Forgiveness: Stories from the Front Line

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

These are familiar words which we pray whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer. Forgiveness is central to our Christian faith so much so that we often almost too easily take it for granted. A little while ago, BBC Radio 4 broadcast five short programmes by Maria Cantacuzino, founder of the Forgiveness Project in which she presented how people who had undergone profoundly traumatic experiences had dealt with the question of forgiveness. All had undergone harrowing experiences such as rape, attempted murder or the murder of a loved-one. Each had to find their own way through the aftermath of what had happened in order to reach some sort of balance point.

The first programme described how, in November 1999 Rosalyn was subjected to a prolonged rape at knifepoint in her own home while her daughter slept in an adjacent bedroom. The rapist told her she would not survive his attack and as the attack went on she became firmly convinced that she would indeed be killed. Eventually, the rapist left but not before threatening to kill her family if she went to the police. Rosalyn later discovered from the police that she survived because a screw had fallen out of the handle of the rapist’s knife so he could no longer use it.

For the following three months Rosalyn had shaking fits, could not sleep, could not open the door and kept hearing things around the house. Sadly, her marriage also broke down. She tried to ‘let go’ of the incident but found she could not forgive what had been done to her. What, though of the rapist himself? If not the act, could she forgive the man?

The rapist was arrested and sentenced to three life sentences in 2001 - he had been a serial rapist since he was a teenager. Rosalyn decided to try ‘restorative justice’ which would give her the opportunity to meet her attacker under supervision. She discovered that the week before the meeting was due to take place he had tried to hang himself. Not surprisingly she wished he had succeeded. Then perhaps the pain would have stopped.

At first when she saw her attacked Rosalyn did not recognise him. The ‘monster’ of November 1999 had become a pathetic individual. During the course of the next three hours, he admitted he had not realised the impact of his crimes on his victims but was desperate not to be forgiven. Nonetheless Rosalyn found herself able to forgive the man despite his protestations. With forgiveness came a sense of great relief. She felt she had at last got her sense of personal power back.

For Rosalyn, forgiveness was an act of ‘self-healing’ which set her free from the shadow of what had happened. As Bishop Desmond Tutu put it, “Forgiving is the best form of self-interest.”

Jude Whyte was born in Belfast in 1957 and grew up during the ‘Troubles’. He is a lecturer in social work. Although his family is Catholic they lived in a largely Protestant area of the city. He describes his childhood as ‘happy’ and also says that he was happy to be ‘British’. That all changed with the Troubles. In April 1984 his mother, who worked as a taxi driver was killed by a bomb left in a bag on the windowsill of their house.

This was not the first attack on his family. The year before a bomb went off prematurely at the rear of their house badly injuring the bomber. Jude’s mother shouted to him to call an ambulance. The bomber pleaded with him, “Don’t kill me, mister.”

Because he and his mother had taken pity on their attacker and had helped that bomber Jude felt that his family would be protected against further attack. The sense of betrayal Jude felt following the fatal attack on his mother only served to deepen his anger. He wanted to kill every loyalist. He distrusted authority and everyone and everything. He became, in his words a “horrible husband and a horrible father.”

Despite his feelings he tried to find meaning in the tragedy through working with victims like himself and assisting them with compensation claims. At one class he attended, one of the speakers was David Irvine who had been a leading member of the Ulster Volunteer Force but who had turned peacemaker. One of the women at the class said to Irvine, “Your organisation killed my father. What are you going to do about it?”. There was a moment of silence then Irvine went over to her holding out his hand. “We must work night and day to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I am deeply sorry for what happened.” He remained holding out his hand. Eventually the woman responded by taking his hand in return.

At that moment Jude realised that love and forgiveness can triumph over hate. As Jude explained, “I forgave to survive.” The act of forgiving is a ‘survivalist instinct’ and a kind of defence mechanism against forever being a ‘victim’, something that he did not want to be. While he could not forgive the wanton violence of the Troubles he began to understand how they had grown out of a ‘toxic society’ where people were not seen as ‘people’ but labelled as ‘nationalists’ or ‘loyalists’. His mother had not been targeted because of who she was but because of the label that had been attached to her.

