Forgiveness between Groups: Stories about Families, Clans and Communities
The previous chapter developed guidelines for the practice of forgiveness from traditional Jewish and Christian sources. That chapter focused on situations of inter-personal conflict. In this chapter I extend the analysis to larger, inter-group conflicts primarily through researching the Arab practice of inter-group reconciliation called Sulha. Given that this largely Muslim practice has Jewish and Christian roots, the guidelines derived from those traditions are directly relevant to a full appreciation of the Sulha, and should be used as background.
Islam does not generally have a positive reputation in the Western media for peace-making. The external image of Islam tends to be one of militancy rather than tolerance and peace-making. But the internal experience throughout various Islamic societies is one of on-going conflict-containment and resolution. This can be found at various levels of society, from daily customs that smooth over differences to legal proceedings that determine the rights of minorities. The media, focused on the sensationalism of bad news, broadcast the failures of Islamic peace-making traditions rather than the operation of these traditions on a daily basis (1). As a result, few Westerners are aware of the tradition within Islam of non-violence (such as Gandhi’s associate in Pakistan, Badshah Khan) (2) or of the reformers who are defining a positive and substantial place for Islam in the field of world religions and equality for women (such as Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran and the Muslim Women’s League).
The depth of this prejudice in U.S. society became apparent in 1995 when the public was surprised that neither the Oklahoma City bombing of the Federal Building nor the assassination of Israel’s president Yitzak Rabin were committed by extremists who were either Arab or Muslim. Because of this negative reputation in the media, the Organization of the Islamic Conference issued the Teheran Declaration in 1997, stating in no uncertain terms that terrorism violates the Islamic law against the killing of innocents. (3) Unfortunately, the amplification of the media has allowed the bombast and atrocities of the extremists to drown out the voices of the moderates.
Since September 11, 2001, the voice of Islamic moderates has been reinforced by Western writers such as religious historian Karen Armstrong, who shows how the views of the extremists are contrary to the basic tenets of Islam. More recently, the Islamic Society of North America has called for the recognition of mainstream Muslims as distinct from the “radical fringe.” It is imperative that we act to strengthen the voices of moderation, reform and renewal, for the soul of Islam is threatened by the fanaticism revealed in the September 11 attacks, just as the soul of America is threatened by the corruption revealed in the collapse into bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation. Neither greed nor terrorism will bring peace and prosperity, at home or abroad.
Perhaps the most unique contribution of Islam to peace-making is the tradition of resolving group conflicts, that is, disputes that arise among “the people” (between families or clans). But arbitration is an important aspect of Muslim Law that does go beyond the boundaries of Islam: “But Muhammad had submitted to arbitration a dispute with a Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayza, and this precedent led to the principle that arbitration was permitted between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in matters which did not involve the faith, arrangements to end fighting, for example.” (4) Nonetheless, arbitration is generally used to settle disputes within the faith.
Sulha seems to be the most developed method for addressing group conflict in Islam. It is practiced by the Bedouins and other Arab groups, who are mostly Muslim, but also Christian. The Arabic word “sulha” is related to the Hebrew root “salah” (letter HETH), meaning to forgive, still at root of the Modern Hebrew expression, SLIHAH = “forgive me, pardon me.” As described by his informant in Daniel Smith’s article “The Rewards of Allah,” (5) Sulha has roots in Jewish and Christian practices. This perspective stands in contrast to much of the Islamic rhetoric that we hear in the media that serves to separate Islam from its Jewish and Christian origins. Smith’s article is the first fully articulated account of this practice that shows the richness that can be found in Muslim tradition.
