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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 eye...”.

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 mass bloodshed.

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 relatives.

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 an end.
  • 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 Yassin
    Allah said in the Holy Quran, "And whatever affliction befalls you, it is on account of what your hands have wrought."

Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 05-08-2003



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