Images of Forgiveness
by Marina Cantacuzino
One evening back in 2002, London TV news reported the story of a three-year-old girl who had died in a London hospital after mistakenly being given laughing gas instead of oxygen. As the parents, lawyers and hospital staff emerged from the coroner’s court, the interviewer thrust a microphone under the father’s nose and asked him how he felt about being in the same room as the doctor responsible for his daughter’s death. I expected to hear wholly understandable but angry demands for retribution and reparation -- but instead the father declared simply that he had crossed the room, hugged the tormented doctor and said: “I forgive you.” It was an unusually moving and rare moment of television, not least because in the lead-up to the Iraq war the bellicose rhetoric of revenge and pay-back were grabbing all the headlines.
As a practicing journalist, I consequently began a year-long search for similar stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. I collected them in my spare time; it was something that satisfied a need in me to make amends -- but I had no idea where it would lead. These were stories of forgiveness and reconciliation - stories of victims of terrorism who have made friends with the terrorist, mothers who have forgiven their child’s killer, survivors of violence who have not tried to get even. The result – thanks to sponsorship from the late human rights activist, Anita Roddick -- was an exhibition called “The F Word: Images of Forgiveness”, which launched in London in January 2004.
From there everything changed. The exhibition was hugely successful and seemed to tap into a deep public feeling that in the face of conflict there is an alternative to revenge. Media attention was widespread and countless individuals and groups asked to hire the exhibit in order to promote understanding in their own community. Such was the demand to use the stories as a catalyst for change, that I founded The Forgiveness Project, a non-religious, non-partisan UK-based charity which works at a national and international level to help build a future free of conflict and violence by healing the wounds of the past. We aim to achieve this by collecting and sharing personal stories of forgiveness, and delivering outreach programmes in prisons, schools, faith communities, and with any group who wants to explore the nature of forgiveness whether in the wider political context or within their own lives.
From interviewing so many people who have been victims of crime and violence – as well as those who have perpetrated crime and violence (not infrequently one and the same person) – I’ve come to realize that for those whose life has been hurled into chaos, very often the only route through is to try to find meaning in something utterly meaningless – a belief, as one former gang member in LA put it, that “where the wounds are, the gift lies.” Significantly, Andrew Rice, whose brother was killed when the World Trade Center collapsed noted, “those people shouting loudest for retribution are so often those least affected.”
Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has said is not just to be altruistic, “it is the best form of self-interest”. In a sense, therefore, by releasing the victim from the grip of the perpetrator, forgiveness might be described as the best form of revenge. Following any malicious or violent act, a relationship is formed which inextricably links victim to perpetrator. Revenge identifies forever the person with the deed and can freeze relationships and life stories forever. Forgiveness, therefore, appears to be a useful key to unlock the cage of hatred, a means of breaking that brutal bond. When I met Bud Welch in Oklahoma City two years ago he told me that after his daughter was killed in the bombing of the Murrah building, all he wanted was to see Tim McVeigh executed. He also started to self-medicate with alcohol …until, as he said, “one cold day in January 1996, I came to the bombsight – as I did every day – and I looked across the wasteland where the Murrah Building once stood. My head was splitting from drinking the night before and I thought, ‘I have to do something different, because what I’m doing isn’t working’.”
Bud, like many victims I’ve met, had discovered that vengeance didn’t work: his only panacea was to start searching for meaning. “For the next few weeks I started to reconcile things in my mind,” he said, “and finally I concluded that it was revenge and hate that had killed Julie and the 167 others. Tim McVeigh had been against the US government for what happened in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and seeing what he’d done with his vengeance, I knew I had to send mine in a different direction. Shortly afterwards I started speaking out against the death penalty.”
Canadian born Marie Hagan, whose father was murdered in front of her, spent 16 years campaigning to keep the schizophrenic who did it locked up – “The longer he was locked away, the greater the value of my father’s life,” she says. It wasn’t until eventually she met her father’s killer that everything changed. She tells how “in that one hour 40 minutes my 16 years and 10 months of misery dissolved”. She had not then heard the word restorative justice…but that was what it was -- repairing the harm done through a face to face meeting, in other words by humanising the enemy she could find empathy. Ann insisted that “my forgiving him had nothing to do with the fact that he was mentally ill, it was all down to seeing him across the table as just another human being.”
This work over the past four years has shown me that forgiveness is an inspiring, complex, exasperating subject, which provokes strong feelings in just about everyone. We have received hate mail for allowing The F Word to give equal voice to both victim and perpetrator, but – far more than that -- we’ve received mail from people who claim their outlook on life has been forever changed by stumbling across such inspiring personal stories of forgiveness and renewal.