There are aspects of the Sulha that are foreign to modern society and may seem irrelevant to us. Sulha developed in traditional societies where roles are very clearly prescribed. Although issues of honor and revenge definitely have their place in modern society, they tend to be individual affairs rather than affairs that involve families or clans in the formally prescribed terms of the feud. In response to this formalized honor code, the Sulha is highly ceremonial for the purpose of re-prescribing roles of revenge into roles of peace-making. Since our society is less ceremonial, we may want to look more at the principles involved in the Sulha than at the formalities themselves. Nonetheless, modern society does suffer from a lack of positive customs and rituals (the word “rite” being of Sanskrit origin, meaning a custom as a way, a means to move in the social world). One of the principles of the Sulha is that, in a volatile situation, it can help to replace risky words with meaningful social gestures. In a ritual-impoverished environment, moderns talk too much — words are cheapened and they serve less to resolve conflicts than to inflame them. Since sensationalism can serve to escalate conflicts and embroil groups, it is important to identify ways in which the larger community can play a constructive role when its involvement becomes necessary for resolution to occur. The Sulha provides an example of a constructive role for the community.
Recently, the value of ritual is better appreciated in the field of family therapy, where it has been found to help prevent conflict and its escalation. For instance, the Sulha process ends with a ritual meal. It is no coincidence that the ritual of the family meal is now considered an essential form of communication to establish family cohesion. Eating together symbolizes putting differences aside (Samuel Pepys, 1685, writes: “Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody”). A good example of how eating together can increase cooperation within and between families, and other institutions, can be found in the multi-family group program called Families and Schools Together (FAST) created by Lynn McDonald in 1988 (6). In this program families participate together in an array of activities, including a meal. These rituals help reduce and resolve conflicts between family members and between families and other groups (such as schools, agencies, other families). FAST is specifically designed to develop habits that serve to reduce the power imbalances that block the resolution of many conflicts. There are many ways in which the FAST program could be analyzed as a Sulha with a preventative orientation. This is reflected in the order of the rituals: whereas the Sulha ends with a meal, the FAST gatherings begin with a meal. At first, families eat separately, but at the final (eighth) meeting, which involves a graduation ceremony, families eat together, enacting a higher level of inter-group integration. Breaking bread together, com-pan-ionship (“pan” being Spanish for bread), helps prevent and reduce conflicts. We will return to the FAST program at the end of this chapter.
Humans are the only species that will eat with an enemy. A meal shared by the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan helped to further the Middle-East Peace Process of the 1990s before it collapsed after the assassination of Yitzak Rabin. Sometimes we pay the ultimate price for eating with an enemy: it was because Yitzak Rabin ate with Yasir Arafat that he was assassinated by one of his own people in 1995.
The value of family meals for family harmony is now recognized in our popular culture. Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) is most eloquent on the importance of family meals eaten in a common area:
Nothing that calls itself a family can afford to do without these basics, even if the common area is tiny and the meals are rushed. Regular gatherings, with their lack of a specific agenda, are what make people something more than just a collection of individuals delivering messages to one another. (7)
In Bedouin society, the Sulha does not take the place of the judicial system and, even though it can prevent the need for a court settlement, it is not limited to an out of court settlement:
We have to make the Sulha in order to establish peace between families – between villages – and between people in general, so that all the consequences of the quarrels and feuds will be eliminated totally, and life can go back to its natural course. (8)
Although a Sulha may be used to settle a wide range of disputes, it is in cases of non-accidental killings that we find its fullest application. In these cases there are three major elements in the process of making peace: 1) the armistice; 2) the redemption money; 3) the day of peace. Throughout this process, the role of the mediators is very exacting as they encourage step-by-step the repentance and forgiveness of the parties involved.
The Armistice (Atwa)
The roles and responsibilities of the Sulha are very clearly defined. If there has been an attack resulting in injury or death it is expected that the family of the attacker will immediately go to a delegation of notable people, known as the “Jaha”, and beg for their intervention. The Jaha “should be known to all in the area. In the Galilee, for example, it is well known who are well-trusted and known for their honesty and decency.” (9) If the family of the attacker does not bring the attacker along with them to make the request, they are not taken seriously by the Jaha. Here we find the role of “admission” in the Sulha process, but in a broadened sense: the family of the attacker has a responsibility for ensuring that the offense is neither denied nor ignored. In this way the involvement of the family and the community presents some additional options for direct and indirect confessions. Although confession by hear-say is not acceptable in that the presence of the offender is required, still there are options for confession by or through third-parties.
