A prize for repairing riven societies

This year’s Templeton Prize, given to South Africa’s Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, speaks to places of conflict about the journey of forgiveness in healing generations of hate.

Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze religious leaders and participants take part in an interfaith march for human rights and peace, in Jerusalem, Israel, June 3.

In March, roughly six months into the war in Gaza, the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry published a paper exploring “the possibility of reconciliation – that is, of refiguring relationships to open up a space for dialogue to create pathways to heal the ruptures.” The study, by Paul Komesaroff, executive director of the group Global Reconciliation, noted that “the rich history of partnerships and collaborations between Jews and Palestinians provides a robust infrastructure” for peace between the two estranged communities.

A similar theme resonates in the work of this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize, which highlights discoveries that yield "new insights about religion." The prestigious award was given to Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a South African scholar who has explored ways to nurture deep empathy between victims and perpetrators of conflict.

Her particular focus is on the power of forgiveness to expunge hatred and historical harms. Such an approach is now widely acknowledged as essential because of wars – from Ukraine and Gaza to Myanmar and Sudan – that have resulted in extensive harm to innocent civilians.

Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela “has a remarkable grasp of the personal and social dynamics that allow for healing in societies wounded by violence,” stated Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her work underscores the importance in contemporary life of cultivating the spiritual values of hope, compassion, and reconciliation.”

Serving on South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela gained insights into both the needs of those who suffered under decades of apartheid and the motivations of those who upheld racial separation through violence. Her life work, she said following the award announcement Tuesday, involves understanding “the conditions necessary to restore the values of what it means to be human – to want to preserve the dignity and life of the other.”

The award affirms values that marked South Africa’s transition from systemic inequality to a democracy in 1994. In national elections last week, voters broke 30 years of governance dominated by a single party. They demanded that political leaders be held accountable through a power-sharing coalition. Yet in a society still striving to move beyond a divided racial past, ordinary citizens must also reach out to others who differ with them.

“There’s no better time to shove away prejudices, pull up a chair with a supporter of that party you can’t stand, and talk with them about how we can work together for a brighter future,” wrote Ian Siebörger, a senior lecturer of linguistics at Rhodes University, in the Mail & Guardian newspaper on Thursday.

In her work, Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela offers ways to avoid “the passing on of grievance and a sense of victimhood from one generation to the next.” The “reparative quest,” she told Time magazine this week, is “a constant journey to repair and to heal” through atonement and forgiveness. It is not a singular moment. Victims and perpetrators move each other beyond the boundaries of their own experiences.

Forgiveness empowers those who have been harmed, she wrote, while “genuine remorse humanizes perpetrators and transforms their evil from the unforgivable into something that can be forgiven.”

For all the wrongs – either real or perceived – between Israelis and Palestinians, the hope of a stable peace can begin by remembering the many partnerships that existed between the two societies, stated Dr. Komesaroff. “In these dark times, when for many all hope seems to be lost,” he wrote, “it is important to remind ourselves of the resources for peace and reconciliation, painstakingly assembled over many decades, that, despite the obstacles, remain tantalizingly within grasp.”

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