Skip to main content

You are here

Forgiveness, Education, Public Policy: The Road Not Yet Taken

Fall 2004 - Vol. 46, No. 4

While there are many facets and aspects to educational reform that may contribute to halting the rising tides of violence in our immediate families and in the international family, one dimension is too seldom discussed systematically: Forgiveness. If we are to break the cycle of conflict continuing from past to present, forgiveness is worthy of consideration as a serious public policy option. Forgiveness represents a road rarely taken toward resolving public enmities. It is a possible path to peace because calls for revenge and punishment typically deepen and reinforce conflicts, reigniting them into perpetual conflagrations. And as the crimes of terror on September 11, 2001 continue to provoke cries for more campaigns of retaliation and indeed for more “preventive wars” against nations that fall within an alleged “Axis of Evil,” the need for new policies that can promote safety, order, and lasting peace is greater than ever.

Granted, the full process of forgiveness may require generations in order even to begin healing recriminations and bitter memories. But there is often no other way to break the feuds between the Hatfields and the McCoys, to break the chain of violence and to undo the effects of history.

Let us examine more closely what one might term the “pedagogics of forgiveness” and the question of whether such a pedagogy deserves a place in public and international policymaking.


Forgiveness vs. excusing

What does education have to do with forgiveness? Although philosophies of education have traditionally ignored the topic of forgiveness, they have invariably sought to nurture a society in which there is hope to live mutually respectful lives. Educators committed to what has become known as “character education” have repeatedly asked: How can we develop people who are more considerate and compassionate, citizens who strive to bring out the best in others and not use or exploit them? Their inquiries should not be equated with the ongoing American political debates over “family values,” which are often simply a set of political maneuvers designed to co-opt a powerful, emotionally charged word in our culture—“family.” Rather, philosophers of education have aimed to inspire a vision of what a person could become and of a society committed not to exploitation, but to care.

Forgiveness could be central to this vision, precisely because a cycle of unforgiving has incited hatred and violent crime to explode in all directions. The violent conflicts in our families, our schools, and throughout our scarred world have their emotional and psychological roots in a willful vengeance, an insistence on holding grudges, and a fetid climate of resentment—i.e., in a history of unforgiving.

Because the task of forgiving is so multifaceted and complex, it is worthwhile first to step back from the immediate issues of education in our schools and from the practical issues of curricular change, so that we can return to them better equipped to understand the process of forgiveness, both on the level of individuals and groups.

A broad perspective on this topic is valuable because educators—indeed even moral philosophers—have seldom paid much attention to forgiveness, certainly very little in comparison with the attention given to the concept of punishment, to which an entire academic field—criminal justice—is devoted. But Jean Piaget, writing in 1932, saw forgiveness as an advanced stage of moral development. He argued that it required empathy, a sophisticated capacity to take the role of the Other. Empathy is the cognitive operation making forgiveness possible, because it entails the compassionate recognition that the Other is also human. Hence, Piaget urged introducing an ethic of forgiveness into the educational system. He recognized that empathy can also have a pragmatic element of self-interest, because it acknowledges the futility of revenge and the value of good relationships. He even allowed that an ethics of forgiveness allows us to continue to recognize adversaries as our enemies. But it insists, as do the world’s great religions, that we must forgive our enemies. We can forgive them while acknowledging that we still may be living in discord.

But Piaget was a voice in the intellectual wilderness, and his views have not led to a widely adopted ethic of forgiveness, let alone a carefully thought-out pedagogy of forgiveness.

Why has the call to forgive gone unaddressed by educators and intellectuals? A prime reason is that we often confuse forgiveness with condoning or excusing. And that short-circuits our openness to forgive from the start. Our fear and distrust are attributable to this confusion, not to ignorance of the potential healing value of forgiveness.

