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Forgiveness and Revenge, in Politics and Business

A Woodstock Conversation with William Bole, Robert Bies, Robert Hennemeyer, and John Langan, S.J.

October 2006



by Gasper Lo Biondo, S.J., Director of the Woodstock Theological Center

George Bernard Shaw said, “The secret of forgiving everything is to understand nothing.” For all we know, this may be one way of entering into the grace of forgiveness, but growing numbers of people are, thoughtfully and creatively, taking the opposite approach. They are seeking to understand the dynamics of forgiveness and the forces of unforgiveness, not simply in the interpersonal context, but in various public arenas.

At the Woodstock Theological Center, we have been privileged to sponsor many of these seminal discussions over the past decade, beginning with our formal project on forgiveness and conflict resolution, which produced the 2003 book, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace, published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On many occasions, we have brought together diplomats, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, and other peace practitioners. And, with the help of theologians and ethicists, we have invited them to reflect on their experiences in the trenches of politics and conflict. That is part and parcel of the whole methodology that continues to drive Woodstock’s reflections on other concerns, such as economic globalization.

During our project, scholars and practitioners arrived at a rough consensus: there is a politics of forgiveness that can contribute to social healing and international conflict resolution. More recently, Woodstock has renewed this discussion while also seeking to extend it into other areas of social life, particularly the business world.

On May 16, 2006, we sponsored an evening of conversation titled “Forgiveness and Revenge, in Politics and Business,” held in the Woodstock Library at Georgetown University. The program featured presentations by William Bole, Robert T. Hennemeyer, and Robert J. Bies (each of whom will be introduced in the following sections), and was moderated by John Langan, S.J., a social ethicist at Georgetown and a former senior fellow as well as acting director of Woodstock. What we present here is an edited version of those remarks, including responses and reflections by Father Langan; John Borrelli, who overseas interreligious initiatives at Georgetown University; and Sister of St. Joseph Cathy Nerney, a theologian who was a visiting Woodstock fellow last spring and has journeyed to Rwanda to understand the dynamics of forgiveness and revenge in our time.

We have come to the judgment that conventional politics and business as usual are not sufficient in dealing with the conflicts that tear our world, our communities, and our workplaces. Something more is needed, as Douglas Johnston, a scholar and former highranking military official, argues persuasively. “Certainly no diplomatic or military solution will ever break the cycle of revenge. Unless one can introduce a spiritual component that gets to the business of forgiveness and reconciliation, the same drumbeat is likely to repeat itself for the next few centuries,” Johnston commented during one of the Woodstock discussions.

We hope that such conversation will lead to further theological reflection upon the role of forgiveness in politics and business, and to further insights into the ways in which various social actors can contribute to healing in our world.


Forgiveness in Politics: Reality, Utility, and Limits

By William Bole

It is easy to fall back on the notion that forgiveness is little more than a lofty ideal of global politics, yet there is another way of tackling the subject, according to William Bole. He is a research fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center, a writer and editor based in Massachusetts, and coauthor (with Robert T. Hennemeyer and Drew Christiansen, S.J.) of Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace. The 2003 book emerged from a Woodstock project that examined forgiveness as a process of peacemaking, a set of political dynamics, “moving forward, paradoxically, in some of the harshest intergroup conflicts of our time,” as Bole explains here.

It says something about the state of the world that Woodstock wasn’t sure whether to make the theme of this conversation forgiveness or revenge. Father Gap Lo Biondo and Ann Coughlin (the coordinator of tonight's event) and I had a threeway telephone conversation, and Gap said, “We could do revenge. We’re Sicilian.” He was referring to himself and me. I’m half-Sicilian.

And, I can’t deny there have been some infamous acts of retribution by notorious Sicilians. Less widely known is the exquisite blend of revenge and religion that comes to us through a highlight of that history. I’m speaking of Sicilian Vespers, the name given to a rebellion in 1282, when Sicily was ruled by the Normans, despotically. The way I heard it when I was growing up in Brooklyn, somehow all the Sicilians made a plan, and kept it secret, that when the bells toll for vespers on Easter Monday, 1282, everybody would pull out a knife and stab a Norman — in the head. Or I guess somewhere else, if you had a soldier who was so unsporting as to be wearing one of those coneshaped Norman helmets. Later on I learned that this particular narrative was more legend than history. There was a fierce uprising, but it was more spontaneous than that. It started off in Palermo, where my maternal grandparents came from, spread from there and led to bloody massacres of Normans, not just the conquerors in conical helmets, but men, women, and children, all across the Island.

