Forgiveness and Conflict Resolution

by John Moolakkattu

Gandhi quote courtesy

Scott Appleby, who has done extensive research on religion and politics, concludes that a new form of conflict transformation, namely religious peace building, is taking shape in and across local communities plagued by violence. (1) Since the end of the Cold War, there has been growing cooperation between nations and peoples in the Western hemisphere, and increasing number of apologies and acts of forgiveness throughout the world. This has prompted scholars of conflict resolution to shift their focus from conflict resolution to concepts such as reconciliation and forgiveness, concepts that reflect more correctly the spirit and practice of the new age. The power of forgiveness as a means of conflict resolution or transformation was emphasised by thinkers like Hannah Arendt, as it allows human beings to come to terms with their undesirable past, thereby changing the rule that governs the power relationship between the former victimiser and his or her victim. The application of ideas and beliefs that are relevant in the personal and religious realm to politics is however a project that many political realists would find difficult to accept.Forgiveness seems to represent the personal, the private and the spiritual. The sociologist and historian John Torpey writes that the influence of Holocaust consciousness is a factor contributing to the forgiveness discourse. (2) One can also see the direct influence of restorative justice practices such as criminal justice innovations and victim-offender mediation, often drawing on aboriginal justice. However, it is the encouraging results from the experience of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the revival of the Christian idea of forgiveness that also finds reflection in most religions in one form or the other, which made the concept popular in recent years. Some even see this as a sort of opportunity for national self-reflexivity and social healing. In other words, forgiveness, once dismissed as irrelevant in the field of conflict resolution during its technical phase of rational problem solving, has now become a theme of considerable import.

Conflict resolution deals with how people resolve their disagreements, often emanating from mutually incompatible goals. Such disagreements entail not only fights, but also negative emotions that persist. The resolution of conflicts through various rational strategies such as negotiations, mediation and facilitation might yield positive outcomes. But conflict resolution focused on the issues that give rise to conflict cannot often address the rupture in human relations that takes place. Failure to deal with this rupture might increase the likelihood of future conflict. Hence forgiveness can play a role in conflict resolution when the parties accept that the conflict is a relational phenomenon and is the result of failed interaction, that both sides have a role in reconstructing the relationships, and in so doing, reconstructing their identities, which results in the restoration of the humanity of both. (3) At an interpersonal level forgiveness is seen as a very useful virtue and it has led to the resolution of conflicts between those in intimate relationships such as married couples. But many would have reservations when this idea is applied to group conflict.

In this paper I shall look at forgiveness and related concepts like apology as means to or key ingredients in conflict resolution, particularly in conflicts that have been characterised by genocidal acts involving communities. As the world increasingly becomes a global village, the importance of apologies and forgiveness for addressing past wrongs and resolving conflicts is greater than at any point in time.

Towards Forgiveness

Early post-Second World War peace models were more often built around visionary schemes, which did not seek to revive memories of an ugly past. Instead they started from the present and imagined the future. The future was focused and the present was seen only in terms of a tool to move forward to that future. While forgiveness focuses on the future, it connects itself equally with the past and the present. The literature on conflict resolution also is largely focused on the ways in which settlement of conflicts could be reached without laying much stress on restoration of ruptured relationships. Memories of past wounds are presumed to disappear once the underlying issues are resolved. It is now widely recognised that communities that have experienced violence of serious proportions either from different identity groups or from an ethnicised state cannot achieve sustainable peace without a process of social healing.

Joseph Montville writes that, ‘healing and reconciliation in violent ethnic and religious conflicts depend on a process of transactional contrition and forgiveness between aggressor and victims’. (4) Psychological research also supports the role of forgiveness in trauma recovery and social healing. Montville adds that, ‘even the most brilliant negotiator can at best help make a temporary deal between adversaries, unless he or she advances a genuine process of healing the wounds of history.’ (5)

Although it is not easy to put the past behind us, human beings have the capacity to do so. Andrew Rigby says that it is this capacity to let go of the past, to forego the quest for revenge, which is at the heart of forgiveness. (6) Hatred and the search for vengeance can consume people and unless people manage to forsake their determination to get even, there can be no new beginning, no transformation of relationships, no possibility for a shared future.