If forgiveness is to succeed as a healing step, what is necessary is the commitment to seeing the truth of the injury and then deciding to forgive. Forgiveness is not suppression of pain. The key is to forgive and remember, not to “forgive and forget.” Forgiveness is intricately linked to memory. The call must be to forgive and to remember—and to forgive again, because the waves of hurt and anger and pain and outrage will wash over us again and again, thereby necessitating renewed commitments to forgiveness. Refusing to wallow in those hurts and to nurse resentment, we must nonetheless remember what happened and choose to forgive again. And we must recognize that forgiveness can never be equated with condoning or excusing, which will strengthen us in realizing that forgiveness has nothing to do with softness or weakness. Forgiveness, as Patrick Miller has put it, is indeed “only for the brave.”


Deciding to forgive: individual and social psychology

Yes, all this is honored—if too often in the breach—by the West’s central religious traditions, as well as in traditions such as Buddhism. The power of forgiveness is a familiar theme in the major world religions. But should we limit the pedagogics of forgiveness to Sunday school lessons? Can forgiveness apply to the secular world and to politics? Or is it naïve to speak about “forgiveness” in connection with public and international policy-making?

We need to start the process of forgiveness with ourselves—and with our own families, neighbors, and friends. It is indisputable—and not to be dismissed as psychobabble or New Age mumbo jumbo—that we are part of the violence in the world at large. Our personal and familial relationships are fraught with conflict and shadowed by unforgiving—and this means that we both contribute to and reflect the larger conflicts disfiguring our communities.

We are confronted daily, in our own lives, with anti-models as well as models of forgivers. In my own life, I think of my own unforgiving uncle who has been active in the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. His immediate response to me, whenever I lament the bloodshed between Irish Protestants and Catholics or the conduct of British soldiers in Ulster, is: “It all started with Cromwell’s terrorism against Ireland centuries ago, and they’ve been doing it to the Irish Catholics ever since.” As long as that mentality prevails—that willful unforgiving—peace will never be possible in Ireland.

But I also think of my experiences in Germany a few years ago. I dined with Heinrich von Trott, the younger brother of Adam von Trott, a leader of the resistance campaign against Adolf Hitler. The older brother, Adam, was executed when the assassination attempt against Hitler failed in July 1944. With us at dinner was the son of one of the generals who had been Hitler’s bodyguard. This general had allegedly committed brutal massacres on the Western Front and was sentenced to a 15-year prison term in a 1946 war crimes trial. And the son mourned his father’s violent life. As it turned out, this son of a Nazi general and Heinrich von Trott had come together because the son had publicly asked for forgiveness for his family. Hearing about this act of repentance, Heinrich von Trott had contacted him and invited him to deliver the annual eulogy for his older brother, the anti-Nazi resistance leader. Trott’s symbolic act of forgiveness—indeed this act of repentance and forgiveness by relatives of the offender and offended—has led to mutual reconciliation among many Germans still scarred by the events of the Third Reich. And it will have reverberations for all Germans—and indeed possibly far beyond Germany as well.

Numerous similar examples during the last two decades have made world headlines and are known to the general public. In 1985, John Paul II went into the bowels of Rome’s Rabibia prison to visit Mehmet Ali-Akhga, a hired assassin who tried to kill him in 1981 and almost succeeded. In 1992, Christopher Wilson, a black Californian, forgave two white teens who doused him with gasoline and set him afire, yelling at him “Die nigger, die” as he rolled in agony. Reginald Denny, who is white, forgave two black men who pulled him from his truck and tried to beat him to death during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Forgiveness heals us because it is letting go of hate, whether on the interpersonal or international levels. And it is hate that is poisoning our relationships, with rage as the outbreak of the hate. Forgiveness heals and allows us to move ahead.

So forgiveness must begin with individuals and their enmities, and then move outward, in a series of widening concentric circles, to the levels of groups, communities, and nations. One should begin with the idea that by forgiving you are being merciful to yourself—not doing a favor for someone else. We need to see anger as self-poisoning. From this standpoint, forgiveness is not a matter of forgiving and forgetting, but rather remembering fully and then deciding to forgive. The question is not, “Do they deserve my forgiveness?” but rather, “Do I deserve to be someone who consistently forgives, who walks unburdened?” So-called “sweet” revenge poisons the avenger. It exhibits a “trophy wound,” which means it stems from an attachment to the injuries that have been done to us, reinforcing them. For in telling about our wounds over and over again, we enshrine them as a prized injury. As the theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes observes: “We attach our feelings to the moment when we were hurt, endowing it with immortality. That moment travels with us, sleeps with us, hovers over us, and broods in us.”