So, we could do revenge. And in our time, the cycles of revenge and retribution in so many places are part of what lends an air of implausibility to forgiveness as a tool of international conflict resolution. That’s the first thing that must be said — that admittedly, the whole notion of forgiveness can seem counterintuitive in an age when people crash planes into skyscrapers. It’s an unlikely topic, but it’s real, and that’s the second point and it’s what I’ll focus on in these remarks, drawing from headlines just in recent weeks. How real is forgiveness in today’s global politics? Is forgiveness a strategically useful concept, useful in repairing relationships that have long been sundered in a number of fractious societies? We concluded that forgiveness has been a reality and that it does have utility in peace initiatives and conflict resolution.

I think that would come as a surprise to most people, and it would stir skepticism even among many who are involved in peace work. A common impression would be that forgiveness is, at best, an ideal of global statecraft, an ideal that’s not quite realizable in this dangerous world. Many would look upon forgiveness as a counsel of perfection. And there’s truth in that, especially in light of the ultimate understanding of forgiveness that comes to us from Christian faith, comes to us from the Cross. But any real conviction of faith has to have implications for our lives, has to be translatable to some degree in a lessthanperfect world. The question is: How do you do this? How do you reason your way from deity to diplomacy? How do you argue your way from piety to strategy? Well, this is what we have Jesuits for.

In our case, we had not only Jesuits but a Presbyterian ethicist named Donald W. Shriver, Jr., who took a generous part in our project from the beginning. Shriver wrote a groundbreaking book titled An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics, and his signal contribution was to offer a workable definition of forgiveness in politics, a definition that included four basic elements: truth, forbearance, empathy, and the commitment to repair a fractured human relationship.

What this conception works against is a tendency to take forgiveness all too literally as applied to the public square, a tendency to think that forgiveness happens pretty much only when somebody says “you’re forgiven” or when somebody otherwise buries the hatchet, once and for all. You don’t want to hold your breath waiting for that to happen in the midst of extreme political conflict. And I think you could miss a lot when you’re operating with that literal, undifferentiated notion.

Our tack was different. Our tack was to look at the inner dynamics of forgiveness as they were moving forward, paradoxically, in some of the harshest intergroup conflicts of our time. To do that, you have to break up the concept of forgiveness. You have to break it into some usable parts. And one component that we found useable and effective in practical efforts of intergroup reconciliation was acknowledgment — the acknowledgment of wrongdoing by yourself or your group. That falls somewhere shy of an apology, but in our book, it’s a transaction of forgiveness. We’ve seen it many, many times in Northern Ireland. We saw it often, though less visibly, in the former Yugoslavia.

You won’t see much of it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that’s why I was struck recently to read comments by Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli naval commander, former head of the domestic security service in Israel, and a political newcomer. He recently ran on the Labor Party ticket in the Knesset election, he won a seat, and he attracted wide attention with his views on negotiating with the Hamas leadership. He said, “Should we speak with Hamas? They have blood on their hands. I have more blood on my hands. I killed more Arabs than they killed Israelis, and I say I have the right to lead any peace process.” He continued, “We should talk to anyone who accepts a two-state solution and Israel as a Jewish state.” Here you have a glimmer of forgiveness, by way of straightforward acknowledgment. What also comes through here is at least a sign of the desire to eventually reconcile. Whether that sentiment will multiply in that miserable conflict, whether it will ever nurture an atmosphere of forgiveness, nobody knows.

But we’ve seen more than mere glints of forgiveness. The most celebrated example is South Africa, where the black majority more or less abstained from revenge after overthrowing the brutal system of apartheid. And, the primary vehicle of forgiveness in South Africa was — what? — a truth commission. That’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Nelson Mandela set up and Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired.

And there are many unheralded examples. I’d be interested in an inside account of what led up to the announcement some weeks ago by the Basque separatists that they were laying down their arms. These are the folks who have been wreaking terror in Spain for almost four decades, and they held a press conference declaring an unconditional, permanent ceasefire. But to me, the most interesting detail in the news reports was that lurking at the press conference were fellows — and I don’t mean research fellows — from the Irish Republican Army. Over the years, IRA leaders had been drawn or dragged into a broad process of not simply demilitarization, but mutual repentance and forgiveness in Northern Ireland. The Boston Globe, always alert to the Irish angle, interviewed some of the Basques, who explained that the IRA had encouraged them along the political path, had advised them on the advantages of entering a reconciliation process, of not continuing down the road of retribution. And the IRA people there said they had simply done for the Basques what the black South Africans, through the African National Congress, had done for them in the late 1990s, which was, roughly speaking, to tutor them in the politics and strategy of forgiveness. Would it be grossly exaggerating to say that here you have something of a globalization of forgiveness?

