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Speeches

M. Braybrooke: No Future Without Forgiveness

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East


No Future without Forgiveness[1] is the title of a book by Desmond Tutu. How can forgiveness, which is commended by all religions, help to heal the legacy of hatred and suspicion that embitters relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

One of the victims of a suicide bomb was Bat-Chen Shahak, who was murdered on her fifteenth birthday in Tel Aviv on March 4, 1996. Two years before she had written in a school magazine:

There is not much left to say; We’re in a halfway spot.
There isn’t real peace in the Middle East,
Nor is there real war:
And for us, we’re marching forward towards peace.
Ready to understand the others, prepared to make changes
With one clear goal – to be rid of the hatred buried deep inside us for so long,
And with the understanding that it’s easy to make enemies
But that the wiser thing is to make friends.
We come as people who know a lot about war but very little about peace.
From now on we’ll begin to change that.[2]

“To be rid of the hatred buried deep inside us for so long.” Bat-Chen was right, lasting peace requires us to free ourselves and for our enemies to be freed from inherited hatreds. As the poet Edwin Muir wrote:

Revengeful dust rises up to haunt us.
History plagues us like a relentless wheel.
Who can set a new mark or circumvent history?[3]

This is what Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have tried to do – “to set a new mark.” Their emphasis is on healing the memories of conflict and helping a country to move forward.

Since 1973, more than 20 “truth commissions” have been established. Some have been set up by the United Nations, some by non-governmental organizations, and the great majority by governments. Who sets up the commission, of course, has a bearing on its approach. Most of the governmental commissions were set up by “transitional governments” of often very fragile democracies as they tried to move on from the civil and human rights abuses of previous regimes. They thus had a political purpose.

In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed, offered a conditional amnesty if a person made a full and public confession of criminal activity. There were three committees: one to investigate violation of human rights; another to decide an amnesty, which was not granted unless the whole truth was told; and a third to recommend reparation to assist the rehabilitation of the victims.

The important achievements of the Commission are widely recognized. Even so, there are questions about its work. Perhaps the most persistent is whether the process allowed justice to be done. A person who made a full confession was freed from criminal or civil liability. Tutu has insisted that “public exposure and humiliation” was a big price for the perpetrator to pay.[4] But others more cynically have said it was a price worth paying.

Should discovering the truth be linked to the granting of amnesty? The Guatemala Truth and Memory Project, which the Guatemala Catholic Church established and which was chaired by Bishop Juan Gerardi - who was brutally murdered two days after presenting the report - had no power to pardon. Yet for many whose loved ones had been abducted and thrown into unmarked graves, their greatest need was to know what happened and to have the injustice acknowledged. The recent Citizens’ Pact in Mexico has as its first demand “Resolution of the assassinations and disappearances and the naming of the victims.” In the words of Javier Sicilia, whose innocent son was murdered along with five friends by drug dealers, “The pact demands that the victims of violence be named.” But it also demands an end to impunity.

Another question, to which we shall return – among so many that we have not got time for – is whether the concept of a “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission is culturally conditioned.

But as Bat-Chen observes of the Israeli-Palestinian situation,

We’re in a halfway spot.
There isn’t real peace in the Middle East,
Nor is there real war.

Does what has been learned from Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have any relevance to the situation here? The distinguished Christian thinker Naim Ateek wrote a book called Justice, only Justice. Justice has been a major issue with which Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have had to deal.

I think, first, that the injustice has to be acknowledged. Victims or their families need to know that the wrong that has been suffered is recognized. Too often there is a feeling that enquiries are a “cover-up” for the military or the police or specious arguments are used to justify suicide bombings. The killing of innocent victims, abuse of human rights, and use of torture are, as every religion teaches, wrong. The 2002 Alexandria Declaration prepared by religious leaders in the Middle East, said: “According to our faith traditions killing in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name and defames religion in the world.” People of faith need together to condemn such violence and to have the courage to criticize members of their own faith community.