Whereas revenge imprisons us in the past, forgiveness transforms us into who we can become. To carry an anger against anyone is to poison our own heart by administering more toxin every time we replay in our minds the injury done to us. The essence of forgiveness is release, not reciprocity. Forgiveness is about healing ourselves, more so than about demanding reparation from another.


A realism of the heart? The personal can be political

And what is the result on the interpersonal level of this arduous decision?

The reward for forgiving is a new and productive future. At the end of the road, there is even a subtle form of forgetting via transcendence of our old hurts. At the end of the road, the criminal character of the offense ceases to dominate us, though the event itself is remembered. But its character as an alienating offense perpetrated by a victimizer against a victim is transcended. The offense is recalled, but not sharply in the sense that “You did this to me.” Instead the offense simply is remembered free of hatred or vengeance.

And what are the steps in such a process? Once we can identify four key steps. First, name the injury and the injurer. Do blame him or her in the sense of holding someone accountable. Who hurt me? Why did he hurt me? Second, accept the injury as permanent. Make it part of who I am to become in the future. How were my expectations mistaken? How did I participate or contribute? Third, choose to forgive. I no longer expect that the injurer owes me anything. I set him free and I do not look back. I no longer ask why it happened, I look to the future. Fourth, do not expect repayment of any kind. I release the other from all debt. I am now so strong that I do not need anything at all from the injurer. I accept any gift, but I need nothing because the injurer is no longer responsible for how my life will proceed. I alone am responsible. Expecting no repayment means not having the luxury of blaming another any longer for my pain. For if the other is no longer the injurer, then I am no longer the injured one. Indeed, there are no longer any victimizers or victims.

At the end of the road, we let go. As we do, we participate in breaking the cycle of vengeance and transcending the conflicted past. The injury will thereby recede to the background of a relationship, and it may become so integrated into a new, forward-looking history that it appears virtually forgotten. But Lewis Smedes warns against forgetting per se: “Forgetting is dangerous. To forget is to repress and deny what happened, which is self-destructive. It allows you to suffer the same hurt repeatedly.” But, Smedes notes, when you deliberately and in full awareness release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free. And you discover the prisoner was almost always you.

This is all quite unfamiliar to us. Living in a throwaway age, we get accustomed to getting rid of that which is no longer functioning properly, including seemingly obsolescent relationships. Smedes adds: “To be able to forgive, you must have the guts to look at the wrongness, the hardness, the wickedness of what somebody did to you. We cannot camouflage, we cannot excuse, we cannot ignore, we eye the evil face to face and we call it what it is. Only realists can be forgivers.”

Yes, this is “realism,” and it does involve power, but it is not Realpolitik as we normally understand the word in international relations. It is a “realism” that remains connected to the heart. What makes apologies realistic and effective in promoting reconciliation is a rebalancing of power between the offender and the offended. The offenders are diminished when they apologize; they give the offended the power to forgive. An apology acknowledges that a moral norm was violated and reestablishes the common moral ground between offender and offended.

We often want our adversaries, our victimizers, to grovel and to make public restitution. This is understandable. But our insistence on that, in the face of their refusal to do so, keeps us victims stuck in the past. We may decide to cut our losses—but so long as we do not forgive and reconcile, we have reached only a point of accommodation with our past, not a real letting go. We have not yet moved on, we have simply adopted a detour, a modus vivendi.

To be released to a new future from the burden of the past, and to experience transformation, we must forgive—but forgive and remember selectively: seeing all, looking at all, but also consciously overlooking that which would continue to imprison us.

The steps of this process are long and seldom fully completed. For most of us, the road of forgiveness will be in need of repeated retracing.


