Joram Tarusarira on Apology & Forgiveness: Reflecting on Lessons from Zimbabwe

There’s a new post on ‘The Religion Factor’ blog, ‘The Politics of Apology: Zimbabwe after the 2018 Elections,’ by Joram Tarusarira. It is well worth a read.

Tarusarira, director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalisation at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, takes a ‘critical look at apology and forgiveness, their susceptibility to abuse as well as their transformative potential’.

While his reflections are specific to Zimbabwe, they are relevant for other contexts transitioning from violence like our own here in Northern Ireland, where the current, ongoing consultation process on dealing with the legacy of the past is raising issues of apology and forgiveness once again.

I urge you to read the full piece here, but I have reproduced some particularly striking excerpts below, with my own comments in italics:

The Politics of Apology

Here, Tarusarira raises some issues that resonate in Northern Ireland, where Christianity has at times been used to pressure people to forgive:

In reflecting on reconciliation after violence in Zimbabwe, the questions of ‘apology’ and ‘forgiveness’ are often raised. In this contribution, I take a critical look at apology and forgiveness, their susceptibility to abuse as well as their transformative potential. I hope to warn against the naïveté of hastily and uncritically forgiving when apology is offered. This is especially relevant in the Zimbabwean context, where forgiveness is often presented as a measure of one’s faith or religiosity, and where failure to forgive when an apology is offered is seen in a bad light.

The Bible is awash with verses on forgiveness, with encouragement to forgive once apology is given. Examples include Luke 17: 3, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them,’ and Acts 2: 38, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Religious systems differ in their prescriptions about when to forgive. For example, many Jews view repentance and atonement as prerequisites for forgiveness (Dorff, 1998; Levine, 2000; Prager essay in Wiesenthal, 1998; Schimmel, 2002), whereas Christians commonly believe that forgiveness should be unconditional (Jeffress, 2000; Rye et al., 2000; Smedes, 1996). Healing and forgiveness are often coupled at the center of Jesus’ ministry. Despite the immense research on the concept of forgiveness in religion, theology, and philosophy, very little explicit attention has been paid to forgiveness by discourse scholars. This piece argues that what we lack from the discussions on apology and forgiveness to date are their transformative and programmatic dimensions, which I seek to argue for using the case of the Gukurahundi massacres (one of many similar atrocities committed in the country).

Apologies are about the future, not the past — an intriguing idea:

Public apologies can only be effective if certain conditions are met, otherwise they can be self-serving, insincere and counterproductive. Apologies must be carefully crafted and thoroughly implemented. They offer moral recognition and acknowledgement of the human worth and dignity of victims. They can be empowering by retracting messages of degradation and worthlessness. But their potential does not lie in simple pronouncements. They must be accompanied by a commitment to make practical amends in light of the knowledge and acknowledgement of past atrocities. Even more importantly, they must address the systems, structures, ideas and ideologies that justified the wrongdoing to begin with. Otherwise, the same wrongdoing can be repeated to the same victim(s), or to others. An apology is thus not an event, but a processThe issuance of it might be a short event, but it should initiate a process showing commitment to reform and transformation. Apologies are not necessarily about the past, because they cannot undo past wrongs. Rather, they must be more about a sustainable future. A process of reflection to reach a consensus on what was wrong, what justified it ideologically, and what specific commitments must be taken in response, must accompany a statement of apology.

Tarusarira calls for a ‘programmatic and transformative apology’, that follows words with action. In Northern Ireland or elsewhere, this seems to be the best option if an apology is to be meaningful:

[a programmatic and transformative apology is] … defined as an apology with a commitment to a programme of practical amends such democratization, justice and a peaceful environment, which demonstrates a turning away from the culture and ideas and ideologies of violence.

… Clamoring for an apology as an end in itself, without demanding concrete measures such as a peaceful political environment and a change in ideas and ideologies, can involve complicity in the maintenance and perpetuation of oppression and injustice. Victims might find themselves in a situation where they are pressured to forgive. In the wake of an apology, they are pressured to rid themselves of all natural feelings of resentment, as if an apology is a button which, once pressed, shakes off feelings of resentment. To pressure victims to forgive or overcome resentment (internal changes) may overlook the external changes that are needed in the aftermath of war or conflict. To ask victims to forgive without demanding or ensuring the transformation of ideas, ideologies, systems and structures that perpetuate injustice is tantamount to asking victims to induce injustice unto themselves.

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