Religious leaders have a critical role to play in resolving conflicts around the world through teaching about “the power of forgiveness,” said panelists representing Islam, Christianity and Buddhism at a Washington, DC forum, “Faith Leaders Resolving Global Conflicts,” on June 25, 2015.
More than fifty professionals, faith leaders, and peace advocates gathered at the Hall of States for the afternoon forum, organized by the Global Peace Foundation and the Sustained Dialogue Institute. (SDI) The program began with a documentary film, “Beyond Right and Wrong,” which presents the excruciating stories of both victims and perpetrators during the Rwandan genocide, Israel-Palestine struggle, and Northern Ireland-United Kingdom conflict.
One story focused on the reconciliation between a woman, Jo Berry, and Patrick Magee, the man who had killed her father, known as the “Irish Bomber.” After his release from prison fourteen years later, Berry sought to confront him for his acts.
“I thought, how can you play God?” Berry said in the film. “No one’s need to be heard should be so great that you must kill.”
She said an “inner shift” is required to hear the story of the enemy. “For me the question is always about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Patrick’s story and understand his motivations. Part of the problem is that we need to get rid of labels. A person who kills could be a murderer, terrorist, soldier. Eventually you realize that they are nothing more than human, just like you.”
Berry and Magee now work together as part of the Forgiveness Project, an award-winning organization that collects and shares real stories of forgiveness to “build understanding, encourage reflection and enable people to reconcile with the pain and move forward from the trauma in their own lives”, according to the organization’s website.
Inspired by the film’s powerful message, panelists spoke passionately about the difficulty of resolving current conflicts and how their respective faith traditions are able to guide people to transform and forgive. Imam Talib Shareef, President of the Nation’s Historic Mosque, offered advice on finding forgiveness similar to the film’s message.
“We need to get back to that common denominator of being human,” Shareef said.
He observed that words for “forgiveness” are written in over one-third of the six thousand verses of the Qur’an. “When you forgive,” he said, “you free yourself to be able to grow. In life, it is not what happens to you, but it is how you respond.”
In another film segment, an Israeli man who had lost his daughter in a terror attack met with a relief group where Palestinians also shared their grief from the loss of their daughter in a retaliatory action. It wasn’t until he saw that they had felt grief like he did that he realized they were human just like him. “I never in a hundred years, had none of this happened, would have looked at them as if they were human,” he admitted to the camera.
“We need to extend our empathy not only to victims but also the victimizers. It doesn’t mean that we are excusing them. It’s about not dehumanizing them.”
Panelist Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist and director of the Guhyasamaja Center, explained that from the Buddhist perspective letting go is releasing hatred towards the “other” and the beginning of understanding others as humans with a common humanity, regardless of any social, economic, or racial differences.
“It’s our responsibility and our task to train ourselves in love, to train ourselves in forgiveness,” said Dr. Ladner. “We need to extend our empathy not only to victims but also the victimizers. It doesn’t mean that we are excusing them. It’s about not dehumanizing them.”
Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, DC Synod, Reverend Richard Graham also offered insight to forgiveness through Christian traditions and values.
“When God forgives, God forgets. Which leads to the question, do we need to forgive and forget? How many times have we heard someone say, ‘I can forgive that person but I will never forget’?
“The average Christian person believes that forgiveness is required of us after they are asked as much,” Reverend Graham said. “I don’t believe that myself. I believe forgiveness sets us free. Forgiveness empowers people to ask for forgiveness.”
Reverend Graham’s reflections echoed the words of “Irish Bomber” Pat Magee, who said that he had not initially felt the need to repent upon first meeting Berry, but only after she showed him compassion and forgiveness was he able to feel remorse.
International GPF President, James Flynn related the themes in the film to recent tragic events in the United States, notably the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that took the lives of nine people.
“Within only hours the members of the South Carolina congregation gave forgiveness to their victimizer,” said Flynn, “and that shows incredible strength. Where can we find this strength? The strength comes from a source greater than us.
Today, we are successful in globalization of commerce, communication, and travel but we need to work more on spreading global ethics.
“Today, we are successful in globalization of commerce, communication, and travel but we need to work more on spreading global ethics,” Flynn concluded. “Global ethics are what we all share together in our common humanity and can help bring about a more peaceful world.”
Moderator and SDI President Rev. Mark Farr encouraged audience members to contribute to the discussion, and participants agreed that learning how to forgive is a vital step in the process of conflict resolution and justice. Through resolving conflicts, participants observed, other global issues such as poverty, climate change, and racism can be better addressed.
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