The composition of the Jaha is an important decision. Aside from the need to pick people or families with broad and stable reputations, there is the question of the number needed to handle a case:
I don’t think that you need more than twenty members of a Jaha, because the bigger the Jaha, the more you will have problems with different opinions, and prevent its coming to a single and united decision. In a small Jaha, it is easier to come to a decision. Sometimes, however, you can’t escape it, you need a big Jaha, because the feud is so difficult. In one case in the Galilee, almost every village sent in three or four of its notables, in order to interfere, because that feud was a big one. There were about five people killed, and many injured between two strong families. In order to restore peace between these two families a bigger influence was needed. (10)
Once the Jaha has been composed and has decided to take on a case, it is their responsibility to establish an armistice, or “Atwa,” with the family of the attacked. This is done as soon as possible because “if the injured family waits for a long time, and nobody asks them ‘What happened,’ it is considered an insult, and they will accuse the other side of not caring about the violation or injury.” (11) This is often done the same day the Jaha is composed, even to the point of the Jaha visiting the funeral for this purpose:
“After they bury their dead, we tell them ‘We shall not leave this place until we have your word of honour that nothing is going to happen between you…’ When we at last hear the word of honour, for their oldest people, that they won’t do anything, then it won’t be so dangerous.” (12)
Even though it is forbidden for the attacker or his family to speak to the family of the deceased, this does not mean that the bereaved family will accept the mediation of the Jaha. Sometimes the Jaha must establish its credibility in various ways. Two ways its credibility can be challenged are shown clearly in the interview. One is a challenge to the character of the mediators themselves, as is so vividly demonstrated in the following story:
I remember the story that my father told me about a strong man from this town many years ago who was making the Sulha. They were so sad about the death of a member of their family that the women went to the roof of the house and poured ashes on the heads of the delegation when they arrived at the house. They wanted to express their anger. Sometimes the role of the delegation is an anger absorber for the other side. “You are angry? Don’t throw it on your opponent — throw it on us…we take the anger on ourselves.” Sometimes this might lead to the death of the Jaha member himself! This strong leader that my father told me about said to the women pouring the ashes on them, “Go on, go on” — this was true patience and tolerance. This was wisdom. Such work will tell you how wide your heart should be. If you scream, “You poured ashes on me??!” then you spoil the whole case. The man said, “You have the right — pour the ashes — you have the right.” The women said, “What kind of angel do we have here? Perhaps we should be ashamed…” You want the people to see that they are accepted with great love whatever they do. When you do this, you are sacrificing for the sake of peace between people. So, sometimes the family refuses the delegation — and you must tolerate it, and be patient. Sometimes they will tell you to leave the house. If they are more polite, they will simply leave the house and leave you there without a host. This is a sign for people to say, “Please leave.” It is so complicated and difficult and everything is passed on “How wise is the member of the Jaha?” (13)
Another way in which the Jaha can be challenged is on the sincerity of the attacker’s family. For this reason there is the custom of the Atwa money (separate from the redemption money):
The Atwa should be supported and backed by a certain amount of money. There are two kinds of Atwa. One is Atwa of honour, when one side says “I don’t need money.” Atwa money is a guarantee — as a support to the armistice so that nothing may happen between the two families in this period. Many families accept this money. It is their right. Why? If there is any violation of the armistice, it would be a great disgrace for such a family to violate this. When the family takes money, in front of all the people, it will be difficult for them to retreat or withdraw. (14)
As we find in this passage, the offer of the Atwa money not only signals the seriousness of the attacker’s family, but its acceptance also binds the family of the attacked to abide by the armistice. Now we can consider the third party’s responsibility in making the armistice. First the attacker’s family must show serious intent to the Jaha; second the Jaha must show serious intent to bereaved family; third the injured family must show serious intent to the Jaha:
In general, the first visit may not necessarily get the agreement you are after. It will take us probably two or three visits. There is a beautiful terminology used and unless we hear the terminology, the special, decisive words of the other side, it is not a good sign for us, and we know that our mission is at stake…They must be heard clearly, not a mumbled or inward manner so that we cannot hear it. It should be open, in front of all the members. (15)
The Atwa can be set for varying lengths of time depending on the complexity and emotional tone of the case, and often there is need to extend or renew the armistice. As can be imagined, the deliberations have to take into consideration any perceptions that a settlement is being pushed or delayed for the advantage of any particular party. For this reason the Jaha meets in neutral places not associated with either family.