Forgiveness for Jude grew out of his growing understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland. He believes that forgiveness is a creative alternative to hate which can bring about peace and break the cycle of violence. ‘Hatred is not the way people are supposed to live’.

For himself, Jude has also found personal benefits from forgiving. He reduced his drinking, gave up taking sleeping pills and loves himself and his family more. He stopped being the ‘horrible’ person he had become following his mother’s murder.

Salimata Badji Knight was born in Senegal but now lives in the UK. At the age of 4 at her grandmother’s village she was taken on a ‘picnic’ with 20 - 30 other girls. One by one the girls, including Salimata were taken into woods nearby. She was held down by four women and subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) although at the time she had no understanding of what was being done to her. Salimata said some of the women present cried – they were just doing what had been done to them. Her mother was not present, only ‘elderly ladies’.

Tradition in some societies dictates that young girls be ‘cut’ ie subjected to FGM to maintain their ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ and to make them ‘real’ women. It is also believed to serve as a ‘proof’ of virginity to men who may be possible marriage partners.

It was not until she was a teenager that Salimata realised what had been done to her. She knew something was not right when in the showers at school she saw that she ‘wasn’t the same as other girls’. She felt angry and suicidal. When she tried to speak to her mother about it she initially refused to talk about it and threatened to have Salimata ‘cut’ again. However, she broke down and cried and said that she had not wanted it to happen to Salimata explaining that it was the elders who insisted on it. It was the tradition, they were all victims.

At that point something shifted in Salimata’s heart and she decided to forgive her mother, although it was still a long process.

When she was in her 30’s Salimata learnt that some other girls were to be taken to Senegal to be ‘cut’. She decided to break with tradition and speak to her father, to whom she had always been close, about it. He realised that what he, and all the other men who had stood by had let happen was wrong and showed deep remorse for what they had effectively connived in. When he heard that another group were to be taken to be ‘cut’ he called on an elderly cousin in Senegal to help stop it.

For Salimata the fact that her parents both showed deep remorse was an important factor in paving the way for her to forgive them. As for the village women, she realised that they were caught up in this tradition and could not liberate themselves from it. They were equally victims. Salimata’s anger at what had been done turned, through the process of forgiving, into strength.

Father Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest living in exile in Zimbabwe. During the 1970s and 80s he was a chaplain to the African National Congress and an anti-apartheid campaigner. As a result of his activities in South Africa he was forced to move to the relative safety of Zimbabwe but on 28th April 1990 became the victim of a letter bomb hidden in a magazine that had been posted to him. He lost both his hands, an eye and his ear drums were ruptured.

For the first four months after the attack, Fr Michael was ‘helpless’ and could do nothing for himself. He now has hooks for ‘hands’ which allows a degree of freedom but he knows he can never be fully independent again. He practises what he calls ‘healthy interdependence’ recognising that there are times when he has to depend on others to accomplish even some simple tasks, dealing with a door-knob, for instance. This approach, he feels is much better than what he calls the ‘extreme independence’ practiced in Western societies.

Fr Michael describes forgiveness as an ‘act of freedom’ but for him, forgiving the bomber(s) is not really possible as it has never been established who they were as individuals. What, he asks, does it mean to forgive an abstraction? Forgiveness is not easy when people are hurting but may be possible when that hurt is acknowledged. Nonetheless, forgiveness is key to healing – people cannot be free of their hurt until they feel able to forgive.

Is conditional forgiveness possible? Fr Michael says he chooses to forgive as an act of ‘healthy selfishness’ in order to untie the knot of being held prisoner by anger and hurt.

