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Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 6 of 6)

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We have now reached the final installment of our investigation into the underlying dynamics that promote forgiveness and reconciliation following large group conflict. Each step first focused inward and away from the conflict to find the seeds that must be planted and grown to move on. It stands conventional conflict resolution practice on its head by not only standing in between the warring parties, but turning them away from the conflict before again turning towards each other in a process that starts out tightly controlled but becomes more fluid and unpredictable as it goes. The process and facilitators are not neutral, and this is not mediation in the conventional sense; it is a voluntary process to help those wounded by conflict restore their relationships torn apart in the heat and confusion of battle. It is intended and designed to move groups of people who desire it to forgive for their own benefit, and reconcile should they choose to do so.

Our acrostic so far: Turning inward to find some manner in which each has contributed to making the conflict worse; Remembering what we have done and enunciating it to all as a simple statement of fact; Understanding the harm we have caused individually and collectively, and expressing our remorse for it; and Transforming ourselves as shown by changing our behaviors in transparent and trustworthy ways.

The previous stages have all aimed at this last and final stage. The research indicates that large majorities of those who will forgive have already done so, but there remains a significant segment that must go through this final level before they can let go of their anger. This stage is represented in the acrostic as Healing.

We cry for justice when we are freshly wounded, and the demand remains strong if nothing is done to abate our anger. Our legal system proclaims allegiance to justice by imposing harsh fines and long prison sentences on malefactors. Somehow, we have a belief that justice as we apply it will stop crime, improve services and product safety, and heal the victim. Unfortunately, we expect more from justice than it can deliver.

I could go into a lengthy explanation of the faults and failures of justice, but I will keep my remarks narrow and on the point: justice alone cannot heal or bring full satisfaction. In a very recent case, a Lutheran minister was found guilty of vehicular homicide for accidentally killing a bicyclist. The young woman’s mother remarked after the verdict, “I thought I would be happy, but I’m not. I’m sad. This is a sad day.” She expected more than justice could provide.

Strict justice by its very nature cannot restore all that which was lost. Justice alone cannot restore the sense of personal violation of the rape victim, nor the peace of mind of the burglary victim. Even if something stolen is returned, justice cannot restore the time that it was gone or repair the sense of violation that resulted from the taking.

More importantly for our purposes, justice by itself cannot heal wounded relationships. The evidence is clear that relational healing cannot take place until both victim and perpetrator are restored to full standing in each other’s eyes; the process of restoring the torn relationship completes the healing, and can strengthen the relational bonds beyond where they were prior to the conflict.

There are two parts to this final stage. In the first, the facilitators must address the anger that remains within the group, for anger demands strict justice, demanding that the penalty be equal to the offense. Though the temptation may be to avoid this in the fear that it may undo the good already done, we must once again turn inward. The desire to inflict at least as much pain as that which was received is normal human behavior. However, honest confession requires telling even this painful truth. To deny a desire for vengeance is to practice hollow love that leads not to reconciliation but to repressed bitterness and hatred. To deny a desire for revenge is a self-deceiving lie. To appreciate fully the level of my forgiveness towards you, you must understand what I am giving up: both my anger and the right to revenge. Forgiving demands I pay this cost.

They must also address what people desire as the outcome. Some may still demand punishment, but need to know that severe correctives reduce rather than increase compliance and actually increases the likelihood that the offense will be repeated and that other offenses will be committed as well. If they want to restore their relationships, they must forego revenge. These are strong words, but honest.

Second, as has been documented by the Harvard Negotiations Project, each active or passive group conflict participant wears the mantle of both victim and oppressor. We have been injured, and we have injured others. This is another unsettling truth, but is key to each person realizing that by demanding vengeance through strict justice, he or she becomes the target of equal demands for retribution. In demanding strict justice in this milieu, one forfeits the moral high ground; it is an abandonment that lowers the victim rather than raising the perpetrator to the same high ground. It will usually destroy the chances of further reconciliation.

Restorative justice strives to retain both justice and mercy by creating conditions for accountability without necessarily insisting on the strict legal enforcement of legal codes or penalties. Since there cannot be a balance of regard when persons see each other as less worthy of love and respect than themselves, restorative justice offers the opportunity for mending personal relationships and reestablishing both in society. It allows the offender to regain status through changing morally incorrect behaviors, and allows the victim to regain power by shedding the crippling mantle of victimhood. As rehumanization progresses and the offender begins to truly understand the gravity of what he has done and the damage he caused, it becomes more likely that he will apologize and request forgiveness, knowing that both making the request and granting forgiveness have behavioral and moral consequences for both parties. Thus, the restorative model opens a window of opportunity for the two parties to each find cathartic release and relational repair; it is win/win rather than win/lose or lose/lose.

