Forgiveness: a way out of the darkness by Marina Cantacuzino

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Marina Cantacuzino - Founder

Photo by Tim Hoy-Griffiths

Forgiveness is an inspiring, complex, exasperating subject, which provokes strong feeling in just about everyone. Having spent all of 2003 collecting stories of reconciliation and forgiveness for an exhibition of words and images which I created with the photographer, Brian Moody, I began to see that for many people forgiveness is no soft option, but  rather the ultimate revenge. For many it is a liberating route out of victimhood; a choice, a process, the final victory over those who have done you harm. As Mariane Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, said of her husband’s killers,

“The only way to oppose them is by demonstrating the strength that they think they have taken from you.”

The exhibition tells some extraordinary stories – stories of victims who have become friends with perpetrators, murderers who have turned their mind to peace building.

As I talked to friends, colleagues and strangers about this exhibition, I noticed that forgiveness cuts public opinion down the middle like a guillotine.  There are those who see forgiveness as an immensely noble and humbling response to atrocity – and then there are those who simply laugh it out of court. For the first group, forgiveness is a value strong enough to put an end to the tit-for-tat settling of scores that has wreaked havoc over generations. But for the second group, forgiveness is just a copout, a weak gesture, which lets the violator off the hook and encourages only further violence. This is why we called the exhibition, The F Word. For some people forgiveness is a very dirty word indeed.

I chose this subject because, having worked as a freelance journalist for many years, I knew I was far more moved by stories of forgiveness than of revenge.  With the war in Iraq still a topic of fierce debate, and against a background of pay-back and retaliation, these narratives of hope seemed to tap into a deep public need for alternative and peaceful responses to violence.  The stories reflect the complex, intriguing and deeply personal nature of forgiveness, occupying a space of inquiry and authenticity rather than dogma or the need to fix.

I also chose this subject of forgiveness because gentle people attract me more than resolute ones, vulnerability more than strength, and because I believe there are very few truly malevolent people in the world. As Father Michael Lapsley says,

“All people are capable of being perpetrators or victims – and sometimes both.”

Lapsley runs the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town and had both hands blown off in 1990 when he received a letter bomb sent through the post by FW de Klerk’s death squads.  My favourite quote of all, and one which I think perfectly sums up the ethos of The Forgiveness Project, is that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote:

“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?”

Jon James, who was held hostage in 1997 by Chechnyan rebels with his girlfriend Camilla Carr, said he survived only because he’d learnt from practising martial arts that:

“To overcome your opponent you should meet hardness with softness.”

Their ordeal lasted 14 months, during which Camilla was repeatedly raped by one of her captors.  Yet, they have come through this ordeal remarkably intact. For them, like for many others, forgiveness was about seeking to understand the enemy. As Terry Waite wrote in a letter of support to The Forgiveness Project:

“If one can understand why people behave as they do then often the road to forgiveness is opened. Not only is forgiveness essential for the health of Society, it is also vital for our personal well-being. Bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul. It does more harm to those that hold it than to those whom it is held against.”

When I met Mor Dioum, the human rights lawyer who represented Berthe and Francis Climbié here in England following the murder of their young daughter, he asked me with genuine puzzlement,

“Why forgiveness, why here in England?”

He was referring to the British media’s thirst for retribution. Forgiveness is not a part of our culture, In parts of Africa (Rwanda, Sierra Leone and South Africa) where perpetrators of bloody conflicts are being reintegrated into their communities, forgiveness is a much more accepted response to violence, viewed by some as the only way to bring about lasting peace.

Emma Thompson wrote in her statement of support for The Forgiveness Project:

“I have spent time with people in Chile and in Argentina whose families were murdered and tortured during the troubled histories of these countries. I have never heard a single one desire revenge. There is no more important undertaking than forgiveness… It is the most powerful weapon we have against terrorism and atrocity.”

I often find myself defending the notion of forgiveness, though I am not advocating it as a panacea for all ills. Who has the right to ask anyone to forgive? It is, after all, an intensely personal choice. As Alistair Little, the former Protestant paramilitary from Northern Ireland, told me:

“Often in a conflict situation there’s a huge pressure on people to forgive. If they don’t, it’s seen as a selfish act, and that I think is reprehensible. To expect them to forgive only victimises them all over again.”

And yet for some rare people forgiveness is the most constructive way forward following trauma, and can have immense rewards for both victim and perpetrator, as well as society. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said after I’d finally got to meet him the summer of 2003,

“Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. In the telling of stories like these there is real healing.”

He told me I should go to Israel and meet with a pioneering organisation called the Parents Circle – a group of bereaved families supporting reconciliation and peace. The Parents Circle was founded by Yitzhak Frankenthal after his son was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in 1994. While others around him were bellowing for revenge, this very courageous man decided to go in the other direction. A few months after my meeting with Archbishop Tutu, I flew to Tel Aviv to meet Rami Elhanan and Ghazi Briegeith, an Israeli and a Palestinian who had both lost close family members.

Rami, whose daughter was killed in 1997 in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, told me that his work with the Parents Circle has become his sacred mission:

“If we – Ghazi and I – can talk and stand together after paying the highest price possible, then anyone can.”

Rami believes the suicide bomber was as much a victim of the occupation as his daughter. Ghazi also sees the soldier who shot his unarmed brother as a victim like his brother – brutalized by a regime that puts guns into the hands of boys. They both believe passionately that somewhere a line must be drawn under the dogma of vengeance. Robi Damelin – another member of the Parents Circle, told me that when the army turned up at her door to tell her that her son had been shot dead while serving in the reserves, the first and totally instinctive words to come out of her mouth were, “Do not take revenge in the name of my son.”

I am full of admiration for Rami, Robi and Ghazi, just as I am full of admiration for Linda Biehl, and in a different way for Easy and Ntobeko – two of the men convicted of Linda’s daughter’s murder in South Africa in 1993. Easy and Ntobeko now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation in Cape Town, despite the fact that by doing so they live daily under the shadow of their crime. They were both given amnesty under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), though Easy told me,

“I thought the TRC was a sell-out, until I read in the press that Linda and Peter had said ‘it’s not up to us to forgive, it’s up to the people in South Africa to learn to forgive each other’. It was then I decided I’d go to tell our story and show remorse. Amnesty wasn’t my motivation. I wanted to say in front of Linda and Peter, face to face, ‘I am sorry, can you forgive me?’”

The Forgiveness Project grew out of the tremendous response to The F Word exhibition which launched in London in January 2004 and has since been seen in over 350 venues worldwide.  It is an organisation which I often describe as grittily secular because forgiveness is so often presumed to belong exclusively to the world of the religious or as some magical key to serenity.

With a reputation for supporting difficult causes, Jilly Forster (CEO of the leading ethical marketing company Forster) and the late, Dame Anita Roddick, were the main sponsors of, The F Word exhibition.  Anita was intrigued by the complexity of the concept of forgiveness.  She told me once:

“For me forgiveness is as mysterious as love.  I’ve never understood how people who experience pain through violence can see any light or any freedom from the obsession of why or how? I’ve never really believed that I would forgive, but then nor have I ever really understood the cage which anger locks you into.”

Forgiveness is not a single magnanimous gesture in response to an isolated offence; it is part of a continuum of human engagements in healing broken relationships.  Nor is it a one off event because one day you might forgive and the next day hate all over again.  Above all, it is difficult, costly and painful, but potentially transformative.  An integral step to forgiveness, as The F Word stories show, is to face the past because if you do not face the past, it can run you all your life.