Inter-group forgiveness

But what relationship does such a process of forgiveness have to the wider social sphere beyond our families and neighbors? Can we even begin to take forgiveness as a serious possibility between rival groups—let alone among international neighbors? Is there a pedagogics of inter-group forgiveness—between black and white, between Arab and Jew, between Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic? Put another way, should the call for forgiveness be restricted to relations among individuals? Or can it also apply to relations among peoples and nations? Is forgiveness limited to the religious domain? Or can it also encompass the secular? Is it just a matter of faith? Or can it also be applicable to the conduct of practical public affairs?

The great spiritual teachers never said: “Forgive only if the other side forgives first!” Nor did they say that forgiveness should be limited to betrayals by our spouses, our children, our neighbors.

And yet, our religious traditions do not make inter-group forgiveness easy. The fact is that various spiritual traditions have many precedents for individuals apologizing and repenting, but such acts between nations are practically nonexistent. Nowhere in the Bible or in other classical spiritual literature is there a story on how an entire society, race, people, or nation apologizes to another that it has offended. The danger of our American civic tradition, and indeed the Judeo-Christian tradition itself, is that we tend to remove forgiveness from the public realm and confine it to a private transaction among individuals or between an individual and God. But we need to risk a belief that forgiveness can also operate in secular affairs to heal long-term hurts and to promote peace.

The incapacity to and even ignorance of how to forgive is what, during 1995, made the half-centennial commemorations of World War II so distressing. Such ancient hurts live on, not only in Western Europe and Asia, but also in the former Yugoslavia and indeed on every continent. After wars, nations need to find a way to issue collective apologies. Donald W. Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, has proposed in An Ethics for Enemies (1995) that Japanese and American leaders exchange collective apologies, e.g., by repenting how racism played a role in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the American use of the atom bomb. Such a mutual apology would help free both peoples from antagonisms that fester after a half century. A collective apology would diminish the resentment that builds up in peoples. A collective apology does not mean the imposition of, or acquiescence in, collective guilt. It would simply acknowledge that collective responsibility is borne by the heirs—just as the German people still bear some responsibility toward the Jews.

But such public acts of apology are extremely rare and liable to misunderstanding. Although forgiveness is possible in politics, if it is done falsely to manipulate, it will not reconcile. Even on the national scene, many people have doubted the 1991 deathbed repentance of Lee Atwater, the GOP political consultant who pioneered campaign attack ads such as the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis. And many scoffed at Jesse Jackson’s statement in 1988, when he declared at the Democratic National Convention: “God has not finished with me yet,” a statement intended as an apology to Jews for his 1984 remark characterizing New York City as “Hymietown.” Even more people derided Robert McNamara’s mea culpa, when he published his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), in which he confessed wrongdoing for prosecuting the Vietnam War when he had already concluded that the cause was lost.

Once again, we resist these kinds of apologies because of the power issues involved. To apologize is to lower oneself; it is an act of humility. While we may on occasion do that as individuals, it feels too vulnerable to do it as groups or nations.

However, if we are to become a nation at peace and a family of nations, it is necessary. But as Donald Shriver notes: “The world would be a better place if nations and other political actors would practice greater forgiveness toward enemies. But it is important to keep the ethical question in its political context and see the difficulties of practicing forgiveness by nations.”

So distinctions must be drawn. For example, as Ian Buruma notes in Wages of Guilt (1994), the Japanese have not yet come to terms with their past as much as the Germans have. An important conceptual distinction is that we must avoid mushy recommendations for greater mutual understanding that do not acknowledge the depth of hurt experienced by the victims. Political forgiveness must be judged by whether it discourages the repetition of hurts.

In other words, political forgiveness is future-oriented. It attempts to stop the cycle of violence. But we must remember two crucial points. First, forgiveness is not instantaneous. It is an ongoing process that takes much time. Secondly, forgiveness demands the renunciation of vengeance, but it does not require the abandonment of justice. John Paul II forgave his assassin, but he never suggested that he should go unprosecuted or be released from prison.

This, again, is to stress that forgiving is not condoning or excusing. Concrete repentance and frequently even punishment are required. And that is the prime difference between forgiveness among nations and individuals. Among individuals, a spirit of reparation and restitution is desirable—but not required. This difference marks the way in which the family of nations is an extremely complex group and not equivalent to a family of parents and children.