Assembling the Parts of Forgiveness

In these political contexts, sometimes people have used the word “forgiveness.” Usually they don’t, and they don’t need to. Nelson Mandela didn’t gush about forgiveness when he made his white jailer — the guy who kept the keys when he was a political prisoner — an honored guest at his presidential inauguration. But Mandela’s gesture was a transaction of forgiveness, a gesture of forbearance from revenge, an expression of the will to reconcile. In South Korea, Kim Dae Jung didn’t say, “I forgive you,” at his presidential inauguration, where he stood beside several exautocrats who had made many sincere efforts over the years to kill him. He didn’t need to. He simply declared — the politics of retaliation is over. And it was.

Sometimes all you’ll find is a decision to not to seek retribution, to not settle the score. That counts. That’s all part of the politics of forgiveness, at least as we parsed it in the book, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace, and in the Woodstock project that produced the book in 2004. I think one benefit of the Shriver/Woodstock approach is that it helps you see forgiveness as a process, a social process, not as an isolated act between two consenting individuals, not something that happens all at once, I’d say not something that should happen all at once. And this approach also helps you see how the process can break down or stall at the starting gate when it’s lacking essential dynamics.

In El Salvador, the Jesuit community called for a process of forgiving those responsible for assassinating the six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, at the University of Central America. But there were conditions: the perpetrators had to acknowledge their crimes and repent in some way. That’s the element of moral truth. It didn’t happen. The official reconciliation process there wasn’t structured in a way to make it happen. So that’s one lesson in the annals of forgiveness in politics.

One more thing that ought to be said has to do with the limits of forgiveness in politics, and this is where you’d find some of Father John Langan’s fingerprints on our text. Not every act of forgiveness will be efficacious. There will ambiguities, and there have been plenty of those, often having to do with the proper doses of mercy and justice, in places like South Africa and East Timor. There will be miscalculations and unintended consequences. That’s another way of italicizing that forgiveness in politics is in politics.

I know part of the purpose of this conversation is to help steer this topic toward other routes of reflection, such as business ethics. In that spirit, I’ll close with a few questions in that proximate direction. I’ve wondered if forgiveness might have a role in addressing the deepening economic divisions in our own society. I’ve also wondered if there might be a place for forgiveness in repairing the fractured relationships that exist between city and suburb or between the parts of core cities not yet gentrified and upscale suburbs.

I live in an affluent town next door to one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in New England — Lawrence, Massachusetts. I live almost literally next door to Lawrence. I think there’s a lot of fear and resentment in our town, directed at Lawrence, and there’s also, I should say, a lot of sympathy and generosity. A lot of the distaste for the city is gratuitous, I think, but certainly not all of it. My family recently had a night out at the emergency room of Lawrence General Hospital. My wife slipped on a toy and tumbled down the stairs, dislocating her knee and busting her knee cap. I wasn’t there. I was here, at Georgetown, a few weeks ago. They went to Lawrence General, and my kids had to encounter, among others, a gentleman who had been stabbed in the stomach. This is the view of the city that many people have, but it’s a diminished view.

What’s the truth about the relationship between our town and that city? Are there things to acknowledge about our mutual interdependence? How do we begin to repair these fractured social relationships? And I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.


2. A View from the Embassy: Forgiveness and the Role of Religion in World Conflict

By Robert Hennemeyer

Although there are many historical reasons to keep religion at arms length from politics, today it is imprudent to ignore the role of religious actors in regional and international conflicts, says Robert T. Hennemeyer, a career U.S. foreign service officer who coordinated Woodstock’s forgiveness project and coauthored the book that emerged from the project. Diplomats and other practitioners of conflict resolution must engage these religious actors, without trying to manipulate them; religious activists must recognize their own limits by working closely with state representatives, says Ambassador Hennemeyer”"whose principal diplomatic assignments were as consul general in Duesseldorf, deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, consul general in Munich, and Ambassador to The Gambia. (Subsequently, he was director of the Office for International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.) Here, among other examples, Ambassador Hennemeyer points to the Sant’Egidio community, a global Catholic movement based in Rome and dedicated to peace, justice, prayer, and interreligious dialogue. In 1992, the community played a leading role in mediating an end the 16year civil war in Mozambique, which had taken hundreds of thousands of lives.

