Can Foreign Policy Include Forgiveness?

In an interview, the theologian Nigel Biggar, author of In Defence of War, a new book about the Christian just war tradition, answers with a qualified yes:

Forgiveness is a moral category before it’s a religious one. Nevertheless, it’s a virtue that Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Projectfeatures with distinctive prominence in the Christian tradition. This is partly because Jesus made it a primary characteristic of God, of course. But it might also be because eschatological hope that God will intervene to rectify un-righted wrongs at the end of time makes forbearance in the face of injustice here and now more psychologically possible, because it’s more rational.

Since the paradigms of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation are interpersonal — think Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son — when we talk about such things in the context of political or international relations, we’re talking about something analogous and weaker. Can nation-states forgive? Yes, but only in an attenuated fashion. Nation-states are not likely to embrace their enemies — certainly not in the midst of conflict — but they can and should have compassion for them, where compassion is due. And compassion is the matrix of forgiveness.

Biggar offers this example of what he’s describing:

[I]t would have been absurd for the United States to react to the attacks of 9/11 by declaring to al-Qaeda that it would continue to treat it as a friend. But it would not have been absurd for it to react by — among other, retributive things — straining to understand what motives had driven young, well-educated, middle class Arabs to sacrifice themselves in such a horrendous manner. Perhaps in the rank undergrowth of their deeply distorted worldview there lay some grievances that were justified and that deserved redress — say, the running sore of the unresolved plight of the Palestinian people. In that case, a complete response to 9/11 would have involved moments of rectification, as well as moments of retribution. Righteous hostility would have been tempered by a measure of compassion.

(Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, circa 1664, via Wikimedia Commons)