Acknowledgment of injustice is essential, but blame and revenge are not. We have a choice as to how we react. It is often said that those who cannot forgive are imprisoned by the past. It is also often suggested that one step towards being freed from the past is to try to see the other not just as an enemy, but as a person. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who despitefully use you.” (Matthew 5:44). Can Israelis and Palestinians begin to see why the other is so afraid? I remember once as we waited for a taxi at Zafed, the receptionist who had escaped from the Holocaust in Europe kept saying, “One day they will drive us into the sea.” This is why Israelis spend so much on defense. But on another occasion, while visiting a refugee camp near Bethlehem, an old woman shared her life story which had been spent almost entirely in one refugee camp after another. She had never had a place she could call “home.” Palestinians are afraid that eventually they will be driven from what land they have left.

There have in some places been projects to help young people who are divided to learn each other’s history of the same events. There are, thankfully, many groups in Israel-Palestine trying to help young people meet and listen to each other’s story. Those from outside should do all they can to support such efforts.

Beginning to understand the other’s standpoint does nothing to excuse the atrocity, but it can lead one to question how to respond. The first instinct is to want revenge - to threaten, in the politicians’ words, “a robust response.” But what will this achieve? Will it be a deterrent, or will it escalate the cycle of violence and make “the relentless wheel” turn even faster?

Politicians are sensitive to public opinion. Can people of faith make themselves heard in calling for restraint?

Even more important is the place of apology. Often we can only let go of our anger when the other person says sorry. The same is true of communities. Pope John Paul II’s words of apology in Jerusalem are a good example of this.

God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations,
we are deeply saddened
by the behavior of those
who in the course of history,
have caused these children of yours to suffer
and asking your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.

This prayer set a seal on the Roman Catholic Church’s growing recognition since Nostra Aetate - known mostly to scholars, clergy, and rabbis - of the suffering caused to God’s chosen people by persecution and centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teaching. It was a public and symbolic act that heralded the new relationship between Jews and Christians.

Just this year, the Queen’s visit to Ireland has set a seal on the new relationship between the Irish and the British people.

Apology to be genuine means an attempt to put right the wrong, but often the past cannot be undone. White Australians may apologize to the Aboriginals and offer compensation, but they cannot give back all the land. The Catholic Church may apologies to those subjected to sexual abuse - but the damage to those people cannot be undone. No one can compensate the victims of the Nazi concentration camps; they are dead. This is why “justice, only justice” may not be possible.

This is why I agree with Archbishop Tutu’s words that “there is no future without forgiveness.” It has been said, however, that the approach of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions - especially in South Africa - reflected a Christian approach. As one rabbi said to me, “Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.”

Would a better understanding of the teaching about forgiveness in each of our religions help the faith communities make a bigger contribution to Bat-Chen’s hope of “marching forward towards peace”?

The Jewish scholar Solomon Schimmel in his important book Wounds Not Healed by Time has said that “Repentance and justice are values in Christianity, just as forgiveness is a value in Rabbinic Judaism. But the former is emphasized more in rabbinic Judaism and the latter in certain Christian denominations.”

Some Christians seek to practice what is sometimes called “radical forgiveness” and are willing to forgive even if the person who hurt them has not expressed sorrow or contrition. (See, for example, the rather misleadingly named book Forgiving Hitler[5].) Schimmel[6] suggests that such an approach is based on a number of theological and psychological premises that he lists:

  1. Human beings are created in the “image of God.”
  2. The “image of God” confers upon humans a special status, dignity, and irrevocable value, so that no matter how evil an act or set of acts a person might perform, he never loses the fundamental, divinely conferred, human dignity with which he was born (created).
  3. People are born corrupted with sin. Yet this state of sinfulness is removed by the sufferings and death of Christ on behalf of mankind, according to Christian doctrine. Christ was willing to suffer so as to bring about the atonement and forgiveness of those who believe in him.
  4. Christians should imitate Christ. Just as Christ was willing to absorb suffering and pain in order that sinful mankind might be forgiven (or at least, those sinners who believed in him), so too must humans be willing to absorb pain and injury perpetrated by offenders and forgive them. This forgiveness does not necessarily preclude bringing them to justice and punishing them, although a victim who forgoes her right to have offenders punished is particularly noble and spiritually heroic.
  5. God has created the world and mankind with the hope that all will ultimately be reconciled with all. We have to do our share in bringing about this redemptive state of love and conciliation by reconciling with others, even as we live in an unredeemed, hate-filled world of sin and corruption.
  6. An important Christian argument for forgiving sinners who do not repent or have not yet repented is that when they see Christian love expressed in forgiveness freely given, this will induce them to repent. A similar claim is made for the use of non-violence in resistance to evil. The redneck sheriff who is forgiven by the blacks whom he beats, or hears them declare their love for him as he brutally strikes them, will be so moved by non-violence that he will eventually realize how evil he has been, repent, and change his ways.

