Forgiveness is a complex and dynamic process. Deeply intrapersonal with interpersonal and intergroup implications, it holds the potential for the transformation of relationships across dimensions. Imagine a community as a piece of cloth, wherein each individual member of the community is a thread, collectively woven together to form the social fabric. When a harm is done, the fabric is torn. Not only is the piece of fabric as a whole ripped, but so too are the individual threads frayed. While it is possible to restitch the fabric without addressing the individual threads, the smoothest repair occurs when the threads themselves are respun or otherwise attended to. Forgiveness exists in the respinning of the threads, the healing that occurs within the individual that facilitates reconciliation at the macro level (the repair of the fabric as a whole).
Padre Leonel Narváez Gomez, director of Fundación para la Reconciliación in Colombia, defines forgiveness as “a choice to give up the urge for retaliation and instead act upon compassion and kindness.”1 For the extent to which forgiveness is deeply relational, forgiveness can be encouraged through strengthening relational ties between and among implicated individuals and communities. One way to strengthen these ties is through ritual, which help build rapport among participants and maintain a safe space in which to navigate the often tumultuous journey of relationship repair and social transformation.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Colombia: ESPERE
Fundación para la Reconciliación is a tremendous organization engaged in such an approach. For a half a century, Colombia has been impacted by a conflict between the government and rebel groups that killed over 22,000 people and displaced over 6 million. In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group. The peace process is fragile and the reintegration of ex-combatants is a great challenge.
In this context, the Fundación para la Reconciliación has been working to create schools of forgiveness and reconciliation (Escuelas de Perdón y Reconciliatión, ESPERE), supporting individuals and communities in these complementary processes (forgiveness being an intrapersonal experience whereas reconciliation is a collective process of moving from distrust to trust). Rituals are integral to the schools’ curriculum, some based on traditional Colombian rituals and others of Christian influence. Examples include, “Going from Darkness to Light,” symbolizing the possibility to transform rage and pain, and “The Potter,” which involves the metaphorical representation of the essence of the offender in clay and the commit of oneself to promoting the positive aspects of this person, who is present in the room through this representation.2
These rituals serve to cultivate new perspectives and ways to be in more harmonious relationship with oneself, the past, and the community. The journey toward and practice of forgiveness does not change the past. Rather, it changes the present and future. The impact of the Fundación para la Reconciliación has been profound, transforming relationships between victims and perpetrators that have reverberated out to support entire communities. It has echoed throughout the country and throughout the world, supporting 2 out of 48 million people in Colombia, and now has spread to 18 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.
The Neuroscience of Forgiveness
While forgiveness remains a fairly understudied topic in neuroscience and psychology, research that has been conducted offers insight into various aspects of forgiveness generally, and the effectiveness of programs such as the schools of forgiveness and reconciliation specifically. Firstly, in accordance with Padre Leonel’s definition, wherein forgiveness involves relinquishing the urge for retaliation, neuroscience research has shown that the cortical areas involved in revenge and forgiveness are deeply intertwined.3 In fact, neuroimaging has revealed that forgiveness may involve the inhibition of brain regions activated by feelings of revenge and punishment. Secondly, empathy toward the person who harmed greatly influences the likelihood for forgiveness given from the person harmed.4 Similarly, greater ability to take different perspectives and understand the intentions of others promotes forgiveness. For the extent to which ritual holds the potential to create new in-group identities, even among previously opposing individuals, and cultivate empathy among participants, the ritual elements of Fundación para la Reconciliación programs enhance their effectiveness by helping to rewire participants’ brains to facilitate forgiveness.
May we (re)weave community tapestries with threads amended through forgiveness. May this thread and may this cloth be strong enough to withstand the tensions of conflict, growing ever stronger with each new stitch.
More on the Fundación para la Reconciliación and the schools of forgiveness and reconciliation can be found in the Peace ReWire database of World Practices that present other ritualistic experiences from around the world.
1 White Paper: Key Research Hypotheses, Rewiring the Brain for Peace: Bridging Neuroscience, Spirituality, and Peacebuilding (Peace ReWire, 2017), 31.
2 “Escuelas De Perdón Y Reconciliación / Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Es.Pe.Re (Fundación Para La Reconciliación),” Peace ReWire, https://peacerewire.org/?worldpractices=schools-forgiveness-reconciliation.
3 Joseph Billingsley and Elizabeth A. R. Losin, “The Neural Systems of Forgiveness: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective,” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017): 2, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00737.
4 Ibid., 8.