Donald Shriver thinks that process of asking for and giving forgiveness presupposes the recognition of the commission of an evil act by one agent against another, the willingness of offenders to acknowledge their offenses, continued memory of immorality, the hope of relation repair, forbearance, a step back from revenge and some degree of empathy with the one who has committed the wrong. (7) Many nations have difficulty in coming to terms with the traumatic loss that they have experienced in history. Montville thinks that, ‘It is these losses, these wounds that constitute the burdens of history and the enduring sense of injustice that makes peace building so difficult for traditional diplomats and political leaders.’(8)

Centrality of Relationships in Conflict Resolution

A focus on the restoration of ruptured relationships has been a lesser consideration in conflict resolution given its obsession with reaching seemingly win-win agreements. John Paul Lederach says:

In my estimation the starting point for understanding and supporting reconciliation process is a reorientation toward the centrality of relationships. It is in the ebb and flow, the quality of interdependence of relationships that we find the birthplace and home of reconciliation. This is quite different than a focus on issues, the shaping of substantive agreements, or cognitive and rational analytic-based approaches to conflict resolution. In these latter approaches attention is placed on the external, often symptomatic expressions of how the relationship is negotiated. But they often remain just that, external and symptomatic. To enter a reconciliation process is to enter the domain of the internal world, the inner understandings, fears and hopes, perceptions and interpretations of the relationship itself. (9)

Relationship remains central to peace building because it provides the template in which cycles of violence happen and the means to transcend them, for it brings people into the pregnant moments of the moral imagination: ‘the space of recognition that ultimately the quality of our life is dependent on the quality of life of others.’ (10) Lederach also thinks that the balance we achieve between goals such as truth (past), justice (present) and mercy and peace (the future) is particularly crucial. This balance cannot be achieved in technical conflict resolution.

A New Form of Justice

Although punishment for past wrongs may not take place, the acknowledgement of guilt, naming and shaming the culprits who abused their fellow beings contains a form of justice. Every wronged person or community’s initial reaction is that the offender should be punished for the offence. Here justice traditionally understood in a retributive sense may have to give way to the creation of an atmosphere for the rebuilding of peace within the community, as Mahmood Mamdani suggests. (11) It is in this context that the role of restorative justice as a means to address the problem through measures such as truth recovery, reparation, restitution and so on becomes important. At the same time restorative justice creates a space within which the perpetrators of crimes might rejoin the community; they can be helped to regain something of their lost humanity and re-establish their connectedness. In allowing victims to come forward without fear of retribution to tell the often grim details of how various family members have disappeared, been raped or murdered, for example, the pattern of abuses from community to community becomes apparent and this allows a process of social introspection, mourning and healing to take place. The testimony of perpetrators allows us to have a clearer picture of the events even as their actions are exposed. By bringing these events out into the open, the power of the perpetrators over their victims is finally severed.

Forgive and Forget?

One of the themes in the discourse on forgiveness relates to whether one should adopt the attitude of forgive and forget as in Eastern Europe or incorporate memory as a key element of forgiveness. It is said that only those who remember can forgive and that memory and not forgetting is the necessary condition of forgiveness. A forgetful person cannot forgive because he or she cannot remember. Without remembering, forgiveness as a conscious act is impossible. The slogan, therefore, is no longer forgive and forget, but remember and forgive. Collective turning from the past does not mean ignoring or forgetting the misdeed, but recognising the humanity of the agent. Whether forgiveness or apology is genuine is also a matter of importance. President Nelson Mandela said that South Africans must remember their dreadful past in order to be able to deal with it, to forgive when it is necessary, but never to forget. In the same vein, Archbishop Desmond Tutu asserted: ‘There is no future without forgiveness, but to forgive, one must know what happened. In order not to repeat what happened to others, we must remember.’ (12)

Genuine forgiveness is voluntary and unconditional as Gopin concludes since it is not motivated by pressure from a third party, nor is it dependent on the apology or recognition of wrongdoing on the part of the offender. (13) Such unilateral measures, which have a strong Gandhian tenor about them, are based on a deep belief in the goodness of human beings and a notion of self that embraces the other. It is more through an internal process that the forgiver is transformed, so also the forgiven, if he or she is able to receive the gift of forgiveness, much as nonviolence transforms both the satyagrahi and the opponent.  The philosopher Trudy Govier has suggested that no one is absolutely unforgivable, whatever he or she may have done in the world, because to deem unforgivable the perpetrator even of heinous and repeated atrocity is to ignore his human capacity for moral choice and change, which is the very foundation of human worth and dignity. (14)

Separating Doers from Deeds

In Forgiveness and Revenge Trudy Govier argues, ‘We do not forgive deeds; we forgive people who have committed deeds. When we forgive, it is another person we forgive.’ From Govier’s perspective, it is unnecessary to talk about forgiving deeds as such, because only persons can be forgiven. In support of this position, she argues that ‘No deed ever expressed remorse, apologised, asked for forgiveness or faced the challenge of moral transformation . . . it is persons who are the subjects and objects of forgiveness; persons who forgive or do not forgive.’ (15) According to Govier, because people are capable of a moral transformation that distances them from their deeds, doers and deeds are separable in a significant way. Forgiveness acknowledges this separation. Here also it works like Gandhian nonviolence and the general principles of conflict resolution theory.