I’ve been asked to say a few words on this evening’s subject from the perspective of 35 years as a practicing diplomat. My primary focus is on forgiveness, but I’ll touch on the role of religion in international relations. There was a remarkable book edited principally by Douglas Johnston, Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. It came out a decade ago, one of the earliest efforts that I know of that broached this important subject. I liked it so much that I helped organize a conference at DACOR, a local diplomatic association, on the same theme. Our keynote speaker, Father Bryan Hehir, drawing on his academic study of the Peace of Westphalia [1], explained to us how religion was — in a way, as part of the peace settlement — secularized. In the view of those who negotiated the treaty, religion had done so much mischief during in the Thirty Years War that the Peace of Westphalia had to insure that it didn’t intrude again. So we have a tradition lasting from that time, in diplomacy and scholarship, to do your best to keep religion out of conflict.

Bryan said the Peace of Westphalia represented a firm decision to “radically separate religion from politics. The result of this decision — its continuation in the study and practice of diplomacy — has been a quite secular conception of the world. The argument is that religion can only be more trouble than help if you introduce it into world affairs, and therefore it is better to keep it separate.” Douglas Johnston argues that this secular mindset resulted in U.S. foreign policy misreading the importance of religion as a factor in the national politics and international behavior of certain countries and regions.

I think this has often been true, and it’s due largely to top policy “deciders,” for lack of a better word, in Washington. In my experience, most of my colleagues at the midlevel policy ranks were generally alert to the need to carefully monitor the local impacts of religion in their areas of assignment. For example, Bruce Langan, who was our ChargΓ© in Tehran, understood quite well what the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini might mean to the Shah and his oligarchy. But, I am equally certain that Henry Kissinger did not.

A more personal example: when I was Consul General in Munich many years ago, I made a serious effort to get to know the then Archbishop of Munich, whom as you know since then has been promoted [2]. Bavaria is overwhelmingly Catholic, and still today, supports the dominant political party, the Christian Social Union, which is strongly influenced by the Church. If you’re going to work there and understand the dynamics of the social and political fabric of Bavaria, one of the people you should know is the Archbishop of Munich. 1 The treaties that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe, in 1648. 2 The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Another example: the illfated African Socialism propounded by Julius Nyerere, the then president of Tanzania, another country where I served. It had its Fabian [3] roots, but it also owed much to Nyerere’s Catholic faith and his understanding of the Church’s social teaching, something that has been often missed.

Unfortunately, our foreign policy deciders often have very little international experience — they have strong political loyalties, and too often have ideological blinders. Even the best efforts of people in the field to alert headquarters to the importance of the religious component in a particular situation are either ignored or misunderstood. Clearly, if you do not understand the social and political influence of religious institutions in conflict situations, you cannot work with them when opportunities arise to mitigate a particular conflict. I emphasize working with them, because if you assume they can be used as foreign policy tools, you will probably be mistaken.

Working with a religious entity to accomplish the mitigation of a conflict requires a broader partnership. You have to involve state actors as well. But frequently the religious component, the religious entity can open a door that the state component cannot.

There’s a very useful article in the latest Peace Works, which is the publication of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The author, David Smock, makes the point that it’s critical to link faithbased peacemaking to secular and political processes and authorities. Perhaps the most successful example of this was the role of the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome, in ending the civil war in Mozambique. After making an initial breakthrough with the Renamo rebels in that country, Sant’Egidio sought and gained the collaboration of the Italian and U.S. governments as well as the Vatican, in the successful pursuit of a resolution of that long and bloody conflict.

Madeleine Albright has just come out with a book, The Mighty and the Almighty, in which she cites the role of empathy that’s so important in Donald Shriver’s definition of forgiveness in politics. For example: the empathy for other faiths shown by Presidents Carter and Clinton in their peace efforts in the Middle East. As an aside, she quotes Clinton as saying that he’d much rather discuss religion with a Catholic than with a fellow Southern Baptist. He said that with a Catholic, you can have your discussion and identify your differences and leave them there. With Southern Baptists, they’ll continue to argue.

It’s important to put forgiveness in the context of a process in which it can be the happy end product, but, in which, even stops along the way — call them accommodation, cooperation, or whatever — can have a positive effect. And, even if the process stalls there for a while, the road to real forgiveness can still be a possibility. In the international sphere, it is only very rarely that you will encounter forgiveness as a single prophetic act. It’s much more helpful to think of it as a process.

