Political Forgiveness and the Healing of Nations

Keynote Address to Ethiopia Symposium on Higher Education for Post-Conflict Transformation

This is a condensed version of the keynote speech delivered by Eileen Borris in Addis Ababa on November 6, 2023.

It is such an honor and a pleasure to be invited to Ethiopia and to meet such wonderful people committed to building peace, and to be part of such an exceptional interdisciplinary team. I am grateful to be here.

Political forgiveness is an act that joins truth, tolerance, empathy, and a commitment to repair fractured human relationships in order to support a process of conflict transformation. Theologian Dr. Donald Shriver Jr defines political forgiveness as “a collective turning from the past that neither overlooks justice nor reduces justice to revenge, that insists on the humanity of enemies even in their commission of dehumanizing deeds and values the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it.”

In her book, The Human Condition, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt commented: “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, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”

Both Arendt and Shiver understood the importance of political forgiveness—especially in the healing of nations—for without it, the same wars would be fought repeatedly. A political forgiveness process recognizes the importance of justice, healing, and reconciliation as part of post-conflict reconstruction in countries that have experienced forms of protracted violence and civil wars.

Columbia and the Logics of Truth

As we begin the political forgiveness process we are, in a sense, setting the table by creating the space for vulnerable and honest conversations to take place. This sets apart a political forgiveness process from other peacebuilding processes, precisely by focusing on healing the emotions that fuel conflicts to begin with.

The Colombian truth and reconciliation commission has been the only commission that has recognized the importance of healing emotional wounds before reconciliation could take place and included a dialogue process, the “logics of truth” as part of its process. This too is part of the political forgiveness model. People are first asked to only speak of the events that have happened. Once the events have been established the group begins to discuss the meaning or significance of those events. They are then asked, why did these events happen? Again, people come up with many different versions of “truth” since there is not one truth but many. The commission may spend days trying to clarify why these events happened.

When there is a clear understanding of why things happened the way they did, the commission focuses on the third logic of how to overcome what has happened. How can we overcome the problem of these heart-rending events, and how are we going to overcome the logics of violence? The work here is on finding solutions to these problems which have caused the violence. Sometimes this could mean meeting with other groups, writing a letter, asking forgiveness, or letting others know that we have forgiven them. The last logic of truth is healing, and healing has to do with forgiveness. This work has become the backbone of Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition.

The Future of Ethiopia

I want to thank all of you for listening to something very dear to my heart — healing nations through political forgiveness. Just as Columbia made the impossible become possible, this can happen, too, in Ethiopia.

The Joint Peace Network is a wonderful place to start. Universities supporting the network can become centers of reconciliation and educate people about forgiveness and political forgiveness, teaching the necessary skills to empower people in building the foundation for a culture of political forgiveness and peace. Universities can host a broad range of programs, workshops, and “healing circles” that tackle the issues at hand and the disparities that stem from them. These campus centers can develop a network of facilitators and programs designed to undo harmful stereotypes, rewrite damaging narratives and train people to dismantle false beliefs at the grassroots level.

Change in the world comes from individuals, from inner peace in individual hearts. Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.

— HH the Dalai Lama

It is possible to do the impossible. We can all take part in bringing this country back together. It begins with a willingness to heal, listen, and respect one another. We can start to lower the temperature by engaging in honest conversation, changing mindsets and writing a narrative that becomes a healing narrative. Forgiveness and political forgiveness will be the key to achieving this.

If we develop the skills and the mindset of forgiveness, we can then extend it to the people we feel close to, which from there can spread to the groups we associate with and the communities we are a part of. If we can begin to look out for each other and be kinder to one another, this can begin a profound healing process. Let us quiet all the noise that divides us, that pits us against one another, and let the voices of our better angels guide us.