Thursday, March 09, 2006

The long road to forgiveness

Magnus Linklater has a very interesting piece in the Times about forgiveness. Who would disagree when he says that forgiveness must be the hardest of Christian ideals to live up to? Of Julie Nicholson, who has given up her job as an inner-city vicar in Bristol because she found it impossible to forgive the suicide bombers who murdered her daughter in London on July 7 he writes:
"[She] felt that her inability to do so was incompatible with her Christian faith. 'It's very difficult for me to stand behind an altar and celebrate the Eucharist, the Communion, and lead people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness, when I feel very far from that myself,' she said. She was resigning 'until the wounds had healed'.

Her honesty and courage in doing so struck me as coming far closer to a Christian ideal than the glib panaceas that so frequently pass for acts of forgiveness. To feel anger, even hatred, towards the perpetrator of a monstrous crime is natural and instinctive; to suppress it altogether and pretend to a fake act of forgiveness sounds more like hypocrisy. Until the truth has been unearthed and justice seen to be done, it is very hard for 'the wound to be healed and the balm poured over it', as Archbishop Tutu puts it.

I would bet that Ms Nicholson will eventually come closer to the Christian act of forgiveness than many of her colleagues who pay lip service to the notion of forgiving their enemies and turning the other cheek. Anger has helped many victims through their worst moments. That does not mean that it is a permanent condition."
In this impressive piece from Linklater, the last line is the key. He goes on to argue that a concept of justice, so very far from the idea that forgiveness is somehow opposed or unrelated to it, is in fact intrinsically linked to it. On the general point, who could disagree? Who wouldn't feel offended if someone said, "I forgive you" if you felt you had committed no offence? Forgiveness by its very definition presumes guilt. Linklater argues that real forgiveness will be preceded by, not denial of rage and bitterness, but by an acceptance of these as something to be worked through. It is a path to forgiveness. His is a subtle argument because he is suggesting that this linkage to a concept of justice, and the expectation that it's demands will at some level be satisfied, produces something slightly short of the pure Christian ideal but which is nevertheless essential if victims in conflicts are not to remain forever enslaved to their past, defined forever by their tragedy.

The particular difficulty that Ms Nicolson has in her own case is, as Harry pointed out, there can be no possibility of her receiving justice since the murderer of her daughter put himself out of the reach of any justice, save any that might exist at the End of History by virtue of his self-slaughter. Harry writes, "Personally, I think forgiveness is the last thing such fascist killers deserve". What I imagine Julie Nicolson will be struggling with is that she knows perfectly well that forgiveness is by its very definition something that cannot be deserved or merited in any way. She has been confronted with the Christian obligation to forgive in the purest form imaginable. It is scarcely surprising that she has declared herself unequal to this, yet Linklater and Harry are right to suggest this admission alone shows a great deal of personal integrity and as Linklater suggests, this is rather closer to the Christian ideal than empty platitudes about forgiveness that might conceal a furrowed, hidden rage and means she is much less likely to be bound to the past than those less willing to confront their own humanity and frailty in the face of this the most demanding of commandments.

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