I don’t disagree that there is a need for greater understanding of the role of religion and international politics for professional diplomatic practitioners, as well as for wellmeaning amateurs. But I have found, as I mentioned, that most of my colleagues in areas where religion is a major factor, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Ireland and elsewhere, understand the role of religion, and they also understand the role of “mythohistory” — what you think happened in the past and the reasons why you have to be angry. It’s like that old joke about Irish Alzheimer’s — you forget everything but your grudges.

At the same time, I have found only limited understanding of the importance of religion among my political bosses when I worked at the State Department, primarily because they were largely amateurs. They came in without much field experience, and they seldom had to work in those conflicted environments. I think that situation is improving, but until there is a greater appreciation of the need for professionalism in senior positions, progress is going to be slow.

I wrote a brief article when Woodstock’s forgiveness project was still underway, and I cited Don Shriver’s quote from the Robert Frost poem “The Star Splitter” — “To be social is to be forgiving.” I asked, “Does this suggest that a wish to seek an eventual solution to a conflict situation is a natural consequence of being social? I think so. There may be a basic peace or compromise vocabulary to which all humans, religious or not, respond. At least some of this teaching may be implanted in all of us.”

You can understand my pleasure, then, in reading an article in the University of Chicago magazine about the work of neurologist Jean DeCety, who, after extensive MRI research with a large human sample, states: “Empathy begins with the involuntary shared emotion. This is something that is hardwired into our brains, the capacity to automatically perceive and share others’ feelings.” This seems to validate at least part of Don Shriver’s definition, and I think it validates some of our own work.


A Dish Served Cold: Revenge and Reconciliation in the Workplace

By Robert Bies

International conflict is a necessary and obvious context of discussions about forgiveness in the public arena, but there are other public settings where forgiveness is a factor. One of these is the workplace, which Robert J. Bies has studied extensively. He is a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and editorial board member of several publications including The Journal of Management. Professor Bies, who has led seminars for executives at corporations such as Marriott, Eli Lilly, and HewlettPackard, says in summary, “I think the workplace connects to this whole discussion of forgiveness because it is a place where people look for peace and community in an imperfect and unfair world.” It is a also place where many people work out, if not act out, their feelings of revenge, according to Professor Bies, whose provocative work has centered on what he sees as creative interconnections between revenge, justice, healing, and forgiveness.

For the last 25 years, I have been looking at the question: What arouses the sense of injustice in the workplace? And after a while I began to draw from the legal theorist Edmond Cahn’s view that justice is the process of eliminating that which arouses the sense of injustice. That definition led me to ask: What do people do with this sense of injustice once they have it? And that led me into the research of the last decade with my colleague Tom Tripp of Washington State University, looking at revenge as one response to the sense of injustice. I know that “revenge” is a provocative term, particularly in the context of the workplace.

Of course, on the international stage, revenge plays out on a large and dramatic scale, with serious consequences. But there is revenge in the workplace as well, acts that allow us to “peer into the soul of discontent.” And there is quite a lot of discontent. What do people do with that? What gives rise to revenge? I’ll say up front that — for the most part — revenge has bad consequences. But Tom and I don’t take the doctrinaire view that revenge is always bad. Revenge sometimes can be good if it stops the harm that arouses the sense of injustice. A lot of themes in literature and movies are about the avenger. What’s Zorro about? What’s Spiderman about? These and other characters are all about revenge. Shakespeare said, “And if you’re wrong, shall we not revenge?” But then there is Gandhi: “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” Those are two different perspectives on revenge.

When I was doing my background research on revenge before I did the empirical research, it became clear to me that historically, revenge was synonymous with justice from the beginning of mankind and womankind. But then once the state became very complex and wanted to control many areas of social life, it disentangled revenge and justice. The state wanted to take over the justice function and not leave it to individuals. Nonetheless, in the workplace, revenge is still in the hands of individuals, the people who work in the organization.

Here is an academic definition: revenge is an action that is intended to inflict damage, injury, discomfort, or punishment on another party judged responsible for some harm or wrongdoing. In other words: someone’s responsible, and we’re going to try to redress this situation.

What I have learned about revenge in the workplace, first of all, is that it’s provoked. It is not just a random act. We identified three different categories of events that give rise to revenge. One is goal obstruction. That’s the academic phrase for — “You got in my way.” For example, it could be that someone else received the promotion.

But what Tom and I have identified is that, in people’s minds and hearts, what motivates revenge is the sense of injustice. There are two sorts of issues that give rise to that sense of injustice. One is what we call the damaged sense of civic order, that somehow our sense of order in society has been damaged. In that case, we see rule violations. We see honor violations. We see the abuse of authority. In the world that I’m part of, in the business school and in the world of psychology, this is called procedural justice.