The Forgiveness Project does not advocate that people SHOULD forgive. Forgiveness is a choice and should not be imposed on anyone – whether friend, government or religious leader. So, when on a local radio phone-in recently I heard a church member telling a still bitter and angry victim of crime that they must learn to forgive, I flinched, just as I flinched the other day when someone silenced me from talking about forgiveness with the words, “I’m sorry, but I’m an eye for an eye kind of man myself”. As he walked away, unable to wrestle with the prospect of redemption, it struck me then that at least forgiveness opens doors and presents possibilities -- whereas revenge locks you into predictable repeated behaviour and leads therefore to a dead end.
When I recently answered a call from the angry and anguished mother of a murder victim, screaming “how dare you suggest my daughter’s killer should be forgiven” before she hung up, I did not get a chance to explain that there is no ‘should’, and that one voice, for example, within the project is that of Mary Kayitesi Blewitt who lost 50 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide and who runs an organisation here in the UK to support survivors (SURF). Mary believes that genocide is beyond forgiveness. "Survivors say they’ve forgiven, but many don’t understand the word,” she says. “The world is obsessed with moving on, but without dialogue, accountability or apology how can you move on?” I did not get a chance to tell the woman on the phone that The Forgiveness Project explores the nature of forgiveness, it doesn’t sell it. I didn’t have time to point her to Rami Elhanan whose daughter was murdered in a suicide bomb and who says “I do not forgive and I do not forget, but the bomber was a victim just like my daughter – grown bitter out of shame and poverty.” But equally – nor did I get a chance to encourage her to read the many stories of parents whose children had been unlawfully killed talking of forgiveness as a way of healing – as a way of giving up all hope of a better past, or of finding the gift in the wound.
From the many people I’ve interviewed and talked to over the years I’ve learned that forgiveness is a word that no one can agree on. No one deserves forgiveness, it is a gift from one person to another. It is a journey that people choose to go on which doesn’t have a beginning or an end because one day you might forgive and the next day hate all over again. As Michael Berg, whose son Nick Berg was taken hostage and beheaded in Iraq, put it, “forgiveness is like quitting smoking – some days the evil just gets to you all over again.”
I named the exhibition The F Word, for obvious reasons. Forgiveness for many is a very dirty word indeed – a word which seems to inspire and affront people in equal measure. The very notion that forgiveness is easy, that it lets the perpetrator off the hook, that it condones the wrong done, or that it is some magical key to serenity, seems just plain wrong to me. The trouble is that forgiveness has become barnacled by aeons of piety and part of what The Forgiveness Project attempts to do is reframe the debate. Forgiveness is not easy, it is difficult, costly and painful – but also potentially miraculous.
The stories we tell are mostly extreme stories – most people’s lives are not so extreme. We often get comments from people who have read the on-line stories saying it has helped them put their own little bruises and resentments into perspective. These bruises and resentments seem to run so deep in most of our lives that I’ve come to wonder whether it may be easier to forgive the greater wrongs of strangers than the lesser wrongs of loved ones.
Then there is the whole thorny question of self-forgiveness, perhaps the hardest thing of all. I’ve interviewed over 70 people for this project and the greatest pain I’ve encountered has been in the presence of those struggling to forgive themselves. For instance, Celia McWee who watched her son being given a lethal injection having received the death penalty for murder, blamed herself. Her son had lost his job, his life was spiralling, he’d left his wife and when he turned up at the shop where she worked one day, Celia refused to see him. Two days later he robbed a house and shot a man dead. His mother could never get over that – for her there was no possibility of redemption because there was no possibility of reconciling what had happened either with her son, the man he’d killed, or herself. As far as she was concerned, there was no chance therefore of repairing the harm done and healing broken relationships.
In telling the stories of both victims and perpetrators, I did not want to create a “them” and “us” situation between perpetrators and victims. As Michael Lapsley says: “All people are capable of being both perpetrators and victims – sometimes both.” In his Nobel Prize address, One Word of Truth, Sozhenitsyn wrote some words which have inspired me on this journey: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Marina Cantacuzino, Director of The Forgiveness Project, and producer of the short film, The Hardest Word, works at a local, national and international level to help build a future free of conflict and violence by healing the wounds of the past. By collecting and sharing people’s stories, and delivering outreach programs, The Forgiveness Project encourages and empowers people to explore the nature of forgiveness and alternatives to revenge.
For other stories collected by the Forgiveness Project go to:
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