Around the world, people choose vilification over forgiveness when dealing with violence, hate, and radicalization. However, the path to changing these circumstances is the exact opposite, writes Margaret Valenti.

Forgiveness is often portrayed as a simple concept, yet people rarely accept any variation of the phrase “I’m sorry” and move forward without bias or prejudice based on prior history.  While social justice pioneers the way forward in countries around the world, it is important to forgive if there is any hope of change.

While people need to be held accountable for their actions and their crimes recognized, in many western nations there is not a space for forgiveness. There are actions that occupy a radical space on the amoral scale compared to others and it is true that no one lives a life without regret, but the thinking is that some people do not deserve to be forgiven for their crimes.

As long as this thinking exists, there is no space for people to acknowledge their guilt and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness not in the form of a pardon, but an acknowledgement of personal growth and change. In a world with terrorism, genocide, sexual violence, domestic violence, general violence, ageism, hate speech, ableism, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and sexism amongst many other forms of discrimination and violence, it is hard to believe that people who once felt that some humans were not equal to others can actually change their minds and be forgiven. However, it does happen and, if it happens more, it can change the world.

Radicalization: How Does it Work?

A change in one’s entire world view is a difficult journey and not one that finds a lot of people. This is especially true when one has been raised with negative bias that justifies hurting others mentally or physically for their identity or beliefs.

These types of biases can lead someone into violence or radicalization and people are more at risk during their adolescent years of being drawn to act on negative biases. It is not uncommon to find disenchanted youth around the world speak and act on their negative biases simply because they do not have the life they want or the life they were promised.

However, disenchantment alone does not allow someone to turn to violence or radicalization and society is not to blame for every ounce of hatred that exists. Everyone is exposed to the common cold throughout their lives. No one is immune and at this point there is no vaccine or medicine that specifically counteracts the common cold, the medicine only treats symptoms. Like the common cold, hatred will always appear and while there are ways to reduce the risk of violence and radicalization, there is no cure if society is not set up to promote tolerance and respect.

Examples of Change

In Rwanda, a nation which experienced a genocide in 1994 that killed over a million people in a hundred days, forgiveness is a promising way to remember, grieve, and ultimately heal. Perpetrators — genocidaires, murderers, torturers, and rapists — were afraid they would be killed as the advancing troops entered the country and stopped the genocide.

Gacaca (Ga-cha-cha) courts were set up to say “if you committed a crime, come forward and admit your guilt and there is an opportunity for forgiveness, reconciliation, and reintegration.” Through the Gacaca courts the nation, individual communities, and international community were able to learn more about what happened and who was affected. Depending on the severity of the crime, there was a prison sentence and an eventual reintegration into the community through community service. However, if a person does not confess and express remorse for their actions, they remain in prison for the rest of their lives.

This process of forgiveness and reintegration does not typically extend to the most radicalized groups, notably the Interhamwe, who continue to commit violent acts out of racism. Many of the members continue acting out their violence in surrounding countries including Uganda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

However, the lack of resources in Rwanda to hold the approximately two million people who participated in the genocide responsible creates problems of corruption, prison overcrowding, and inadequately trained judges. While the International Criminal Court and the tribunals in Tanzania hold many radical leaders responsible, the courts are also criticized for making prisoners comfortable while there is still injustice, health problems, and water and food shortages in parts of the African continent.

However, Rwanda sees a continuous upward trend of positive change and growth compared to where it was over twenty five years ago. The “we are all Rwandan” narrative is one that publically many Rwandans post-genocide seem to agree with. President Paul Kagame recieved 99% of the vote last election and the constitution was updated so he could continue for another term, though this term will be his last. While the President is certainly not perfect, it is a different country compared to the Rwanda once consumed by the hate and violence that destroyed lives for decades.

Rwanda is certainly not a perfect example of how forgiveness can work to heal, but it does show that forgiveness can contribute to the growth of a country that was once on the brink of collapse. This country is certainly not the only example of people attempting to forgive, or at the very least understand, one another. Scholars of the subject of radicalization, violence, and terrorism all acknowledge that the best way forward is through early intervention and conversations rather than the rhetoric of blame and violence towards the perpetrators. This attitude of “never forgive and never forget” is certainly understandable in the face of inexplicable hatred and violence, but it is not the best way forward.

Christian Picciolini, a man once engaged with the neo-nazi skinhead movement in Chicago is now a public speaker against radicalization, radical jihad, Nazisim, and the KKK and devotes his life to deradicalizing people and helping them leave extremist movements. Daryl Davis, a black musician, befriended Maryland’s Imperial Wizard of the KKK, Roger Kelly, who eventually left the KKK. Davis is credited with directly and indirectly deradicalizing up to two hundred members of the KKK who eventually left that organization. There are examples all over the world of people who reach out and try to help stop the processes of radicalization and violence and they all agree that conversations, proper education, and forgiveness can combine to change an individual who once acted on their negative bias and help them learn to have respect and tolerance for others.

Are We Ready for Change?

Approaching this issue through the lens of no tolerance or rhetoric similar to “once a racist always a racist,” is not working nor will it change the future and reduce the levels of radicalization and violence people around the world experience today. There is evidence to suggest that having difficult conversations and the willingness to forgive can lead to healing and a change in philosophy.  The current generation that is driven to social justice needs to remember what forgiveness looks like and that it can drive change around the world.

Margaret Valenti

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today.