Saturday, March 13, 2010

Forgiveness: A salve for old wounds

Mar 12, 2010

By William Choong

IN 1944, Mr Simon Wiesenthal, a young Polish architect, was a Nazi prisoner. One day, he was summoned to meet an SS officer for a deathbed confession. The soldier, Karl, said he and his colleagues had rounded up 300 Jews - including women and children - and killed them. Turning to Mr Wiesenthal, Karl said that he had longed to talk to a Jew about the incident and ask for forgiveness.

Without a word, Mr Wiesenthal walked out of the room.

Later, he asked the best ethical minds what they would have done. Of the 32 people who responded, only six said he had erred by not forgiving the German. Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick is quoted as saying in Mr Wiesenthal's The Sunflower: 'Let the SS man die unshriven. Let him go to hell.'

Such a response is understandable. Unforgiveness, be it in the private or public sphere, is usual. Reading last Saturday's edition of this newspaper, one would have seen reports of Koreans and Japanese clashing over a Winter Olympics triumph by a Korean athlete, and Turkey and Armenia feuding over the former killing nearly 1.5 million Armenians during World War I.

In international relations, where considerations of power and interests predominate, the concept of forgiveness is given short shrift. Forgiveness, argue cynics, is mighty fine, but it is largely a bleeding heart endeavour.

That said, acts of forgiveness can indeed transform relations between people, and even between countries.

Some of us have read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean, a convicted felon, turns over a new leaf after a bishop absolves him of a petty theft. But acts of forgiveness are not confined to fiction. In 1983, Pope John Paul II practised what he preached when he visited the assassin who had tried to kill him and told him 'I forgive you'.

In 1987, Mr Gordon Wilson, a draper, saw his 20-year-old daughter die in a bombing by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). But he bore 'no ill grudge' against the IRA. Instead, he led a crusade for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation and planted the seeds for national healing.

More recently, this newspaper reported that 93-year-old Yew Kian Chang refused to harbour any hatred for the Japanese, though Japanese soldiers had tried to behead him during World War II.

Mr Nelson Mandela stands out as one of the finest examples in history of the spirit of forgiveness. Though he spent 27 years in South African prisons, he refused to retaliate against those complicit in apartheid. Reconciliation between Israel and Germany following the Holocaust is another memorable act of forgiveness.

Such acts are important because they can break the cycle of hate. Many of the conflicts that we see today are manifestations of past injuries. The Serbs, for instance, were portrayed as the villains of the Balkans in the 1990s, but hundreds of thousands of them, together with Jews and gypsies, were killed by the Germans and their Croatian allies during World War II. Similarly, the IRA terrorists who blew up shoppers in London could be said to be executing a Newtonian law: For every atrocity in the past, there is an opposite (and not always equal) atrocity in the future. The IRA was avenging, among other things, Oliver Cromwell's atrocities in Ireland in 1649.

As Mahatma Gandhi puts it, the principle of 'an eye for an eye' will leave the whole world blind. Or as the philosopher Hannah Arendt puts it, the only remedy for the inevitability of history is forgiveness. Otherwise, one will remain stuck in the 'predicament of irreversibility'.

Closer to home, in Asia, we have many internecine feuds.

Recently, scholars and politicians have proposed that Japan - together with China, India and Australia - should manage security in the Asia-Pacific region, especially since America's regional presence is perceived to be on the wane. But some Asian countries cannot accept Japanese leadership. There are many reasons, but one stands out: Tokyo has been short on contrition for its wartime atrocities.

Two examples illustrate this. In 1988, a mayor of Nagasaki was shot in the back after he stated that the Emperor 'bore responsibility' for the war. Right-wingers declared that the mayor had received 'divine punishment'.

In contrast, among the first acts of freely elected parliamentarians in East Germany in 1990 was to ask the Jews for forgiveness for atrocities committed during the war.

It is no wonder cynics sometimes dismiss Japan's proposed East Asia Community as an adaptation of its wartime Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

There are voices - in the wilderness, perhaps - who call for forgiveness. Korea Times columnist Hyon O'Brien, for instance, wrote last month: 'We can no longer wait for repentant Japan to bow down and apologise sincerely for the past accumulated wrongs to Korea. Can we learn from Mandela and Jean Valjean? We need to exercise forgiveness to heal our two nations.'

Yes, forgiveness might seem too 'soft' for the 'hard' world of international relations. But where there are old wounds between countries, it might be the only option.

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