Something else we identified is “damaged identity.” We all have identities. I’d say we have a spiritual identity and a sacred self, or you could speak of the social identity of religion, of race, of gender. When there is damage to those identities, the damage will arouse a sense of injustice. Your status is derogated. Someone tries to bring you down, attack your identity or reputation in a public setting. I have many workplace examples of this. Then there are simply the indignities of insults that will arouse the sense of injustice.

What we found is that the minds of many people were harmed. There was a perceived irreversibility of some of the consequences. For example, when people felt betrayed, it was very hard for them to work their way back to some equilibrium or some sort of repaired relationship. Sometimes there are fractures; there are shattered assumptions. There is damaged identity, and again I see this playing out in an international context — in the attacks on religion or perceived attacks on religion or gender or race — where it is much harder to reconstruct a relationship and bring about forgiveness and reconciliation. These revenge impulses are very intense.

There is a sense of violation, of woundedness, an enduring sense that often lives with the person. Chris Matthew’s book Hardball argues that people who ruminate over revenge are giving others rentfree space in their heads. It is like a social and psychological toxin that sort of sits with you and endures unless something is done about it.

Still, revenge has a rationality and a morality — meaning that you can identify somebody who caused it. As I said, it is not random. You identify somebody psychologically that you see as responsible, and you target your revenge. This is the morality of revenge. It is a morality because in people’s minds, they have been unjustly treated and they have to “do justice.” Often they do justice when the formal system of the organization doesn’t capture the injustice or correct it. So, if the formal system doesn’t deal with the injustice, the informal system will. It is not only justified, in their minds — it’s justice. We’re “doing the right thing.” In fact, if you look at the international front, people who carry out revenge do not believe they’re doing something wrong; they believe they’re doing something right. That is the insight we need to work through.

The Bias of Revenge

But then there are social cognitive dynamics. That is another academic phrase. Somehow things get shaped in our minds; there is an overly personalistic attribution — “Not only did they do it, but they were out to get me!”

And there is the biased punctuation of the conflict — meaning that when something happens to you, it is assumed someone else caused it. You may not see the series of events — including your own causes — that led someone to do harm to you. Maybe you did something to harm the other person, and then, this person took to heart the saying that revenge is a dish best served cold, and perhaps waited a few months. Then he or she did something that seemed to come out of the blue. So there is a question of what caused what. And we, as human beings, tend to punctuate it. If somebody did something to us, we don’t look behind the series of events, including our own actions that may have caused the harm done to us. We simply see the harmful act as one, isolated event.

However, here is where we find the punch line of revenge. Often, people do nothing with these impulses. They do not act them out, or if they do, the actions tend to be of a lower grade, what is called “inequity reduction.” We avoid people. We withdraw. We don’t help them. We exit the situation, a response that is passive aggressive in nature.

We also find revenge fantasies. That is how some people acted out. They fantasize about revenge, without carrying out revenge. And yet, they may carry around resentment and anger for a period of time.

When people do act out revenge, the extreme form, of course, is violence. The saying “going postal” comes to mind. Those, however, are rare events. The more common forms of retribution are complaints, public demands for apology, badmouthing, feuding between individuals and departments, and so forth.

Let me fastforward from revenge to forgiveness, which brings me back to Chris Matthews, who takes off on “Don’t get mad, get even.” Matthews says: “Don’t get mad; don’t get even; get ahead.” (Yet does say, “When you get to a position of power, opportunities for justice will fall onto your plate,” which sounds like revenge.)

Author Josh Billings, an American humorist, said: “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” The theologian Lewis Smedes said: “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and [you] feel the power to wish them well.” My next favorite quote is: “It takes one person to forgive; it takes two people to be reunited.” Theologians and humorists tend to have good insight into forgiveness. Maybe it is because they are better capturers of human reality than academics.

Forgiveness is more than an intrapersonal reality, the internal act of relinquishing anger and resentment. It is also the effort by the victim tries to rebuild or repair the fractured relationship of which Shriver speaks. Why and when do people forgive?

Why and when do they not forgive? Why do people engage in revenge? And why do they not engage in revenge?

As we have already heard during this conversation, the choice to forgive often has to do with the offering of truth. This offering of truth must be sincere. There must be an explanation and an acknowledgment of responsibility. It could be a private acknowledgment, or — more powerfully — a public acknowledgment of responsibility. This is a form of justice.

Then there is the offering of penance — and here you could see we are working within the Catholic tradition. A sincere apology is part of working your way back to equilibrium, but there is also the restoration of loss. For example, in one of our studies, an individual had pushed somebody else aside and taken part of his committee and his budget. He realized he had done wrong, and then gave back some of what he took, to rebuild part of the relationship.

