I heard a talk recently in which– it was stated that Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolent resistance to injustice is equivalent to forgiving. The point is that forgiveness is not passive but stands up to evil in a merciful way. While there are some convergences between nonviolent resistance and forgiveness, I think that they are in essence different. Here are at least three ways in which they are not the same:
First, Ghandi’s approach, as well the approach of others who followed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., is centered on a quest for justice. They want an unfair situation changed. Thus, nonviolent resistance in its essence is a justice strategy, as is the call for negotiation, dialogue, arms limitation, and other approaches of seeking fairness.
In contrast, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue centered in mercy and love. The primary goal of forgiveness is not the seeking of fairness, but instead to unconditionally love another or others, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this. To be fair to forgiveness, it is not the case that forgiveness abandons the quest for justice. Instead, people can and should bring justice alongside forgiving. When they do so, we must be clear that the offer of forgiving is different from the request for a fair solution.
Second, when a person or group practices nonviolent resistance, forgiveness likely would aid this strategy because it quells resentment which could spill over to hatred and actions of hatred which would destroy the nonviolent strategy. Forgiveness in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one. Justice-seeking is the primary issue. In contrast, justice-seeking is an aid to forgiving so that the forgiver does not become weak or even abused by others’ continual injustices. Justice in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one. Unconditional love toward an offending person is the primary issue.
Third, while the virtue of love may be at the center of non-violent resistance, and certainly was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr. as seen in his soaring volume, Strength to Love, it need not be at the center for all who practice the nonviolence. Perseverance might be the center for some, justice-seeking no matter what the consequence may be at the center for others, while loving one’s enemy may take center-stage for others. The action itself (nonviolence) and keeping one’s eye on the goal (social change) can lead to different virtues dominating a given person’s thinking and acting. In contrast, the virtue of love is always at the center of forgiving even if the forgiver never reaches this depth of understanding and practicing forgiving.
Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share the following in common:
First, each is unconditional in that, no matter what the other does to thwart the practice, the forgiver and the nonviolent resister stand firm in their decision to either forgive or resist. The others’ blows to the head did not deter Gandhi. The other’s refusal to apologize or make restitution does not deter the forgiver, who may or may not reconcile depending on the degree of unfairness and the extent of any abuse. The forgiver stands unconditionally in the offer of goodness toward those who are not being good to the forgiver.
Second, both have moral virtue at their center.
Third, each can effect social change as the one forgiven, for example, now sees the injustice, feels remorse, repents, and changes. Nonviolent resistance historically has been shown to effect such change as the consciences of the powerful can be deeply affected as they continue their unjust ways in the face of the others’ peace.
Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share commonalities, but they are not the same. We need clarity when engaging in each so that they move forward well and with a deep understanding about what the forgiver or resister actually is doing.
If someone told you that a rape survivor was writing a book together with the man who raped her, you probably wouldn’t believe them.
But that’s exactly what Thordis Elva has done with her former high school boyfriend who raped her when she was barely 16-years-old after a school Christmas party in Elva’s hometown of Reykjavík, Iceland.
Her boyfriend was an 18-year-old exchange student from Australia, Tom Stranger, who said he felt entitled to have sex with Elva despite her being so drunk that people at the party had suggested they call an ambulance. Stranger instead took Elva to her own home where he spent two hours accosting her as she faded in and out of consciousness.
The crime was never reported.
Elva said that at the time she wasn’t clear as to what rape actually was and that Stranger had returned to Australia a few days later after ending the relationship.
“I hadn’t told anyone because I harbored shame and self blame for being drunk and not being in a situation where I was in control” Elva says. “That slowed down my ability to recover and fully face what had happened.”
The two went their separate ways after that sinister event until nine years later when Elva contacted her rapist by email. Still struggling with the trauma of the rape, and “on the brink of a nervous breakdown,” Elva felt she needed to be eye-to-eye with her attacker in a bid to come to terms with what happened to her. And to her surprise, he replied with a confession and an offer of “whatever I can do.”
