There is no doubt that the Forgiveness Project is a very important cause. The moving nature of the testimony they gather, and the work of the project in schools, prisons and communities, seeking to promote forgiveness and reconciliation, is clearly invaluable and a challenge to each and every one of us in our daily lives. Marina Cantercuzino is to be applauded for her wisdom and foresight in establishing the project.
But before I turn Is right to ask people to forgive when there is no justice and no prospect of justice?to the main subject of my remarks today, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Tariq Jahan of Winson Green in Birmingham, who lives in my old constituency. As you will remember, immediately after the discovery of the death of a much loved son, in the course of the riots that swept the country a short time ago, he called very eloquently for no vengeance. He insisted that no one should use the death of his son to incite violence and racial division. He warned the perpetrators, in his own words, that “what goes around comes around” and said he was content to let the justice system deal with those who were guilty of killing his son. This was an example, not of forgiveness exactly, but of wisdom and generosity and an understanding that the search for vengeance would solve nothing and would simply create more hatred, bitterness and hurt. I am sure that the moving words from this wise and generous man touched people throughout the country and beyond and were a greater tribute to his son than any call for vengeance could ever been.
In my remarks this evening, I went to address the question of whether it is right to ask people to forgive when there is no justice and no prospect of justice. Is anger about injustice one of the forces that drives historical progress and important social reform? Is there an important difference between the bitterness, hatred and quest for vengeance that can be so damaging to those who have been hurt or wronged, and the anger that thirsts after justice? There is no doubt that a sense of bitterness and hatred can perpetuate the effects of the wrong that has been done, by destroying the life and spirit of those who have been wronged; but is there a difference between letting go of the hatred, and extending forgiveness for a wrong that has not been held to account?
I thought it might be helpful to begin my discussion of these questions by briefly examining the teachings of the world’s major religions on the question of forgiveness. I am of course aware that the Forgiveness Project has no religious affiliation, but whether one has a religious commitment or not, it is surely wise to acknowledge that the reflections and wisdom of hundreds of years of human existence are incorporated in the best of religious teachings. In addition, in this era when conflicts over identity are so often replacing arguments over ideology, I want to remind us of the wisdom, overlaps and similarities in the teachings of the major faith traditions of the world.
Let me begin with a sketch of the teachings of the Abrahamic faiths:
In Judaism if a person causes harm, but then sincerely and honestly apologises to the wronged person and tries to rectify the wrong, the wronged individual is religiously required to forgive. And a person cannot obtain forgiveness from God for wrong that the person has done to other people. In short, only God can forgive sins against God, and only human beings can forgive sins against other human beings.
In Christianity, Jesus is reported to have repeatedly spoken of forgiveness. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” and in the words that Christians repeat frequently in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us” but much more challenging and difficult is the oft quoted “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also”. In my Catholic childhood, the stress was on being truly sorry and determined not to sin again, rather than seeking forgiveness from the person who had been wronged.
Islam teaches that God is all forgiving and is the source of all forgiveness, but also that forgiveness requires the repentance of those who are being forgiven. Depending on the wrong, forgiveness can come direct from Allah or from the person who received the wrong. To receive forgiveness from God has 3 requirements 1) to recognise the offence and admit it before God 2) to make a commitment not to repeat the offence 3) to ask theforgiveness of God. But if the offence was committed against another human being, or against society, a 4th) condition is added which is to do whatever needs to be done to rectify the offence (within reason) and ask pardon of the offended party.
Now let me turn to the Eastern faiths:
In Buddhism forgiveness is seen as a practice to prevent harmful thoughts from causing havoc to one’s mental well-being. Buddhism recognises that feelings of hatred and ill will have a lasting effect on us. It suggests that if we haven’t forgiven we keep recreating an identity around the pain.
Hinduism encourages atonement for one’s wrongdoing and asking forgiveness. An unforgiving person defiles themselves, forgiveness brings peace.
Sikhism views forgiveness as the remedy to anger. You forgive an offender when aroused by compassion. Compassion generates peace, tranquility, humility and co- operation in human interactions. The act of forgiveness is considered a divine gift, not the work of human agency. Otherwise, pride would increase when we take personal credit, which would impede our spiritual progress.
These are of course mere sketches of the teaching of these religions. I should make clear that I claim no expertise in these matters and have drawn my summary from Wikipedia and other similar sources. But it is interesting to note the overlap between the different teachings. In addition there seems to be a greater stress in the Abrahamic faiths on the need to be sorry and seek to rectify the wrong before one can be forgiven; the eastern faiths seem to lay greater stress on the harm one does to oneself if you do not forgive.
There is no doubt in my mind that the teaching of the Eastern religions that holding onto hatred and bitterness damage someone who has been a victim, over and over again, is deeply wise. I well remember many constituents who came to me to seek help in righting a wrong which had been done to them in the past. If there was any chance of apology or restitution, I would always pursue it, but when this was not possible I would try to persuade them that the continuing obsession and anger was damaging their life and allowing the wrong to continue rather than be left in the past. I suppose, to a considerable extent, psychological thinking has replaced religious teaching in many efforts to deal with the emotional turmoil.