Schimmel then suggests ways in which the emphasis of Rabbinic Judaism is different. Rabbinic Judaism shares the belief that all people are created in the image of God, but there are limits to how patient and forbearing one must be in dealing with the wicked.

Rabbinic Judaism does not share belief in original sin. Humans have a strong propensity to evil (yetzer hara – the “evil inclination”), but it is possible to overcome this, especially by a life of Torah study and obedience to the commandments. Rabbinic Judaism is also more optimistic about human capability for self-improvement. It therefore gives greater weight to human responsibility and repentance as a precondition for forgiveness.

Rabbinic Judaism has not usually spoken about God suffering nor about the redemptive power of suffering.[7] As Rabbi Hugo Gryn said, “You will not find in Judaism the notion which, as I understand it, is rather basic to Christianity, namely that suffering leads to salvation.”[8]

Turning to Islam, I recently heard a Muslim friend amplify Hans Küng’s well-known maxim, “There will be no peace in the world without peace between religions” by adding, “There will be no peace in the world without justice” and “there will be no justice without forgiveness.” His remark stands in sharp contrast to the impression of many in the West that Islam is a harsh and punitive religion.

Almost every chapter of the Qur’an begins with the words, “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.” Even so, I have to admit that I was surprised when I read Mahmoud Ayoub’s words in his contribution to Repentance: a Comparative Perspective that “Repentance is an essential element of the Qur’anic world view” or again that “repentance is one of the fundamental principles of Qur’anic theology and worldview.”[9]

The word most often used in the Qur’an for repentance is tawbah. Its basic meaning is turning. Legally it signifies turning to God for forgiveness of a sin or act of disobedience. Its primary sense, Mahmoud Ayub explained, “is of turning to God as a personal act of love and devotion - and not necessarily from a state of sin. This is a more exalted and deeper level of repentance?” The Prophet Muhammad, for example, whom Muslims believe to have been protected from all sin by God, is said to have declared “I turn to God every day seventy times.” Repentance is more than just asking for forgiveness, it is a turning to God with sincere love and devotion. It includes awe in the presence of the Holy One, awareness of sin and genuine remorse for it, regret over lost opportunities, and a desire to amend one’s life. Yet this change of heart, as the Qur’an makes clear, can itself only be achieved by divine grace. Two other Arabic words used for repentance emphasize this wider meaning. Awbah has the sense of repeated returning to God with humility, devotion and praise and inabah signifies turning to God for help in total submission to his will.

God’s mercy is affirmed in the Qur’an and in the Hadith or traditions. The Qur’an says “God is Oft-forgiving and Most Merciful”(5:98). To despair of God’s infinite mercy is itself a grave sin. God says in the Qur’an, “O my servants who have transgressed against their souls, despair not of the Mercy of Allah, for Allah forgives all sins.” (39:53)

It is said that “When God created the universe, He prescribed with His own hand for Himself, my mercy shall overcome my wrath.” Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, the Talmud says,

“What does the Holy One, blessed be He, pray?” Rav Zutra bar Tovi said in the name of Rav, “May it be My will that My mercy suppresses My anger and that My mercy will prevail over My other attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.”

Tradition in Islam speaks of God seeking the sinner and rejoicing at his repentance, as two examples vividly illustrate. In one it is said:

God is more joyful at the repentance of His servant when He returns to Him than one of you would be if had taken his she-camel with his food and drink into an arid desert. She runs away from him, and he despairs of ever finding her. In desperation, he falls asleep in the shade of a tree. But when he awakes, he finds her standing beside him. With exceeding joy, he rushes to take her by the rope.

