Middle East Roundtable
Refocusing on Forgiveness Would Produce Peace, Stability
David Work, Jordan Times,
14 July 2003
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Some people make ethical or moral decisions almost as a
reflex. When a person is killed, we often hear relatives demanding revenge.
Then they search for support in respected references as if reprisal were a
natural consequence arising out of accepted doctrine. Probably the best
example of this retro-rationalisation is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Common sense would reverse this process beginning with fundamental precepts
and then proceeding to a more sensible conclusion.
We have all heard the maxim that begins “An eye for any eye...” which
justifies or, some say, even compels revenge. Some basis for this thinking
comes from the early books of the Bible. Both Christians and Jews often cite
the verse in Exodus to support this view. Followers of Islam point to text
in the Koran, Surah 5: which may be translated as “Life for life, eye for
These references are often cited as the basis for the constant conflict in
the Middle East with the revenge cycle in full spin. Nobody knows or, it
seems, cares who threw the first stone or fired the first bullet. Strict
adherence to this principle guarantees continuing conflict as long as anyone
has the physical strength to continue.
It has always seemed odd to me that some people who espouse Christianity are
vigorous advocates of vengeance. The New Testament message in red print
specifically repudiates this view that some people with a high degree of
religiosity just don't get.
Peace is not an option when religion commands war. But this all depends on
where one looks for guidance. A verse in Isaiah talks about beating swords
into ploughshares to cultivate peace. On the other hand, a Joel citation
instructs believers to beat their ploughshares into swords and pruning hooks
into spears in preparation for war.
Both Semites, the Arabs and the Jews are ethnic cousins and now neighbours.
One can see similarities in the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys in
this country. Over generations, this dispute has subsided even to the point
of occasional intermarriage. The Holy Land, however, has an additional
dimension, with at least two sets of clerics to foment memories and point to
scriptural support. This also has the added element of building
ecclesiastical influence, which further exacerbates the conflict.
Apparently, leaders have not read far enough in the Koran to find the
section in Surah 42 which can be translated as: “Whoever forgives and amends
shall have his reward from Allah”. Indeed, one root of the meaning of Islam
is “peace”. The Book of Leviticus specifically instructs Jews to “not seek
revenge or bear a grudge...”. And Christians somehow just never get far
enough into Matthew to remember the part about turning the other cheek,
going the extra mile and the admonition to love one's enemy.
As bad as the situation in the Middle East is, and it seems to get worse
every day, there's still hope for a positive outcome. Not long ago, the
plight in South Africa was so ominous that no optimist could be found. The
emergence of strong leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu,
from the oppressed majority turned the tide.
The Middle East could use leadership of their stature. The consensus for
reconciliation, a brand of forgiveness, has defused a situation headed for
One of my law school professors related a conversation he had with a jurist
from Iran who was visiting the college. During the usual exchange of
greetings, the blond and blue-eyed American professor remarked that he had
some relatives from that part of the world. The surprised Iranian inquired
as to specifics, and the professor said that historians placed the Garden of
Eden somewhere near, and if we accept the story in Genesis, then we are all
This novel approach has merit. One would, of course, need to recast the
phrase “you choose your friends but not your relatives” to “you choose your
friends from your relatives”.
Beginning with forgiveness as a fundamental principle would avoid the
revenge cycle and make peace possible. Every other approach has failed, so a
new tactic to get out of the revenge rut should be tried.
Forgiveness is the gift one gives to oneself. Its primary benefit is
emancipation from obsession with revenge, removing that obstacle to a full
and productive life.
We should reject the primitive and corrosive notion of revenge. Certainly we
are not on this earth for constant reciprocal murder. We need to adopt the
more civilised and restorative belief in forgiveness. Refocusing by all
sides on forgiveness or mercy would produce peace and stability, both
essential for the commerce that is the lifeblood of modern society.
The writer is a member of the Congregation at Duke University
Chapel, Durham, and a former president of the Chapel Hill Chapter of the
United Nations Association. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.
More on the religious dimension
in Middle East politics
- Simple answers no
longer suffice - by Laila Al-Marayati
Even if the majority of Israelis support a return to pre-1967 borders in
exchange for peace, hardline American Zionists would oppose such a move.
- Religion and the
Middle East - by Umit Ozdag
It does not seem possible that religion-centered conflicts will come to
- A post-Islamist
age? - by Emmanuel Sivan
The bourgeois embrace authoritarian regimes for fear of the alternative.
- Human misery comes
from human mistakes - interview with Ahmad
Allah said in the Holy Quran, "And whatever affliction befalls you, it
is on account of what your hands have wrought."
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