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This edited book, part of the 'Peace Psychology Book Series', is a welcome contribution to the literature connecting conflict and violence, forgiveness and reconciliation, and psychology. The major theme that one takes from this book is that retaliation, revenge, or violence, as a response to conflict, is the 'easy path' psychologically. The harder road is to respond with forgiveness and bring about reconciliation through 'positive peace-building' (in place of 'negative peace-building, which means just ending the conflict instead of transforming it), and yet forgiveness and reconciliation, according to many psychologists, is much more successful and pragmatic in the long run, whether on the small scale (i.e. interpersonally) or on the large one (i.e. between countries). Several themes run throughout the 17 chapters in this book, and one can see the theoretical overlap, in which each chapter may be read as different applications of this same theme.
Section I, 'Theoretical Perspectives', contains four chapters, dealing with 'Issues and Themes in Forgiveness and Reconciliation': 'A Systemic Framework for Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Peace', 'Forgiveness and Relational Ethics: The Perspective of the Contextual Therapist', 'The Psychology of Forgiveness in the World Religions', and 'The Bullet and Its Meaning'. Highlights of this section are found when one author describes the healing moment in contextual therapy when forgiveness 'becomes a resource not simply because we can get an indirect return from our generosity toward the ones we forgive, but also because forgiveness allows us to maintain a relationship with people despite their wrongdoings' (43). This article and the book as a whole rely on the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, whose theory of contextual therapy, relational ethics, and forgiveness frames many of the contributions. As a moving application to such theory, in chapter 5 ('The Bullet and its Meaning'), the author uses personal experience of a family member's violent murder to demonstrate the deep challenge of forgiving out of a moral obligation when one does not feel like it. He reveals many of the 'shades of gray' between forgiveness and nonforgiveness by providing factors that create a forgiveness continuum, discussing the emotional, attitudinal, behavioral, and social-political aspects (see page 75).
Section II, 'Individual and Interpersonal Levels', contains four chapters, the first of which looks at security and insecurity in the self, other, community, and context of a conflict. What is particularly touching in Sharon Davis Massey's contribution is her analysis of child soldiers, for example in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, or Rwanda where it was not uncommon to have 13 year-old soldiers (see page 84). The cliché 'it takes a village' is both the question and the response. It takes a village to have such children fighting and it takes a village to keep them from doing so. Chapter 7 considers an under-researched topic: how art can contribute to peacebuilding and reconciliation. The author works with inner-city youth: 'their artworks provide a symbol and metaphor for a search for meaning…art making is synonymous with the process of new consciousness' (104-5). Art can constructively reveal to one how to process violence and trauma, allowing for a kind of aesthetics of peace consciousness. As two 10th grade girls explain it in their 'Artists' Statement': 'Most people think peace is "no violence", but there are many kinds of peace. Peace can be happiness, love, laughter, or sadness. From our point of view peace is companionship' (117). Chapter 8 gives an examination of 'restorative conferencing' as it has worked in a Kenyan classroom. It provides an extremely practical step-by-step illustration of how to solve a conflict. Chapter 9 concerns lifers in prison and how forgiveness is closely tied to guilt and conscience; in order to forgive others, one has to forgive oneself. Quoting from a book by Gobodo-Madikizela, 'Although forgiveness is often regarded as an expression of weakness, the decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength' (147).
Finally, section III, 'Intergroup, Societal, and International Levels', looks at the macro-level. Whether with regard to African Americans and racial forgiveness, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Arabs and non-Arabs in Darfur, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan and India, or the Armenians and Turks, each of these chapters defend a perspective on reconciliation. These are not simple conflicts, but lie deep within social structures and historical if not genetic hatreds are at work. The process of forgiving requires great psychological struggle, empathy, sharing stories, accepting and giving apologies, recognizing one's own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, none of which are entirely straight forward. Thus, there are no easy answers, but there are ways forward in all of these conflicts.
Most of this book is full of insights and analyses that help the reader to apply forgiveness and reconciliation to any interpersonal or international conflict. Many of the chapters even have 'step-by-step' directions for forgiving and reconciling. This is not just another academic book about an obscure topic, namely, psychology and peacebuilding, but a truly useful handbook on getting beyond war and violence. In the end, one recognizes the complex ethical, religious, multidimensional process and transformation that true forgiveness entails. This fundamentally practical and needed book adds something essential to the literature by defending the value of the harder road.
© 2010 Michael Funk Deckard
Michael Funk Deckard is assistant professor of philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne University. He teaches courses in early-modern philosophy, aesthetics, medical ethics, and issues dealing with war and peace. He is also a Peace Theories Commission Convener for the International Peace Research Association.
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