The Redemption Money (Diya)
In the Sulha process, the redemption money addresses the issue of restitution. To understand the role of redemption money we need to know the philosophy with which the money is presented and the way the amount is determined. The philosophy is presented as follows:
[After the Atwa] you have to decide on your ruling. Let us take the case of a killed person. We have to rule the redemption money. This is the money that should be given to the family of the deceased, to “redeem his blood.” This must be done — a man’s blood must not be spilled for nothing. So we give them a certain amount of money. Traditionally it is accepted. A good English term is “ransom.” This money is symbolic. You will tell them, “It’s not the ‘price’ of the man — there is no price for a human being.” This money is only a symbol price for the man’s blood which has no price. This is because there are two basic elements to the Sulha — they are rights and honour. The minute that a family has a member killed, they have rights. But it is not all “rights.” If it were all materialistic, then we would simply come like a lawyer and say, “How much do you want — 50,000? No, make it 100,000…!!” No, no. This is because of the other element which is honour. Money, we know we can restore money, but how do you restore honour? (16)
Because of the issue of precedents and to maintain the status of the money as symbolic, the amount set by the Jaha is not negotiable:
Sometimes, we offer the diya money, and people say, “This is not enough.” The more the family is respected, the more difficult it may be. Honourable, deep people will not argue over the money. But the minute the Jaha has ruled, it cannot be changed — it is too late. (17)
A question not addressed in the interview is what happens when the ruling is beyond the means of the family responsible (as is likely to occur when amounts are set according to tradition). A reliable source informs me that often members of the Jaha itself will help cover the cost. It is only by considering this fact that we can truly understand how different this role of the Jaha is from that of lawyer and judge and jury.
The Day of Peace (Sulha)
Next we come to the Sulha proper, the ceremony that is meant to restore the social fabric that was torn by the offense. In the conduct of this ceremony we will find signs of forgiveness and repentance that are related to the issue of “discipline” that came up in the last topic on repentance. But even more vividly than in the previous discussion, we will find in the description of the Sulha ceremony an experience of the relationship between the personal and social aspects of our conscience.
The basic structure of the ritual is described as follows:
The main pillars of the Sulha are three — shaking hands, forgiveness, and breaking salt and bread. This is probably from the old Biblical Jewish tradition. Salt and bread means, you must eat. This must be done. As I said before, you must be careful that all the steps of the Sulha will be taken care of, or else the Sulha can be violated or broken. So we insist that even in the simplest case these three conditions be met – shaking of hands, forgiveness, and eating. (18)
It is not difficult to imagine how ancient are some of the roots of this ritual, not only in Judaism but also Christianity where the breaking of bread in communion is the sacrament of our reconciliation with God. Literally speaking, this is what the word “company” means – “with bread.”
Now let us consider the intricacies of the ceremony. After all the agreements are settled, a date is set:
Invitations should be sent to many notables all over the country… Peace should be done openly. It should be done, we say “On the top of the heads.” Everybody should see it, and everybody should witness.
And now there is the beautiful ritual of the family of the killed person standing in line. The delegation will go and bring the family of the killer, under the auspices of the delegation itself, and under a white flag, as a symbol of peace. The killer must carry the white flag in his hand, raising it. It is white — clean — there are no spots. The problem has been cleansed. The members of the delegation surround him as protection. This is the most difficult moment, when he has to go down the line of his opponents, and shake their hands one by one. When they put their hands together — the case is canceled. There may be one or two thousand people in attendance. At the moment, they are all living “at the edge of their seats.” At this moment, everyone is watching with great anticipation and expectation. Who knows, God forbid, something might go wrong. I want to tell you out of my own experience, the less you speak the better. The more you speak — one wrong word comes from your mouth — might spoil the whole thing, even if it was not intended. You might have spoken innocently. Who knows how the other side is going to interpret something said? So, there is a heavy silence.