Psychological books and papers on the subject of forgiveness did not begin to appear until the 1980s. Dr Robert Releasing bitterness and hatred and giving up a desire for vengeance is not the same as forgiving a wrong that is continuing and for which there is no apology or commitment to restitution. Enright is regarded as having placed forgiveness on the map. He founded the International Forgiveness Institute and is considered the initiator of forgiveness studies. The stress here is on psychological healing of the person who has been hurt. There are 20 steps in 4 phases. During the 1st phase the individual becomes aware of the emotional pain that has resulted from a deep, unjust injury. It is believed that as of the anger is brought out into the open, healing can begin. In the 2nd “decision” phase, the individual considers forgiveness to relieve their own suffering. In the 3rd phase the person works to forgive the injurer, to understand their action and accept the pain. This does not mean accepting that it was deserved but may involve reconciliation. In the 4th phase the individual realises that forgiveness has brought emotional relief. This may lead to greater compassion and sense of purpose in life. And thus through forgiveness the person is healed.
But it is important to be aware that some writers have argued that religious imperatives of forgiveness are often used to perpetuate cycles of ongoing abuse. Kramer and Alstead have said “to forgive without requiring the other to change is not only self-destructive, but ensures a dysfunctional relationship will remain so by continually rewarding mistreatment.” This is I think an important caution on teachings of unconditional forgiveness.
However, the case I really want to make today is that releasing bitterness and hatred and giving up a desire for vengeance is not the same as forgiving a wrong that is continuing and for which there is no apology or commitment to restitution.
Would anyone for example seriously argue that slaves were wrong to rebel and resist until they won their freedom. Surely no one would say that they should forgive their masters and seek reconciliation? The French Revolution may have ended up consuming itself, but there is no doubt that the overthrow of absolute monarchy and feudalism, and the entrenchment of view that all people have equal rights, was a great advance for humanity yet it was driven by anger at injustice. The organisation in this country of trade unions, that were then illegal, and the demands of the vote, was driven by a just anger that the wealth of industrialisation was not being fairly shared. These uprisings certainly improved life for generations who came later. The resistance to colonialism and apartheid was driven by just anger at racism, inequality, lack of dignity and freedom. Similarly, at the present time, the Arab spring and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people, are movements of resistance to oppression that has been and is still being supported by Western powers. This surely can be no reconciliation unless those who dominate are willing to give up their power. Of course there are important considerations of the right way to resist oppression. The quest for vengeance does not bring justice. It can Surely no one would say that slaves should forgive their masters and seek reconciliation? The French Revolution may have ended up consuming itself, but there is no doubt that the overthrow of absolute monarchy and feudalism, and the entrenchment of view that all people have equal rights, was a great advance for humanity yet it was driven by anger at injustice. lead to violence and bloodshed targeted at the wrong people. But in international law, people who are suffering occupation are entitled to use violence to resist. This might not be the most attractive remedy and is sometimes not the most effective, but if the occupier is using violence to oppress people, forgiveness would surely be the wrong response. To yearn for justice and search for the most effective way to achieve it, is surely the right thing to do.
Sometimes when hurt, cruelty and humiliation cause people to behave in vicious and ugly ways, either in resisting oppression or in their personal life, then we need not to forgive but to listen to what made them like that and to see what can be done to remove the cruelties that so damage their humanity. The issue here is not forgiveness and reconciliation but seeking to understand how people could become so angry and cruel, perhaps helping them to forgive or at least release the hurt, and to be open to working to put things right and to try to ensure that others are not being hurt and damaged in the same way. The issue of child sex abuse was such an issue when we were confronted by angry and damaged people who had been badly hurt in their childhood. As we started to understand, we had to try to help them release their hurt and anger and then try to recognise the dangers and protect other children from such harm.
My conclusion is that forgiveness and reconciliation are great and generous gestures that avoid the evils of vengeance and help to release people from the pain that was originally inflicted on them. It is even more generous to seek to understand why the perpetrator acted in a violent and cruel manner, and respond to the wrong done, by working to remove the wrong that created the viciousness and violence in the perpetrator in the first place. It is also true that the release of the anger, hatred and quest for vengeance in the person that has been wronged, releases them from constantly living with the pain of the original hurt. But I also want to argue that it would be wrong to forgive injustice and hurt for which there is no apology or commitment to rectify the wrong. We must not allow ourselves to be consumed by bitterness and hatred, but there is a just anger that is legitimate and creative and can only be appeased by putting right the continuing wrong and creating a just settlement.
This is the case I want to put you this evening, it builds I suppose on the ideas contained in old religious teachings that forgiveness and reconciliation should be extended when the perpetrator is truly sorry and does all they can to rectify the wrong. And I fully recognise that it is always helpful and liberating for victims to move beyond feelings of bitterness and hatred; this is not quite the same as forgiveness but it is important to bring to an end the repeated suffering of the person who has been wronged. I also agree that the quest for vengeance is also wrong because it so often inflicts harm on people who share an identity with the original perpetrator but have no guilt,and it means the evil of the original harm is recreated in the actions of the person who has been wronged.
But all this said, there is such a thing as just anger and those who are subject to continuing oppression can get strength from that anger in order to join with others to liberate themselves. And so I wish to conclude by celebrating forgiveness and reconciliation but also by reminding us that reconciliation can not be the answer when there is a continuing wrong or continuing oppression