Reparation and restitution are two important aspects towards being able to forgive. What Fr Michael calls the ‘justness of restoration’ is better than punishment. What, he asks, can perpetrators do to make reparation/restitution for their evil acts? For him, that does not necessarily mean perpetrators doing something directly for their victims, but can involve them engaging in activities that relieve the ongoing effects of evil, showing that they recognise the evil they have done and seeking to do good instead.

Fr Michael had some specific comments about Christian forgiveness, or the way it is often spoken of in churches. He feels churches often make forgiveness something that becomes a burden. At times it can be used as a kind of ‘weapon’ against people who are hurting almost as a way of shutting them up. Forgiveness can be costly, painful and difficult. Too often the church makes it into something glib.

Fr Michael now works with people from all sides of the struggle against apartheid. Losing his hands, he says has made him a ‘better person’ because of the journey he has had to travel sharing his pain with others who have also suffered. For many people what has been done to them remains unfinished business – as he said, he cannot complete the process of forgiveness because he does not know who planned and sent that letter bomb. However, all who have been hurt should ask themselves how what happened to them imprisons them. Better to ‘choose life’!

The final programme in the series involved two men, Ivan Humble a former member of the English Defence League (EDL) from Lowestoft and Manwar Ali a former jihadist, and their unlikely friendship.

Ivan Humble had been a victim of abuse as a child and was unemployed with two children when he joined the EDL. Before he joined, he ‘didn’t feel a man anymore’ but the EDL gave him back a sense of manhood. However, this also involved hating Muslims and everything about them. The EDL became his life.

Ivan joined an EDL demonstration in Peterborough against Muslims but found himself invited by the local mosque to meet with them. At Christmas 2011 he followed two Muslim women to a conference centre where, perhaps to his surprise he was greeted warmly. He agreed to meet people from the local mosque out of curiosity. “Have I got something wrong” was the question he asked himself. Through these encounters he met Manwar Ali.

Manwar lost 22 members of his family in Bangladesh following which he became radicalised by the Muslim Brotherhood. For some time he embraced the idea of ‘martyrdom’ and went to Myanmar (Burma) and Afghanistan. However, he realised he was on the wrong track and now works for the Home Office with youngsters at risk of radicalisation.

In 2013, Fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally murdered by Islamic extremists. Shortly after Manwar phoned Ivan to apologise for what had happened. Following that, both Ivan and Manwar joined a march by the EDL and Muslim groups to protest against the killing. Shortly after, Ivan left the EDL – he now had Muslim friends. In fact, when his father died Manwar supported him more than his former friends in the EDL.

Both men realised they had got onto the wrong track but for them, self-forgiveness was the hardest part. This is bound up with feelings of regret, shame and guilt – ‘you don’t just feel pain, you are pain’. Seven years on, Ivan still struggles with self-forgiveness. Manwar feels that if he forgave himself he would have no reason to carry on doing what he does with youngsters at risk of radicalisation. He fears he would forget what he owes for having been a radical jihadist. As a Muslim he knows that God forgives but nonetheless believes he needs to make up with good deeds for the things he did.

For Ivan, self-forgiveness means leaving the past behind and not being a hostage to self-blame. In other words, being the person you are. It also provides a drive to make up for past wrongs.

This was a fascinating and powerful series which provides significant insights into the process and meaning of forgiveness for people who had suffered devastating and catastrophic wrongs. Forgiveness is messy and complex but has the power to transform lives. In our current society where often the call is for ‘holding to account’, blaming the guilty and finding ‘closure’, these are powerful counter messages. Forgiveness is, however a two way process. To be complete the victim has to let go of the hurt but the perpetrator, as Fr Michael Lapsley stressed must recognise the wrong they have done and make some kind of restoration or restitution, in other words show repentance.

Forgiveness: Stories from the Front Line was broadcast between 27th June and 1st July 2022 and is available on BBC Sounds for over a year. If you would like to listen, the link to the series is:

First published on: 29th November 2022
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