We live in a world of conflicts. Most of the boundaries between nations in our world today are the result of past conflicts. Many of the ongoing conflicts in our world, whether they are between nations, races or religions, have their origins in events that began hundreds or even thousands of years ago. The study of human history is the study of wars and conflicts, many of which were never resolved.

From the international to the national and down to the community and family levels, conflict is common. No doubt you have already experienced some conflicts in your own life—perhaps with your parents, a friend or a teacher, or even within yourself.

You will recall our lesson on inner conflict. In fact, most conflicts start within people and then come out in relationships with others. Destructive conflicts have their roots in selfishness and insensitivity, which cause people to do things to hurt others, who then react negatively and hurt back. All of us have been guilty at one time or another of causing others pain. We have also been at the receiving end of the insensitive and selfish actions of others.

Story: "Fight with a friend"

"Two weeks ago I had a fight with my best friend, Bill. The worst thing is, it was all my fault. It all started with my teasing him about his new girlfriend. There was nothing special about her, but Bill was really crazy about her and thought of nothing else. For some reason, it really bothered me! Then Bill began to say some nasty things back to me. Finally, at one point I lost it and shouted so loudly that many people could hear (which I normally never would have done). I shouted, "And your father had an affair with his secretary and left you and your mother!" Bill went white, grabbed his bag, and ran out the door.

The minute the words were out, I wanted to take them back. A few days before, Bill had told me about the situation at home. He was very upset about it, and then I betrayed his trust. I feel I’m the worst kind of person. I’ve tried to make up for my mistake in different ways, but Bill just ignores me as if I don't exist. It would be better if he hit me. How can I show him how sorry I am? How can I ever make it up to him? Will he ever forgive me?"

Few people want conflict. We would all prefer to live in peace and harmony with others. What can we do, then, to resolve conflict?

Forgiveness is the great conflict resolver.

When you realize you have hurt someone, you cannot regain peace until the person you have hurt accepts your apology and forgives you. Only in this way can the relationship be restored. Without forgiveness, there is no way to resolve conflicts, no way to find peace. Conflicts multiply and escalate without forgiveness, often expanding beyond the original people involved to include more and more people.

Vendettas—Where there is no forgiveness

Vendettas are feuds, usually between families. The original problem is forgotten as the desire for vengeance escalates. There is no forgiveness for the other side's wrongdoings — and not being sorry for one's own.

For instance, near Naples, Italy, two rival families have been fighting for thirty years. Since the first killing in 1972, there have been thirty deaths between the two families. Now, members of each of these rich and powerful families must hide away from one another behind protected walls, living military-style. Their homes are like forts, with barbed wire and guard dogs.

Neither side can forgive the other. Neither can let go of their anger and hatred. Their lives are therefore a constant cycle of revenge killings, with no hope of peace.

What forgiveness involves

All of us need to learn how to forgive those who hurt and betray us, because we all make mistakes. If you have ever experienced the tremendous feeling of relief that comes when someone you have hurt forgives you, it will be easier for you to understand and forgive others when you have been hurt. In every relationship—every friendship, every marriage—there will be times when one will do something to hurt the other. At some point we all face times when we need to forgive and be forgiven.

Forgiveness involves the ability to put aside our resentment and the desire to punish the person who made us suffer. It involves the ability to overcome our anger and look at the person with a fresh heart. Forgiveness releases the one who caused us pain. It also frees us from our own resentment and anger. By forgiving a person who has offended us, we can experience a deep feeling of inner peace.

If we develop the ability to forgive, it frees us to relate with a wide circle of people. We do not need to limit our relationships to only those who love and understand us. The borders of our world are opened. We are not afraid of possible misunderstandings, because we are strong enough to forgive people.

But how do we forgive?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great peacemaker, had this to say about learning to forgive: We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy…there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light.

By realizing that the person who hurt us is not all bad—any more than we are all good—we can begin to forgive. These are ways to do it:
  1. Resist the temptation to be judgmental. Remember, you do not know all the circumstances surrounding any event or person.
  2. Learn to be compassionate. The best method is to use your imagination and put yourself in the other person's shoes. Then ask yourself whether the fault is really entirely the other person's, or whether you need to honestly admit that some of the blame is yours.
  3. Imagine the whole problem in terms of reconciliation. Visualize healing the broken relationship. Imagine yourself free of the poisons of anger and resentment. In your renewed state, imagine the things you can accomplish with the increased energy that will come to you from being full of forgiveness.

Holding onto anger and hatred will never bring conflict to an end. Someone once said that continuing to hate someone is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die from it! Actually, the only person who "dies" of poisonous hatred is the one who hates. To forgive is to experience new life and peace in your own heart.

Questions for reflection

1. Why do you think conflicts between people arise in the first place?

2. Is it easy to tell who is at fault? How do we do this?

3. What is the way to resolve conflicts?

4. Give some examples of conflicts that have and have not been resolved.

5. Why have some conflicts been resolved and others not?

6. Is it difficult to really forgive someone? Give an example.

7. Have you ever been forgiven for a wrongful act? How did it feel?

8. How is loving your enemy related to forgiveness?

9. Is there a conflict in your life you would like to resolve? How could you do it?

Exercise: “Linda's story”

Linda felt awful. All year Natalie had said mean things to her and treated her badly. Linda had no idea what she had done to cause such anger and frustration in Natalie. In fact, they used to be friends. One afternoon Linda was walking through the hall at school after everyone had gone home when she overheard two of Natalie's teachers talking.

"I just found out that Natalie's parents got divorced last year," said one.

"Yes,” the other responded. “She told me recently that she has to go home immediately after school every day to take care of her younger sister. She cooks for her, too, and barely has time to finish her school work because her mother works late hours and her father has moved out.”

How do you think Natalie felt about herself?

Do you think that people who feel badly about themselves may tend to treat others badly also? Why?

After hearing about Natalie’s situation, do you think Linda will see Natalie differently?

How do you think she will treat Natalie differently?

Reflection exercise: “Forgiveness”

Remember a situation when you felt offended. What were the unpleasant feelings connected with the offense and the person who hurt you? Do you think your offender understood your feelings? Now try to imagine that you are the offender and describe the same situation from his/her point of view. What is the difference between the stories? What do you think caused that person to behave the way he/she did? Did he/she offend you on purpose, or was it accidental? Have your feelings toward your offender changed at all? Can you forgive him/her?

quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Loving Your Enemies," Strength to Love (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1963) p. 49