Restorative justice systems have been widely hailed and are statistically effective ways to healing the victim, restoring the perpetrator, and cutting recidivism rates. The face-to-face guided interactions between the parties are what make them effective. Both victims and offenders come to see each other as human beings the same as themselves. By seeing you as I see myself, I am much less likely to hurt you again. That understanding brings mercy into the equation, lowering my propensity to seek revenge. Now I want you restored to trustworthiness, not simply punished. Restorative justice requires mercy and mercy melds with justice, making the concrete rules of justice more slippery and elastic, opening justice to creativity and nuance.

They have confessed simply and honestly. They have understood the pain they caused and expressed their remorse. They have stated how they have and will continue to change for the better. They now stand on the threshold of the final door between them. The key to the final doorway lies in one simple question: What can I do to make this right between us?

Again, it works best when offered without reason or excuse and now looks like this: “I did this to you. I am sorry because it was wrong. I will never do that again. How can I make this right?” It is simple, intuitive, transparent, and empirically supported. It abandons all defenses and pretenses and places the remaining power in the hands of the other person. The effect of it, however, can be astonishing, as no one can predict where it will go from here. The only prediction possible from the data is that it will have a positive outcome, particularly since no one is exempt from confronting others or being confronted with this question.

It’s easy to discuss these matters in an academic setting or in a theoretical framework, but I am intensely interested in application. Does restorative justice work in the real world of organizational conflict where people hold grudges and there are no criminal or civil penalties to enforce punishment? Simply put, yes.

The stages leading up to this final part of the crucible have all been preparatory. The cumulative effect of confession, remorse, and transformed behaviors make this final stage possible. None of the stages are as powerful as all of the stages combined, and this last act of opening oneself to the justice of the other allows for creative nuances that are unique to each relationship and that can only work within those specific confines. More often then not, the simple act of asking how one can make things right again is sufficient, and it need not even be a verbal question. Sometimes just standing before another without any defense is enough.

There can be few things more difficult to forgive than betrayal leading to murder. I offer a scene from documentary footage taken in South Africa. There were no actors – this was as real as it gets. A young black man had betrayed his anti-apartheid activist friends to the police. He told the officers when his friends would be returning from a political rally, what highway they would be on, and what kind of vehicle they would be in. The police stopped the car and shot all four young men to death. The officers then staged it to look like their victims were armed so they could justify the killings.

The traitor testified honestly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his actions, and did so in front of the wives and mothers of his victims, all of whom knew him. He was granted amnesty, but he sought something more. He arranged through a village elder to meet with the wives and mothers, who swore they would never forgive him. The footage shows him sitting quietly with his head down in sorrow as they heaped their scorn upon him. He offered no defense, only his brokenness. Finally, one of the women said, “We must make him human again. He needs our forgiveness.” With that, she walked up to him, helped him to stand, and embraced him. One by one, each followed suit until the one who was most adamant in her refusal to forgive remained. She looked at him, saw her sorrow reflected in his eyes, and slowly wrapped her arms around him as they both wept.

Restorative justice held him close, granting him the gateway to a new life. Once again the hymn Senzenina appeared, but this time in triumph.

I am not so naive as to suggest that everyone will forgive quickly or forgive at all. I am not suggesting that mercy-infused justice will be so dramatic. Furthermore, forgiveness does not guarantee reconciliation, but the evidence strongly suggests that reconciliation without forgiveness will fail. Forgiveness opens the doorway to reconciliation, but the choice to walk through that door remains with them.

The full manuscript from which this is distilled runs more than 340 pages and I have left much out about how the process works and how it is done. We have the power to go where settlement cannot. I offer this series not as a panacea, but as possibility and stimulus for further exploration.


Darrell Puls

Darrell Puls is an adjunct professor of conflict management at Trinity Theological Seminary and private practice mediator, trainer, and writer living in Kennewick, Washington. He holds a doctorate in conflict management, specializes in organizational and church conflict resolution, and has worked in the conflict management field since 1976. MORE >

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