Someone may say, “I don’t want to shake his hand — he killed my father.”…the whole atmosphere will be electrified — another killing might happen at that moment. You can hear our hearts beating until the last member of the family has shaken hands with all the men. There is a special word spoken at the end of the ritual of the shaking of hands, “This peace is valid on those who are present and on those who are absent.” Someone from America may come and say, “I wasn’t here, your peace is not valid for me so I am going to kill him.” But we say “This peace is valid for all those who are present here, and all those who are absent. For every embryo in the womb of his mother or for every sperm from the back of his father…” After ten years you marry and have a son, and you say, “This son was not born…” and when he is eighteen he wants to take revenge. No. So, this is declared at the end, and then the speeches are made, which are formal. Someone like a notable, or a respected person, or a mayor. They will say something like, “Thank you. You two families were so kind to accept this, and now we are going to open a new chapter in this village…”, something like that.
[The speeches are] fairly traditional. The point is that we avoid speeches. We refuse many requests to speak. People love to speak, and will come to the Jaha and ask, “Please let me speak.” In general, we refuse. You don’t always know the types of people or what they are going to say.
What happens to the white flag?
After the shaking of hands, you have to ask important notables and leaders to come and put a knot in the piece of cloth. It is symbolic, like the whole ritual is symbolic. It is a guarantee from this influential leader who has the respect of many people, “Here, I make a knot so that this peace is not going to be ‘untied’ — I tie it strongly so that it will be valid all the time…Does anyone dare untie my knot!” The accused, therefore, is under a flag with knots already in it. In this case, tying the knot is a sign of consent, “Go ahead and bring the man,” and this is a guarantee that none will protest when he is brought, since they put their knot in the flag.
The notables are the witnesses. They might say, “In the name of God, I tie this piece of cloth so that peace will be restored…” It is a sign of their guarantee. In general, there will be four or five knots like that. Sometimes twenty people come, and then it loses its significance.
So – the first thing is the knot of the family that is bereaved as a sign to go and get the man who is accused. Then he is brought, followed by the shaking of hands, and then the knots of the notables, and then the speeches. (19)
There is a heavy emphasis in this description on the danger of words and their replacement with symbolic rituals. This is in agreement with the concerns we have found for avoiding “sins of the tongue” in the previous chapter on inter-personal conflicts. Notice in particular that the killer, although in many ways the center of attention, apparently says nothing. And this is his first direct contact with the family of the deceased. Just as with the Abbot Anastasius story in the previous chapter, where the act of returning a stolen book said it all (in place of a confession and apology); here the ritual of the killer bringing the flag says it all. Dignity and humility instead of humiliation and protestation.
In fact, we will not understand the nature of the ritual without understanding how silence sets the tone and punctuates the ritual. At the tensest moment, the shaking of hands, we have what is called a “heavy silence.” There is a recognition in this that what is called for is a change of heart for all involved: repentance for the killer, forgiveness for the bereaved, and humility for the community in which the crime occurred. To try to force this with words would be an act of pride and contrary to the spirit of what is called for. What words there are act to set the stage for silence to have its effect.
Just as St. Matthew tells us to settle our differences before offering our gifts and taking communion, so with the Sulha, after settling differences the parties offer coffee and lunch and eat together:
Then the family of the killer must be taken to the family of the killed to go and have a cup of coffee. Then the family of the killer will invite the family of the killed to go and have lunch with them. Coffee one way, lunch the other. Lunch is at the end. After lunch it is finished.
It’s not important what you eat. In general people will eat only three spoons, and then leave the table, because there are so many. It is just a symbol that, “I ate your bread, and now we are friends.” (20)
Breaking bread together relates the reconciliation to the acts of our everyday lives, instructing us to establish the discipline necessary to avoid a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.
The informant describes the over-all effects of the Sulha tradition in terms very familiar to the modern-day mediator:
Somebody always loses in the court. The person who loses in the court always leaves unhappy, because he lost the case. The person who wins the case leaves the court happy, because he has gained. A court cannot satisfy two sides, it can only satisfy one side. Making the Arab Sulha satisfies all parties — there is no loser, and no gainer. No happy and unhappy – all are happy in the end. Even the whole village is happy. (21)
Similarly, in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:25-26), Jesus warns of the dangers of not settling differences before ending up in court:
Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.