Forgiveness is emphasised as needing greater courage, one that empowers the victims and sets into motion a dynamics similar to nonviolent action. It also provides an opportunity to the offender to overcome the guilt. Hannah Arendt says: ‘Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it . . . Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.’ (16)

Studies on trust conducted in Northern Ireland showed that interaction with peers from the opposing group had led to higher trust and a greater willingness to forgive it for any past misdeeds. (17) Such willingness to forgive a perpetrator rests on a belief that the perpetrator will reciprocate positively and will not exploit such a move as a sign of weakness. Hence increasing the opportunity for intense contact between members of conflicting groups paves the way for ideas like forgiveness to take root. In a study of inter-group forgiveness among Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, it was found that ‘Given the beneficial effects of inter-group contact via empathy and trust, one way of restoring inter-group relations by promoting forgiveness would be by increasing the opportunity for engaged, structured and quality contact between members of conflicting groups.’(18)

Relational World View

Despite its shortcomings, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission opened the door to victims of each side and gave them a chance to tell their story in the hope that the very process of talking would somehow alleviate the sufferings endured in silence for so long. In this case the victims’ Christian upbringing converged with the already existing tendency toward compassion and harmony that was found in the African ubuntu worldview, a point repeatedly emphasised by Bishop Tutu. This cultural-religious infrastructure has, arguably, played a significant role in the prevention of bloodshed and vengeance following the ascendance to power of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994.

Forgiveness and Conflict Resolution

We now have several examples to show that forgiveness can play a crucial role in conflict resolution when it is placed in the context of individual cultures. When the sides to the conflict share similar attitudes regarding the value, importance, shape, and contents of forgiveness, they are ready to embark on the long and difficult journey toward forgiveness that culminates in reconciliation. The greater the cultural-religious gap between the groups, the smaller their chances to reach this goal, according to Gopin, as we cited above.

Despite such caveats, one can say that the timing of the act of forgiveness or apology-seeking, the intention and will of the parties offering or seeking it and the extent to which a personal touch has been brought into the whole process can have positive implications for conflict resolution and reconciliation. Offering and seeking forgiveness can take place on the part of individuals as well as collectivities. For example, the joint statement of forgiveness by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Daly, former Archbishop of Armagh, Northern Ireland, played a key role in the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.

Forgiveness is often treated as a sub-process of conflict resolution and reconciliation, and should and can be intentionally integrated into the resolution process of deep-rooted conflicts. It is not a one shot process or act. It could be part of an ongoing process or the culmination of a process of previous attempts at reconciliation. Its value to break the cycle of violence, hate and despair is particularly pronounced in protracted conflicts.

Forgiveness can work not only towards conflict resolution, but also for post-settlement peace building. It plays a connecting role in transforming transitional societies emerging from conflict. Resentment is also one way of recovering one’s own self-respect. Archbishop Tutu says, ‘Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.’ The plea for forgiveness may be perceived as an act of humiliation and subsequently hurt the pleading party’s status. On the other hand, the victim who is asked to grant forgiveness may feel that ‘to forgive is to relinquish the victim role and the rewards that go with it’ such as ‘the power to induce guilt, to demand apologies and reparations or to seek punishment of the perpetrator.’ (19)

Often, however, victims and their families are forced to carry on with the tasks of everyday living without benefit of reflection on the past. These people may consciously remember nothing of past events, because the daily trauma they continue to experience may simply have become normalised; or else they have made a conscious decision to reject the truth surrounding the past, as witnessed in denial and revisionism. I understand from recent research that most people who experienced the partition riots in the Indian subcontinent often wanted not to revive memories of such trauma and created a form of forgetfulness as a defensive strategy.


