The book documents the proceedings of a conference of public policymakers and theologians gathered in October 1999 for the symposium, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religious Contributions to Conflict Resolution, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Mainly the John Templeton Foundation sponsored it. The title of the symposium is more precise than the book's title insofar as Public Policy is not very well present in the printed pages. We find a substantial account of what certain religious people and institutions contribute to national crises worldwide by means of conflict resolution and the promotion of reconciliatory proactive efforts in dealing with disastrous situations. There are also theological and religious statements about the significance of forgiveness in the creation of reconciliation. Moreover, there are reports of success stories in concentrated strategies of significant religious authorities and their associations. Such accounts are very valuable for an incorporation of energies dedicated to the redeeming features of forgiveness and reconciliation for those caught in destructive attitudes and related policies. Those who are already involved welcome this publication as a prized substantiation of their ideals to inform others about the fruits of their labors and the related theologies and religious theories. Novices in this field will find a voluminous and respectable introduction into organized efforts in areas where the spirit of peace is needed to stop disaster and genocide.
Because the specialization on forgiveness and reconciliation is rather new in public policy, this is a good beginning in terms of its documentation and the collections of related religious theories. Such beginnings deserve to be sponsored by the Templeton foundation. Its contributors who are mainly associated with Catholic/Christian institutions and/or Centers of International Studies characterize the menu.
Academically, the contributors belong to the humanities and the social studies sectors on campus. They are well spoken and present convincing anecdotal information relevant for a needed understanding of their dedication to peace and reconciliation by emphasizing the significance of forgiveness in political arenas. They are activists committed to this enormously important cause. Their arguments are well stated and as such deserve attention and following. Many contributors have worked at the battlegrounds and were instrumental in channeling reconciliatory energies in mindful ways toward improvements in mutual understanding and related policies. The record of editor, Raymond G. Helmick, is impressive. Similarly exemplary are the noted accomplishments of many of his associates, e.g., Douglas Johnston, Donna Hicks, Olga Botcharova, Audrey Chapman, Ervin Staub, and Laurie Pearlman and others. Readers can be inspired by the dedication and professionalism they bring to this much-needed concentration on reconciliation.
The strength of the book is its weakness, and its weakness is its strength. Most contributors are rooted in the Western humanities and are very eloquent in Christian adaptations of such history. The documentation of their insights is very valuable. However, significantly absent are voices from outside this tradition. For example, there is no inclusion of the Muslim world and their sophisticated laws about peace making and reconciliation. Although there are some traces of venturing into more scientific perceptions of human nature (e.g., Joseph Montville's description of "Psychological Man" p.99-107), physiological roots of reconciliation and compassion are not explored. Although much can be learned from philosophies of Eastern religions, this wisdom is left untapped.
In regard to physiology, modern neurological research and its studies of human emotions record the need for educating the rational potential of human minds. Forgiveness is not just a religious aspect. It is part of the human repertory facilitating effective and productive living. (Cf. on stress, Health, and the Social Environment: A Sociobiologic Approach to Medicine by J.P. Henry and P.M. Stephens, College Press, 1994.) Connections with such physiological dimensions may prove beneficial in taking reconciliation out of its religious wrappings and allowing it to be understood in more natural terms. (The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, among other areas, sponsors research in evolutionary perspectives of Darwinian biology and altruism.) Physio-psychological studies also explain how religious mentalities can be very divisive by a need for demonizing those who are different from their indoctrinated groups. Helmick asks the question, "Does Religion Fuel or Heal in Conflicts?" His answers are somewhat defensive in favor of the healing capacity of religions. Distinctions should be made between "religion" and "religious." One can be religious without having a religion.
Obviously, by their very nature, religions create boundaries and differentiate between "us" and the others. Moreover, the "us" is better than what is outside "us." This sets the stage for an unnecessary demonizing which fuels conflicts, as can be seen worldwide and throughout human history. (Cf. A. Toynbee, A Study of History. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.) In Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis (The New York Review, May 1999, 58-62) Michael Ignatieff, a history professor at the London School of Economics, reports that the formulation of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, started in 1947, received much criticism from organized religions and their authorities. They opposed the idea that human rights are rooted in human nature. They wanted rights to be authorized by a divine authority. This is often the prejudice of organized religions. Truly religious people may have the greatness of heart and mind to transcend such tribalistic mentalities in the name of a compassionate spirituality.
As a final note, people favoring political actions in the promotion of reconciliation by means of forgiveness are to embrace a spirituality that transcends denominational attitudes. More universal mentalities are often rooted in much education and an enlightenment flowing from true introspection and a continuous moral development. After all, Lawrence Kohlberg concluded that after his six stages of moral development, a seventh stage emerges energized by a mystical awareness of a universal consciousness. Reconciliation is not just political correct in the name of a theological or religious embrace of forgiveness. There shall be discussions of forgiveness knowing that some may be unwise and can be destructive psychologically and mentally. Chapman mentions The Fall to Violence by Marjorie Suchocki. This may be a good reference for a future symposium on forgiveness.
This book is also valuable for listing at the end "Worldwide Organizations Promoting Forgiveness and Reconciliation." Seeing all these concerted efforts makes one feel good and hopeful about the future of humanity.