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The Way to Peace Can Be Paved With Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Negotiation

Olga Bonfiglio

Peace activists are often accused of being naíve dreamers when it comes to dealing with conflict or dangerous enemies.

So what is the alternative? Usually it's to fight fire with fire (i.e., revenge and retaliation).

The very nature of peacemaking, however, is not to fight but rather to confront "the opponent" with intelligence, craftiness, humor and a thirst for justice. We have some splendid examples of this approach in Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, just to name a few. Skeptics recoil and sputter that such people were exceptions.

However, let's not forget that these "peace heroes" inspired ordinary people to follow them and choose to become part of a movement for change.

Skeptics also claim that the American "sheeple" cannot be moved because they are asleep, unaware, too numb and too busy to care about injustices. They also say it is impossible to fight against the awesome power of Corporate America, Big Government and other power brokers.

OK, then maybe that's a cue for peace activists' next challenge: How can we inspire others so deeply that they choose to form a movement for change from violence and war to peace; from hatred to love; from revenge and retaliation to forgiveness and reconciliation; from an obstinate refusal to communicate to negotiation?

Let's look at some recent examples of the impossible.

The Amish

On October 2, 2006, ten Amish girls were gunned down in a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

A community known for its gentleness, religious faith and the rejection of modern technological society had been severely violated. However, within six hours of the shooting, Amish leaders reached out to family members of the killer to let them know that they forgave him and still regarded them as part of the community.

The typical Amish attitude about forgiveness is: "We have to forgive others so that God will forgive us." They formed this outlook on life 300 years ago when their ancestors, the Anabaptists, were persecuted and tortured by Catholic and Protestant religious authorities who objected to their belief in a second baptism. And even as they were burning at the stake, those same Anabaptist martyrs forgave their persecutors, just as Jesus did to his persecutors during his crucifixion 2,000 years before.

The Amish practice of humility, submission and patience "provides them with an enormous capacity to absorb adversity, forgo revenge and carry on-gracefully," say the authors of Amish Grace, a book about the Nickel Mines community's response to this terrible tragedy. It was forgiveness that opened everyone to grace and everyone and everything was suddenly changed.

South Africa

April 27, 1994, marked the day apartheid ended and all of South Africa voted. Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison after 27 years with 18 in solitary confinement, was elected South Africa's first black president.

Mandela's victory became even more incredible when he called on the post-apartheid government's efforts to create peace and equality among the races. He did this by getting the new government to pass a general amnesty toward those who were guilty of the crimes and atrocities of apartheid as long as they made a full disclosure of all the facts of their activities.

The victims of apartheid would likewise waive their right to sue for compensation and instead accept reparations. Reparations, then, became a symbolic gesture of the nation that bore the victims' pain and trauma. Mandela's underlying assumption was that peace in South Africa could only be won when the people admitted that evil was present in everyone.

"We sat down and negotiated with our former enemies," said Bishop Desmond Tutu, presidential appointee of the Truth and Reconciliation Committees, the key instrument in healing the wounds of apartheid. "We forgot the past, looked for the best in everyone, and came to terms with the ghastly things done by both sides."

Tutu illustrated how this worked by citing an "incredibly moving" inter-faith service he attended in Pretoria.

Survivors who had endured the killing of 11 people in their community held hands with the white police officer who had given the order to kill their family and friends years before.

The officer had applied and was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but he also was required to make a public show of regret for his actions by asking the community to forgive him of his deeds. At first, the community was hostile toward him and disbelieved his repentance, but he pressed them to move beyond the past.

"In that moment, barriers toppled," said Tutu, "and the community forgave him."

"We don't know how it can happen, but it happened. Former enemies were able to find one another in magnanimity, even after they experienced untold suffering. They all had good reasons for revenge, but by discovering their own capacities for evil as part of the whole picture of themselves, they were able to forgive and forget."


Burundi is a geographically-isolated country in the Great Lakes region of east-central Africa with a population of 6 million, down considerably after four decades of civil war, genocide, displacement and an epidemic of HIV affecting nearly four percent of the adult population.

Roughly 85 percent of the population is of the marginalized Hutu ethnic origin while most of the minority is the politically dominant Tutsi.

The coffee-based economy (78 percent of its export trade) make it the lowest GDP per capita in the world at US$90 compared to $43,594 in the United States.

It's no wonder that Burundi was recently declared the country with the lowest "satisfaction with life". Howard Wolpe, currently director of the Africa Program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former seven-term U.S. congressman, had been working with Burundi for 10 years including five years as presidential special envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region. After getting the go-ahead from the World Bank, Wolpe instituted the Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP), which aimed to develop the leaders' communication and negotiation skills needed to guide Burundi's recovery and transition to democracy.

Wolpe went beyond conventional diplomacy, which is usually aimed at obtaining a "quick acceptance" to agreements hammered out by lawyers. The missing element in that process is to take into consideration the personalities of the leaders who harbored decades of fear, mistrust and suspicion.

According to the Wilson Center Web site, the BLTP, "seeks to enable leaders from belligerent parties to address four challenges that are key to the achievement of a durable peace: (1) shifting key leaders from a zero-sum mindset to one that recognizes interdependence and the importance of collaboration; (2) rebuilding the trust and relationships among key leaders that have been fractured by conflict; (3) strengthening their communication and negotiation skills; and (4) rebuilding a consensus on how power should be organized and decisions made."

The Burundi Program has been so successful that Wolpe has been invited to work with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and most recently, East Timor.

For those of us who want change we need to remember that just because our leadership does not possess the qualities of forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation, does not mean that "we the people" can't. And if we really believe in democratic governance, then it is incumbent on us to initiate and "be the change" in order to show our leaders the way.

Forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation are not easy. However, they are essential if we are to move beyond our present divisions, hatreds, violence and war both at home and abroad.

Peace activists, in particular, can make a difference everyday to serve as bridges in our local communities so that the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation can spread throughout our country and the world.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of "Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq" (2005). She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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