We also find empathetic responses. In several interviews people told us: “I was in a meeting. I saw the individual who had caused me great harm, and she totally broke down. I now saw her as a person.” I am reminded of the phrase: “I no longer demonized but humanized.” Seeing her as a vulnerable person made it possible for this individual to forgive.

Why and when do people not forgive? This has to do with shattered assumptions, a sense of betrayal: what you thought to be true is no longer true. Rebuilding those shattered assumptions is very challenging and difficult. You no longer can trust the world. “I invested in a project and then you changed the rules on me. You betrayed me. I trusted you!” This feeling that trust cannot be rebuilt is a recurring theme. Damaged identity is another reason why people may not forgive. They may feel their work or their person was unfairly characterized in a public forum. There is a wrongful accusation. How do you reconstruct your identity when you feel you’ve been wronged, particularly when there are power differences?

For Tom and I, revenge and forgiveness are coping responses to harm. Feuding is a coping response. It is a different way of coping. This notion is what challenges some people who have encountered our research: revenge and forgiveness are part of a healing process. The healing process can go awry, and there may not be full healing. But revenge in the workplace is part of harm and how we deal with harm. We may want to challenge it, channel it or reconstruct it in a certain way, but it is part of a healing process that may take time.

I view revenge as part of justice, a component of truth and penance, and justice has to precede forgiveness. This sort of sequencing of virtues for me became very clear when the institutional Catholic Church was struggling with the worst of the pedophilia scandals and Church leaders seemed to be saying: “You just have to forgive the priests and move on.” They missed the point. You have to have justice. And a large part of the justice was not in the litigation; it was in the truth, acknowledging what had happened. That is the sequencing of virtues, justice leading to forgiveness.

The last point I want to raise has to do with what I call “Roger Byam and the biased punctuation of the conflict.” This is taken from Mutiny on the Bounty. At the very end, midshipman Roger Byam is at his court martial, and he is asked: “What do you think of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bly?” And he had a great insight: “I do not condone the mutiny of Fletcher Christian, but I condemn the tyranny that gave rise to it.” And particularly in the workplace, we focus so much on the individuals doing the revenge in response to some harm, but we forget the institutional social structure that gave rise to the revenge. It could be an institutional workplace structure that allows abusive bosses to encourage employees to do their harm.

Dorothy Day asked: “Why do we make saints of those who minister to the poor and the slaves rather than those who try to change the institutional and economic structures that give rise to poverty and slavery?” And for me as a scholar, I am not simply looking at the individuals. I am looking at the social institutional structure that allows the preconditions for revenge to occur. I am also looking at situations where there is no mechanism for forgiveness.

In that spirit, Dorothy Day said: “We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, [so] that peace and abundance may manifest for all.” I think the workplace connects to this whole discussion of forgiveness because it is a place where people look for peace and community in an imperfect and unfair world.


Opening up the Conversation: Liars, Tyrants, Hotheads, and the Unspeakable in Rwanda

A Conversation Between the Panelists and the Audience

JOHN BORELLI [Special Assistant to the President for Interreligious Initiatives at Georgetown University]: Let’s say you have someone in power institutionally in government, someone who’s a habitual liar, and yet somehow you’ve got to seek reconciliation, or you have somebody who’s harmed you individually, someone who has real problems with the truth and doesn’t seem to recognize it. That seems to be a real obstacle in terms of reconciliation. I think we’ve all known an individual or two who does not understand that he or she has done anything wrong. We wonder how they live with themselves. We wonder how we are going to get through to this person who harmed us personally. So what do you do? Do you sort of wait and hope that by the grace of God, you will get to the point of forgiving and you will be in a different place? What’s the strategy?

BOB HENNEMEYER: That’s the beauty of the Foreign Service. You know that within two or three years either you will be transferred or he will be.

BOB BIES: That’s a great question and I get it all the time from the executives and the students we work with. Tom and I did some research on what we called the “two faces of powerlessness” and coping with tyranny. What you’re describing is part of a syndrome of tyranny. How do you cope with tyranny? That is, if you won’t quit or otherwise exit the system. First off, you put on a smiley face — “Yes, I’ll do whatever you want.” You tow the line. But behind the scenes you develop coping ways to deal with the tyranny.

