) and inevitably poses a haunting question to current societies all over the world.
This question is also strikingly posed to peacebuilding practitioners. Often, it seems, peacebuilders want to address root causes but don’t want to put down roots. In my experience, peacebuilding activists frequently lack community like the ones mentioned by Wallace. A group of individuals committed to the same goal or having the same conversation does not constitute community: they share nothing but ideas, which can be fleeting. Healthy activists and movements seem to be grounded in a sustaining community with shared space, time, resources, memories, values, and practices. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, suggests that “To struggle for a cause it is best for people to be rooted in a community where they are learning reconciliation, acceptance of difference and of their own darkness, and how to celebrate . . . A community that does not celebrate is in danger of becoming just a group of people that get things done.” Activists can be so preoccupied with the future that they forget response-ability to the present moment. We need prophetic communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now. With models like the Ghazni province, the Muslim community in Rwanda, and the Colombian peace villages, that alternative future appears more tangible and more livable.