Although it may be tempting to relate the methods of the Sulha to larger, international conflicts, the informant cautions us against any naive ideas along these lines (other than extracting some of the basic principles). In order to extend this approach to forgiveness into the arena of international conflicts and modern warfare, we would have to explore issues of non-violent resistance and just war ethics.
Families and Schools Together: Community Peace-Making
There are many structural similarities between the Sulha rituals and the activities involved in the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program. FAST has proven to successfully recruit and involve parents who are often alienated from the schools their children attend. Short-term and long-term results demonstrate that the program significantly reduces behavior problems of children at school and at home while leading to increases in parents’ educational involvement and employment. Indeed, the success of the program has made it one of the most promising welfare-to-work strategies available in the United States (by 1999, the program had spread to 34 states and 5 countries).
The program forms its own “Jaha,” respected community representatives, to initiate and maintain the program. A broad range of the community is represented, not just professionals from the school and community-based agencies, but consumers of social services who represent the population being recruited to participate. The consumer voice on the team is not just included as a paid employee, but developed and promoted as a means of empowering the participants to make positive community changes.
FAST team members are trained to reach out to parents in much the same way as the Jaha approaches the grieving family. Indeed, many FAST families can be considered families with grievances due to injustice and disrespect, as well as personal loss. The following story is a good illustration of this compassionate outreach:
In one school, I overheard a group of teachers actually placing bets that we (the FAST program) would not be able to engage two specific families. But they were proven wrong. It took me five home visits per family, but they finally came, loved the program, graduated, and are now FASTWORKS leaders. (22) [FAST is the 8-weekly multi-family group meetings; FASTWORKS is the monthly meetings for graduate families.]
The expenses of the program, provided by public and private funding sources, serve as a sort of community “blood money”: a symbolic contribution to acknowledge and help correct the power imbalances that exist between consumers and providers of service. This funding provides incentives for families (low-income or not) such as dinner, child-care, transportation, and a family lottery prize. But there is also the dignity of reciprocity: the family that wins the lottery on one week hosts the dinner for the next week. When graduate parents get involved in FASTWORKS, they often help each other out as well as contribute to the well-being of the community at-large. Parent leaders become members of the FAST Parent Advisory Council, equivalent to the Jaha.
The FAST meetings themselves have many of the qualities of “The Day of Peace.” All of the senses are engaged in an array of culturally universal activities such as cooking and eating, serving and being served, singing and drawing, greeting and meeting and taking leave. (23) Different activities are used to improve relationships at all levels: parent and child, parent and parent, parent group and team, program and community. In this way, the FAST program not only serves to reduce existing conflicts, but to prevent new conflicts from developing.
FAST is a modern, research-based social service program that has spread successfully in an alienated society where there is little sense of community. The Sulha is an ancient tradition that developed in the history of forgiveness and peace-making. The fact that we can find so many similarities between the two is a sign that wisdom is returning to social science, policy, and practice.
Both the Sulha and the FAST program bring forgiveness to group conflicts using broad-based community outreach and involvement. A wonderful story of how the spirit of community can resolve group conflicts is told in Kathryn Watterson’s Not by the Sword: How the Love of a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman. (24) Larry Trapp was a Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan in Lincoln, Nebraska, and notorious leader in the white supremacist neo-Nazi and skinhead movements. For years he led a campaign of terror against the Jewish-American, African-American, and Asian-American communities. Unbeknownst to each other, the religious leaders of these communities, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist, organized efforts to make peace with Larry Trapp. Trapp not only organized covert terrorist acts, but spread hate through a radio program, as well as threatening and harassing phone calls and letters. The enduring spirit of community, using restraint, good humor, and hospitality, converted Trapp who, humbled by his worsening diabetic condition, ended his life living with a Jewish family that he had been harassing. This is the kind of thing that can happen when communities act to strengthen themselves, and public policies should support programs like FAST in order to help communities do so.