The Rigid Dogma of Forgiveness Can Harm Genocide Survivors

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By Noam Schimmel

The virtues of forgiveness in many different contexts of life are manifold and well known. Forgiveness can encourage and enable healing, peaceful relations, improved individual and social welfare, and psychological well being.

But forgiveness is a personal choice and it must not be coerced, whether implicitly or explicitly.

It is not a panacea.

Its idealization as a necessary prerequisite for peaceful relations in post-genocide Rwanda is neither ethically nor psychologically fair nor is it healthy. Many genocide survivors do not feel any desire to forgive the individuals who raped, tortured, and murdered their friends and family members and who raped, tortured, and assaulted so many survivors of the genocide still struggling with physical and emotional wounds from it.

Many genocide perpetrators in Rwanda feel and show no remorse, have not repented, and continue to intimidate and attack genocide survivors and foment racist anti-Tutsi hatred. Over 100 genocide survivors have been murdered since the end of the genocide by unrepentant genocide perpetrators who maintain their Hutu supremacist annihilationist ideology.

While for some genocide survivors forgiveness is part of a personal process of healing for many others it plays no such role.

Choosing not to forgive does not necessitate being consumed by hatred and anger. One can behave peacefully and support reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis and principles of freedom, equality, and non-discrimination without forgiving genocide perpetrators. A refusal to forgive can be a powerful moral affirmation of the need for perpetrators to express true remorse, repent, and devote themselves to restorative justice to help genocide survivors rebuild their lives.

Even then, some survivors may choose not to forgive and this is their right, not something to be judged pejoratively.

The dogmatic insistence that survivors forgive undermines their freedom of conscience, creates tremendous social pressure on them which only adds to their own considerable psychological burdens as a result of surviving genocide, and is insensitive in the extreme by refusing to acknowledge that many genocide survivors do not even feel that it is in their power to forgive. This is because when perpetrators of genocide murdered their parents, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors and other fellow Rwandans in those very acts they negated the possibility of being forgiven by the individuals who they attacked and whose lives they destroyed. Many genocide survivors consequently do not believe they have the right or capacity to forgive for crimes committed not directly against them.

Instead of focusing on how survivors of genocide ought to forgive it would be far more conducive to promoting peace and reconciliation in Rwanda and genuine post genocide justice if greater emphasis was placed on the necessity of genocide perpetrators to repent.

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