From that initial contact an extraordinary dialogue between rape victim and rapist started–beginning a raw, painful healing process documented in the book they co-authored South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility.
The book immediately became controversial not only because Stranger had actually raped Elva 16 years earlier and had only recently taken responsibility for it, but because Elva would eventually forgive herself and her attacker.
“It [forgiveness] is an extremely misunderstood concept,” according to Elva. “People somehow think you are giving the perpetrator something when you forgive, but in my view, it is the complete polar opposite.”
Creating additional controversy is the fact that the victim and the culprit are travelling the world together to discuss the very serious topic of rape. Together, they gave a TED talk that summarized a 20-year long process, whereby Stranger eventually shouldered responsibility for his actions and the way those actions impacted their lives. It was viewed nearly 2 million times in the first week and more than 4.3 million times since being posted. You can watch their TED talk here. The TED talk was presented in San Francisco, CA for the TEDWomen 2016 conference.
Stranger, it should be noted, is not benefiting from his work with Elva. “Any profits that I receive will be going towards a women’s’ charity in Reykjavík,” Stranger told an interviewer. “I realize how disrespectful and contemptuous it would be for me to benefit my bank balance or anything else.”
South of Forgiveness is an unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator, each equally committed to exploring the darkest moment of their lives. It is a true story about being bent but not broken, of facing fear with courage, and of finding hope even in the most wounded of places. (Source: South of Forgiveness website)
⇒ Is forgiveness a virtue? – Malay Mail Online, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
⇒ Can I forgive the man who raped me? – The Observer/The Guardian, London, UK
⇒ South of Forgiveness – Forgiving rape – IceNews, Reykjavik,
⇒ Rape victim and rapist reconcile, co-author a book and give talks – IceNews, Reykjavik, Iceland
⇒ Could you forgive a rapist? A 17-year story of reconciliation – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia
⇒ Our story of rape and reconciliation – TED Talks (video: 19:07), New York, NY
⇒ A Q&A with Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger – Ted Talks, New York, NY
⇒ South of Forgiveness – Promotional Website, Stockholm, Sweden
Please tell us what you think of this story, of the campaign being conducted by Elva and Stranger, and of Elva’s willingness and ability to forgive herself and her attacker. Could you forgive someone who raped you? Click on the “Leave a comment” button at the top of this story or use the “Leave a reply” box below to let us know what you think. Thank you. We appreciate your thoughts and your feedback.
“Let’s heal the world through forgiveness.
Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness.”
Those are the words of Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust who, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Both of her parents and two older sisters died at the camp; only she and Miriam survived the near-starvation, illness, and other indignities of the camp.
In one of her many interviews following her release, Eva told the anecdote of how she once sat in her room, imagining that Joseph Mengele was sitting right next to her. .
and Panel Discussion
Saturday, March 10, 2018
2:00 pm – 5:00 pm
330 N. Orchard St.
Madison, WI 53715
The 69-minute documentary film will be followed by Q&A with director, Julie Mallozzi, and a panel discussion with individuals working on or participating in restorative justice initiatives in the Madison area. This event is being hosted by Dane County TimeBank and is being co-sponsored by organizations that include the International Forgiveness Institute.
Click here for more info about the film and to watch the trailer.
Click here for information on the Director’s Q&A and Panel Discussion.
Click here for a list of other screenings throughout the country.
Hi Dr. Enright, I’m enjoying your 8 steps book. I’ve also been enjoying learning about self-compassion from the works by Kristin Neff. She has a 20 minute self-guided meditation which I often practice. I wonder if you have something similar for forgiveness? I really appreciate the work you’ve done!
While we do not have a specific 20-minute reflection for forgiveness, we do have exercises that can be done on a regular basis in the self-help book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, an Amazon.com best seller. There are further exercises in the two other self-help books, The Forgiving Life and 8 Keys to Forgiveness.
Additional information about all three books is available in the IFI Store.