On this view, with proper distinctions and precautions, forgiveness can be approached not just as a religious but as a geopolitical category. Indeed, such international idealism may paradoxically be most realistic, insofar as all other measures have largely failed. This is “realism” in a pragmatic sense: that the only way to true and lasting peace is through true reconciliation. Only by seeing the world as a family of nations, rather than of divided warring tribes, is peace possible. Such a willingness to extend the vision of family is not simply naive idealism, but rather a full attempt to create a future without vengeance. With repentance there comes justice, which is a rebalancing of the scales. And with the perception of a new balance, the possibility of reconciliation enters.

A pedagogics of forgiveness on the international scene may seem dovish, or just another example of bleeding-heart ethics. But if politics is to have a significant ethical dimension, the task of educating ourselves to see other countries as different yet as fellow members of “the family of nations”—and of seeing other peoples as our neighbors and potential friends—must be undertaken.

This means, for instance, seeing the peoples of the former Soviet Union, which was once our national enemy, as being just as human as we are. Unlike in the 1950s, when many Americans saw them as “Commies,” or “Reds,” or cold war monsters, most Westerners have grown to see them as people with a different set of traditions. And fostering such growth is partly a task for our schools—and for educators. So let us return, finally, to discuss how forgiveness can explicitly become part of a formal program of education in our school curricula.


Forgiveness, education, and public policy: proposals and examples

My modest proposal is that we educators make a more conscious effort to draw attention to specific ethical values in school lessons, such as justice, civility, responsibility, tolerance, compassion—and forgiveness.

Donald W. Shriver suggests helpfully that we must educate our citizens to our guilty as well as our proud pasts, especially those periods of history that are still very much part of the present such as World War II and the Civil War. Such international reconciliation is the only way to transcend ancient enmities, such as those in Ireland and the Mideast—and those exemplified by the recent genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.

How can educational and curricular practices help different ethnic groups and races learn to live together side by side in peace?

First, our history and social science curricula might include lessons about the benefits of forgiving. Secondly, the heroic achievement of other nations and the importance of a mutual commitment to tolerance might be highlighted.

Consider the fact that the European Community of the twenty-first century is in fact built on a post-World War II cornerstone of forgiveness, which meant abandoning a centuries-old cycle of vengeance that had plunged Europe repeatedly into wars. Hitler’s electoral success in the 1930s partly was due to the unwillingness of Germany’s neighbors, especially France, to forgive Germany for its role as aggressor in World War I. This led to the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty in 1919. And Germans responded to Hitler’s playing on their sense of collective grievance, their vengeance.

A contrasting example is the case of the former East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The first elected free parliament in East Germany made an act of contrition its opening order of business and announced: “We feel sorrow and shame and acknowledge this burden of German history. We ask all Jews of the world to forgive us.” This is a model of what governments can do. The fact that a relationship exists at all between Germany and Israel is a stunning demonstration of international forgiveness.

And there are other significant examples. How did Nelson Mandela summon the strength to remain 27 years in prison and ultimately to reconcile with the white minority government and pursue a politics of peace? This was not a mere stratagem on the part of a politician. The international public has rightly sensed that there was something genuine in his attempts to forgive and to reconcile.

The common lesson is that forgiveness becomes a viable political stance when it enables conflicting countries to transcend, at least partially, their enmities. Thus, just as John Paul II entered the prison cell of his would-be assassin and publicly forgave him, so too might world leaders exchange acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. To be sure, it cannot ever be a verbal trick—what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace”—a public relations ploy, an attempt to manipulate international opinion. It must be a genuine attempt to move from the traditional stance adopted by most diplomats and politicians—an eye for an eye—toward an ethic in which we turn the other cheek. And in turning the other cheek, we see from a different perspective.