The ultimate purpose of forgiveness is restoration of relationships and the reestablishment of connections with the community. Public apologies and seeking and granting of forgiveness create a new dimension to repairing fractured relationships. In places like Gujarat where the communal passions have been raised for political advantage, and past violence of genocide proportions have ruptured communal relations, it is only through a process of collective contrition that reconciliation will be possible. It would be appropriate for a person like Narendra Modi, who is now in a politically strong position, to apologise for the state-directed violence that took place in 2002. More recently, there was widespread condemnation of the Sri Lankan Government for the excesses committed by it on the civilian Tamil population in its final battle against the Tigers, one that legitimately demanded an apology. Apologies when made at the appropriate time are useful. The sincerity of such apologies also should be felt by the victims. Forgiveness remains the only hope in situations where traditional conflict resolution ideas mainly built on rational choice assumptions are insufficient guides to reconciliation. We need to stir the conscience of the people through reviving their stories and go through a process of social healing.

In sum, the centering of a politics of memory, regret, apology, forgiveness, and reparation has deeper implications for conflict resolution and post-conflict peace building. This does not mean that forgiveness and acts of contrition in themselves can serve as substitutes for real negotiations or dialogue. Instead, they can provide an ideal setting in which negotiations can take place devoid of power considerations, devoid of bargaining, where the power of reason is supplemented by the power of heart or compassion. The manner in which these less utilised human faculties are exercised in individual cultural contexts may vary.

I would like to end by saying that a culture of forgiveness or the development of habits of heart should also constitute an essential element of a culture of peace and one of the goals of peace education and nonviolence training. The recent shift in emphasis from conflict resolution to conflict transformation is certainly a welcome development in that it seeks to incorporate forgiveness and apology as key elements of reconciliation. However, forgiveness and associated values cannot be foisted on societies from elsewhere. As Lederach says, ‘understanding conflict and developing appropriate models of handling it will necessarily be rooted in, and must respect and draw from, the cultural knowledge of a people.’ (20)

Endnotes: (JM)

(1) Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (Lanham. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), p.7.

(2) See John C. Torpey, ‘Introduction: Politics and the Past’ in John C. Topey (ed.) Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices ( Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), pp. 1-36.

(3) Donna Hicks, ‘The Role of Identity Reconstruction in Promoting Reconciliation’, in Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L Peterson (eds.), Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict (Radnor PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002), p. 143.

(4) Joseph V. Montville, ‘The Healing Function in Political Conflict Resolution’, in Dennis  J. D. Sandole and Hugo van der Merwe (eds.), Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice Integration and Application (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.), p. 112.

(5) Joseph V. Montville, ‘Justice and the Burdens of History’, in Mohammed Abu-Nimer (ed.) Reconciliation, Justice and Co-existence: Theory and Practice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), p. 142.

(6) Andrew Rigby, ‘Forgiving the Past: Paths Towards a Culture of Reconciliation’, Centre for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Coventry University, n.d.,
<>  retrieved 12 January 2008.

(7) See Donald W. Shriver, An Ethics for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

(8) Montville, op. cit., p. 131.

(9) J. P. Lederach, ‘Five Qualities of Practice in Support of Reconciliation Processes’, in Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L Peterson (eds.), Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict (Radnor PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002), p. 195.

(10) J. P Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 35.

(11) Mahmood Mamdani, ‘From Justice to Reconciliation: Making Sense of the African Experience’, in Crises and Reconstruction: African Perspectives (Uppsala: Nordic African Institute, Discussion paper 8, 1997).

(12) Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (London: Rider, 1999).

(13) Marc Gopin, ‘Forgiveness as an Element of Conflict Resolution in Religious Cultures: Walking the Tightrope of Reconciliation and Justice’, in Mohammed Abu-Nimer (ed.) op. cit., 2001, pp. 87-99.

(14) Trudy Govier, ‘Forgiveness and the Unforgivable’, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1, January 1999, pp. 59-75.

(15) Trudy Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 109.

(16) See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 240-1.

(17) See for example: M. Hewstone, E. Cairns, A. Voci, F. McLernon, U. Niens, & M. Noor, ‘Intergroup Forgiveness and Guilt in Northern Ireland: Social Psychological Dimensions of The Troubles’, in N. R. Branscombe & B. Doosje (eds.) Collective Guilt: International Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 193-215.

(18) Sabina Cehajic, Rupert Brown and Emanuele Castano, ‘Forgive and Forget? Antecedents and Consequences of Intergroup Forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina’, Political Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2008, p. 363.

(19) Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (London: Rider, 1999).

(20) J. P. Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation across Cultures (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), p. 10.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Moolakkattu is Gandhi-Luthuli Professor in Peace Studies, University of Kwazulu- Natal, Durban, South Africa; Editor Gandhi Marg, New Delhi and visiting Professor, Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha. We previously posted here his ‘Gandhi as a Human Ecologist’. See also William Jackson’s article on forgiveness, posted here. Article is courtesy

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