Some people look for moments of poetic justice. Maybe they’ve taken certain files. Maybe they’ve done certain things to make a person look bad. They just don’t forgive. The hurt still lives with them. It is still a toxin that is there with them. I remember one administrative assistant, when I was a graduate student and she was talking about a petty tyrant. And I, the naive graduate student, said: “Well, how do you deal with this?” She said: “I learned to live with it.” That phrase for me, “learning to live with it,” is something I’ve been trying to understand. I think it is part of a coping process.

JOHN BORELLI: My wife and I do marriage preparation. We talk about the breakage of trust, which is the most difficult thing. Probably that’s the best advice: you learn to live with it.

BILL BOLE: One piece of marital research that has worked its way into this whole field is based on what one psychologist calls the “hothead factor.” This comes from research indicating that it takes five or six “positive events” to make up for a single negative event in a marriage. I think we all know what those are. And that’s in a normally healthy marriage. In a troubled marriage, the ratio is more like 10 to one or even higher. That’s the number of positive events it takes to reverse the tide of the negative. And I think a piece of your question is: how do people get started when they have a desire to repair a fractured relationship? I think throwing some positive events in there can’t hurt. That’s one lesson that’s been learned on a political level — the importance of creating some positive events to counteract these other forces, these forces of unforgiveness.

CATHY NERNEY [recent Woodstock visiting fellow and professor of theology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia]: My lens — through which I look at forgiveness and reconciliation — is theological. And I’m convinced that theological language, if it is grasped as universal truth, is translatable. One of the things I’m trying to figure out is how we can provide conditions in which the acknowledgment of harm is more likely to happen. And one way, I think, is through humility, which is a core virtue underlying the human condition. It is a selfunderstanding, a selfknowledge that is not generated by my own isolated self. It is, instead, mutually mediated. And so, how can we create conditions in which I can come to understand who I am through your disclosures to me and through my disclosures to myself? How do we create conditions in which we really can give honest feedback, so that I can see myself as I am and really learn about myself and the other in a mutually interdependent way?

I just returned from Rwanda and I’ll just say this one thing that’s staying with me as something I’m trying to break open. It’s a statement that appears at the memorial site where over 300,000 people are buried in this one place in the capital city of Kigali. There is a genocide center at the site, and the center has a brochure in French that says on the cover: “If you had known me, and if you had known yourself, you would never have killed me.” And there’s something about that sense of knowing ourselves and knowing the other that I think is really fertile ground, albeit whether it’s in business or politics.

BOB HENNEMEYER: I hear that and think of an earlier colloquium on forgiveness that we held in this very room. It was about forgiveness and conflict resolution in the former Yugoslavia. And we had a wonderful presentation by a Russian psychologist, Olga Botcharova, who addressed the question: how in the world do you get deadly enemies to talk to one another in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian wars? She and her collaborators used a technique, which was, first, to get them in the same room. She would bring in Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox people, Muslims [usually two groups at a time] and try to initiate a conversation. The way she did it was to ask the participants to describe what happened to them during the war. Each side would tell about the awful things that the other side had done. And it didn’t take very long until they were hearing the same thing being said about them, about their ethnic or religious group, that they had just said about the other group. At least it was the start of a conversation where they were all victims. And then she would try to introduce such thoughts as: “All right. You’re all victims. But you’re here. And we have to do something about getting the water supply going again”¦.” It was a beginning, a beginning of a dialogue.

WILLIAM BOLE: And what those facilitators learned through that experience was that the hardest step for the people in those rooms was not forgiveness. Forgiveness was an explicit part of that particular reconciliation process, and it came at the end. But when it came, if the people were still in the room and talking to each other, it was actually anticlimactic. The hardest part, and the part that Ann Coughlin stressed [4], was acknowledgment. There was a lot of acknowledgment acrimony. The Croats would say the Serbs weren’t acknowledging enough of what the Serbs did to them, and so on. That was the biggest hurdle. And if the two sides were still together after the stage of acknowledgment, they were on a path to reconciliation.

JOHN LANGAN [moderator and professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown]: We’ve heard Sicilian [Bole], Irish [Bies], and German [Hennemeyer] perspectives on forgiveness. To end with an Irish word — I was struck by an Irish writer, a nontheologian, who observed that hating the other guy is like taking poison in the hope of making him sick. And a big part of this, at some point, has to be a realization of how deeply one harms oneself and one’s values of community by adopting a course of retribution.




1 The treaties that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe, in 1648.

2 The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

3 Referring to the moderate strand of socialism that surfaced in Britain during the late 19 th century.

4 During the questions and answers, Coughlin had highlighted acknowledgment as key to any process of forgiveness in the organizational setting.