So one possibility for a pedagogics of forgiveness lies in the history curriculum. It will entail an education toward the guilty past as well as toward the glorious past of “our side.” All this touches on extremely sensitive and controversial issues of racial, ethnic, regional, and national identity, as well as on political correctness, diversity, affirmative action, and equal opportunity. But we cannot shy away from pursuing forgiveness and reconciliation just because they challenge us to rethink our positions.

The specifics of any curriculum will differ according to school districts and a local community’s standards and sensitivities. But it will mean, for example, that Texans will learn about the Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the valor of Pancho Villa, just as Mexicans and Mexican-Americans will learn about the greatness of Lone Star State leaders such as Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. White Americans will be reminded of how blacks have been mistreated until the 1960s and are so even today, just as Northerners will be reminded how they mistreated Southerners during Reconstruction.

A pedagogics of forgiveness is not, however, a curriculum that attempts to vilify parts of history, but rather presents both sides of the story: the gloriousness as well as the guiltiness of “our” past. But it does so not simply to emphasize “our” guilt, but also to acknowledge the heroism of the “other” side. This is, then, not merely an education about our heroes, but about the heroes on the “other” side, a fuller story that teaches the interdependence of peoples in the family of nations. Protestant Irish heroes can be appreciated by Irish Catholics. Jewish heroes during the Holocaust can be respected by young Germans, just as German resistance fighters can be honored by young Jews. And the same is true of Texans and Mexicans, white Americans and black Americans, Japanese and Koreans, Jews and Muslims. Such an approach to history stresses our common human heritage.

And none of this will entail approaching forgiveness as mass therapy or fostering a self-centered narcissism. The task is simply to recognize that races, nations, and peoples need healing too. Reconciliation is not only a matter for individuals, but for collectivities too.

In addition, education toward forgiveness can become a central part of a social studies curriculum. It has already entered the schools under the rubric of “diversity,” but too often this notion has inculcated attitudes of victims versus victimizers, of moral superiority, and of indignant rejection of others’ claims to past hurts. We must reject the idea of privileged victims. Instead we should promote diversity as a way of understanding the Other, especially the language and culture and history of the Other, which can only be achieved by the will to empathy and compassion. And so education toward forgiveness and tolerance will not simply mean a begrudging tolerance, but rather the full acceptance of Otherness.

The burdens of forgiveness and reconciliation on the injurer and the injured are by no means always equal or symmetrical. Indeed the burden of forgiving placed on injured parties—indeed the double burden on the injured, who have had to shoulder the greatest wounds and now are called also to participate in forgiveness—cannot be overestimated.

This is a special historical challenge for Jews, for blacks, and for many other races and peoples. But let us heed the words of Thomas Wright, a psychologist at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.:

We must avoid dressing up our vengeance and calling it justice. Forgiveness is indeed hard work and it must be renewed every time that memory pricks. Our relationship cannot be the same as it was before. I am open to the possibility of a relationship with you, but I am not obligated to restore it and the effort must be mutual. My memory will cause me to live again and again the wrong you have done to me, so I will have to forgive you anew each day. But I choose to do that rather than stoke the fires of hate each day.



I believe that educators can introduce a pedagogics of forgiveness into the curriculum as a way of promoting healing and reconciliation within families and the family of nation. My examples suggest how we might adopt a program of education for tolerance, or even beyond: education toward forgiveness. They show that we educators can break the chains of the past and can contribute toward a revolution in values. Yes, let us educators write such a revolutionary sequel to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And let us title it: Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

We need to take seriously the possibility in our public affairs and in our lives—as we so often admire in great art—that forgiveness does indeed work politically: it reconciles people. Forgiveness is not just for religious people, let alone merely for Sunday School sermons, because it can and does work—as psychologists and social workers have attested. Because it heals, forgiveness has a practical place in the conduct of secular and international affairs.

Ultimately, a pedagogy of forgiveness moves beyond theology and private affairs to inform a political ethics, indeed a social psychology, in which healing and reconciliation are central. This does not mean that statesmen become therapists, but rather that they understand that the psychology of group identity bears a close, if complex, relationship to that of personal identity. To promote a forgiveness process beyond the realm of religion to diplomacy, and beyond ethics to geopolitics, means ultimately that policymakers must become peacemakers.