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Forgiveness as a Missing Piece to Peace Between Ukraine and Russia

Forgiveness education for adults and children is key.

Key points

  • Solzhenitsyn's principle of subsidiarity is that local groups should be given the freedom to make their own decisions.
  • Given that some communities in Ukraine have a Russian heritage and some favor a European identity, different groups may have different solutions.
  • Subsidiarity needs a means to its success and forgiveness education just may be that means as people see each other as possessing inherent worth.
  • If the differing sides can see the inherent worth in the other through forgiveness education then dialogue may be fruitful.

In April 1981, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to the Toronto conference on Russian-Ukrainian relations, emphasizing the principle of subsidiarity in which local groups should be given the freedom to make their own decisions. In the case of Ukraine, this does not mean having the entire country decide whether or not it will once again belong to Russia or stay independent. Instead, again leaning on the theme of subsidiarity, Solzhenitsyn suggested that the rights of particular localities within the current borders of Ukraine should be allowed to make these decisions. This likely would mean that those with the stronger Russian heritage would secede from Ukraine and those with the stronger Eastern European heritage would remain independent of Russia.

Les Cunliffe _Dreamstime
Source: Les Cunliffe _Dreamstime

A key issue, then, is to recognize, not just political boundaries, but more importantly, the genuine personhood in people within and across those boundaries, a personhood that is so precious that it transcends nationalism. Such thinking does not just appear overnight at the right place at the right time. It takes time and heroic effort to develop.

Peace and Subsidiarity Explained through Aristotle's Four Causes

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

We can more deeply analyze Solzhenitsyn's proposed subsidiarity through the philosophical approach of Aristotle’s four causes: the Formal, Final, Efficient, and Material Causes. Peace is the Final Cause or endpoint of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. That which brings something else into being, the means by which it emerges, is the Efficient Cause. Subsidiarity is one such possible Efficient Cause for bringing about peace as people might agree to disagree on which parts of Ukraine remain independent and which join Russia, if they so choose as a community to do so. Yet, and this is very important because Solzhenitsyn did not say how subsidiarity is to be brought about, I am suggesting here, as part of this bringing-about, a secondary Aristotelian Efficient Cause to make subsidiarity even possible: forgiveness education. Forgiveness needs to be deliberately brought into this process. In other words, it may be forgiveness education, deliberately incorporated into the schools and houses of worship throughout Ukraine, that makes subsidiarity possible, which then makes the Final Cause of peace possible.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

The Formal Cause is the careful and clear meaning of the object under discussion. If we are not clear on what our term means, confusion reigns. By forgiveness education, I mean this: People need to begin training their hearts and minds in the idea of the inherent worth of all people, even those who are deeply resented because they (in some cases) want to secede and join Russia while others (as this example goes) want a united and independent Ukraine. Such embrace of personhood through forgiveness education to see the inherent worth of all takes, as Aristotle reminds us, practice, practice, and more practice, even over years. Further, forgiveness education adds the critical component of lowering the temperature of resentment and hatred, which so often block temperate and sustained political dialogue and decisions. The training of the mind to see the personhood in the other, which can enhance compassion, respect, and generosity, and then to lower the hatred in the heart is why forgiveness education needs to begin in this embattled region, and then it needs the strong will for people to persevere over years in becoming more deeply educated in forgiveness and applying it.

How Forgiveness Education in Conflict Zones Might Work

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Forgiveness education, as I am recommending it, never begins with a focus on a political conflict. This is the case because the tendency toward violence is too much at a fever pitch, too high for quiet thinking about forgiveness, about personhood, about inherent worth of others. Instead, I recommend starting with stories, seeing how story characters forgive, or in the case of faith-based institutions for adults, examining the recorded stories of forgiveness that have been handed down for millennia. Our International Forgiveness Institute already has forgiveness curriculum guides for students from age 4 to age 18, empirically tested, and self-help books for adults, also empirically tested. In other words, the Aristotelian Material Cause (that of which the forgiveness education is made) already is available. Once people become strong in their understanding of forgiveness as a moral virtue, once they become strong in appropriating it on their own local level within family, within the playground at school, within the house of worship, then they might be ready to look across the political divide and see genuine persons there, persons who are vulnerable, just as the forgivers are, persons who are special, unique, and irreplaceable rather than annoyances who are getting in the way.

What Will Persevere: Hatred or Peace?

As the author Joseph Pearce said in his February 24, 2022 essay in Crisis Magazine about the different local groups in Ukraine:

"Those regions of eastern Ukraine which desire to secede from the Ukrainian-dominated west of the country should be allowed to do so. There are already two nations in the de facto sense. It makes sense, therefore, that this de facto reality should be honoured with de jure status. Any other suggested solution is not only unjust but will lead to even greater injustice in the form of war, terrorism and hatred."

Solzhenitsyn suggested the way (subsidiarity). One means actually to actualize the potentiality (to put it in Aristotelian terms) of the Efficient Cause of subsidiarity is to add the secondary Efficient Cause of forgiveness education now to any political ideas for peace. This adding of forgiveness education, on the student and adult levels, for peace has yet to be tried anywhere on the planet throughout all of human history. I now am suggesting this precisely because forgiveness interventions have been shown in empirically verified research to lower the anger temperature in at-risk youth, in abused women, even in men within the anger-raising environment of a maximum-security correctional institution. Even a general sense of empathy toward other persons is a fruit borne of forgiveness interventions.

Will hatred and the condemnation of other persons continue to rise, as Mr. Pearce warns, or is the world ready to try its first large-scale forgiveness education means, in conjunction with subsidiarity and more typical political negotiations, to achieve peace that is unlikely to emerge otherwise?