On one occasion Muhammad, according to one of the Companions, Anas, said:

Allah says: “When a servant of Mine advances to me by a foot, I advance to him by a yard and when he advances towards Me a yard, I advance towards him the length of his arms’ spread. When he comes to me walking, I go to him running.”

Human beings are meant to mirror the mercy of God. The Qur’an sought to limit private retaliation. Although it is still allowed this, it insisted that revenge, if exacted, must be strictly limited, and made clear that forgiveness or compounding for money were preferable:

O you who believe! Al-Qisas (the Law of Equality in punishment)
Is prescribed to you in the case of murder:
The free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.
But if the killer is forgiven by the brother (or the relatives) of the killed Against blood money, then adhering to it with fairness and payment of Blood-money to the heir should be made in fairness
This is an alleviation and mercy from your Lord...
And there is (a saving of) life for you
In the Law of Equality in punishment,
O men of understanding, that you may become the pious. (2:178-9).

Legal systems based on the Qur’an tend to give greater weight to the injured party or his or her relatives than does British law. Nonetheless, cruel punishments, wherever they occur, need to be challenged both in the name of God and in defense of human rights. True religion should emphasize the justice and mercy of God and seek to have this mirrored in human society.

Where injury is caused to another person, the first requirement of the wrongdoer is that he should compensate the victim. The Prophet, however, urged victims to offer forgiveness:

Let them forgive and overlook,
Do you not wish
That Allah should forgive you? (24:22)

According to an early tradition, Mohammed advised:

“If anyone would like God to save him from the anxieties of the Day of Resurrection, he should grant a respite to one who is in straitened circumstances or remit his debt.” Aisha reported that the Prophet said, “Avert the infliction of prescribed penalties on Muslims as much as you can, and let a man go if there is any way out, for it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.”

Muhammad himself when he returned victorious to Mecca showed a divine mercy. He called for the leaders of the Quraish. They appealed for mercy and the Prophet responded with these words- similar to the words of Joseph to his brother:

This day,
Let no reproach be cast
On you: Allah will forgive you,
And He is the Most Merciful
Of those who show mercy. (12:92)

It is easy to talk about forgiveness, but I know how difficult it is even in ordinary life. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is for those whose loved ones have been killed or tortured, but the only hope for healing and lasting peace is for us to mirror the forgiveness of God. If only we and those who live here could make our own this anonymous prayer from Tel Aviv:

I forgive you for what you have said and done.
I forgive you for what you believe to be true.
I forgive you for making light of the hurt you have caused.
I forgive you for not saying sorry.
I do not withhold my love
If I ever do so, please forgive me. [10]

Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke has been involved in interfaith work for over 40 years, especially through the World Congress of Faiths, which he joined in 1964 and of which he is now President. He was awarded a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury “in recognition of his contribution to the development of inter-religious co-operation and understanding throughout the world.” He is author of over 40 books on world religions and Christianity, including Pilgrimage of Hope, Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age, Time to Meet, How to Understand Judaism, What We Can Learn from Hinduism, and Christian-Jewish Dialogue: the Next Steps.


[1] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, Rider, 1999.

[2] Bat-Chen Shahak, The Bat-Chen Diaries, Minneapolis: Kar-Ben Publishing (Lerner Publishing), 2006, p. 107.

[3] Edwin Muir, Collected Poems by Edwin Muir, Ed. Willa Muir, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1960.

[4] Tutu, op. cit., p.48.

[5] Forgiving Hitler: The Kathy Diosy Story as Told by Kel Richards, Sydney: Matthias Media, 2002.

[6] See Schimmel, pp. 67-70.

[7] But see the writings of Colin Eimer or Hans Jonas in Holocaust Theology, pp. 135-140.

[8] Quoted by Marcus Braybrooke, Time to Meet, SCM Press, 1990, p. 113.

[9] M. Ayoub, ‘Repentance in the Islamic Tradition’ in Repentance: A Comparative Perspective, ed. A. Tezioni and D. E. Carney, Rowman, Lanham, Maryland and Oxford, Littlefield Publishers, 1997, pp. 96-98.

[10] Anonymous, quoted from Marcus Braybrooke, ed., Bridge of Stars, Duncan Baird, 2001, p. 171.