This January it has been a great honour to see The F Word exhibition displayed on the 6th Floor of the Jacques Delors Building at the invitation of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) at the EU in Brussels. Over the course of the past ten years The F Word has been exposed to diverse audiences in numerous communities around the world but this is the first time the exhibition has been shown in any parliament. Sixty people attended the launch which was introduced by the President of the EESC, Mr Malosse. Mr Malosse spoke about his strong commitment to reconciliation – but acknowledged that forgiveness was a far more problematic concept for him.
The exhibition was held in Brussels as part of the cultural unit of the EESC’s commemorations of the First World War.
What follows is a transcript of the short speech given by our founder/director, Marina Cantacuzino, to open the exhibition on 21st January 2015.
“100 years ago the great European powers were at war and we can still feel the legacy today – not only in terms of innovation, culture and technology but also in terms of the past still haunting us. For instance in the Middle East many of the boundaries that were drawn in the wartime sand are starting to blur. In some countries caught up in the Great War traumas and ancient hatreds are still being played out across generations; in other regions nationalist and sectarian passions lie simmering just below the surface. The past won’t leave us alone and thinking more recently about the events in Europe of the last two to three weeks it is clear that we live in dangerously divided times: sectarianism is rising, terrorism is at our doorstep.
So why commemorate a war which stemmed from nationalism and burning hatreds with an exhibition that celebrates forgiveness? Because I believe while commemorations should be about remembering the loss and the pain, it is essential that we also remember stories of human resilience that embrace difference, foster tolerance and above all promote a shared humanity.
Commemorating bloodshed should be a time to remember what unites us rather than what separates us. Stories of pain unite us – because human suffering is the same wherever you are in the world. And stories of transformation – like the stories in this exhibition – unite us. That is because they model a way forward and therefore can help to rebuild broken communities, and mend broken hearts; can shed light on our own inner grievances and grudges; and can show that sometimes it takes something as radical as forgiveness to create a more stable and peaceful world.
My background is journalism and I understand the power of story. Stories resonate. They reach across the rifts not only of gender and age, but also of race and creed, geography and class. The narratives we choose to tell today will dictate the path of the future. That’s why there’s a real need to concentrate on stories and memories that can encourage healing and reconciliation rather than re-traumatise or stir up guilt, shame and ethnic hatred.
It was another war 12 years ago that led me to creating this exhibition and then later founding The Forgiveness Project charity. Provoked by what I saw as the futility of the war in Iraq I started to collect and share real stories from conflicts and crimes around the world, from victims and perpetrators, exploring concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The exhibition consists of real stories from people who have lined themselves up for forgiveness, wrestled with it, perhaps been transformed by it: for instance a story of a woman whose father was killed in an IRA bombing and who now works with the man who planted the bomb to promote peace; the story of a mother from Chicago whose child was murdered and who 20 years later calls the perpetrator ‘my spiritual son’; a former Islamic extremist who has come to believe that ‘the most dangerous thing in life is for people to become convinced that truth has just one face’.
The exhibition I think uncovers the complexity of forgiveness – a concept no one can agree on, that is morally complicated and that cuts public opinion down the middle like a guillotine. People are either inspired or affronted by it. The stories do not shy away from what it means to be forgiving in an increasingly vengeful world. They reveal experiences from people who are prepared to listen to the voice of the enemy, can muster compassion where hatred once lay.
They remind me of what the UN Sec. Gen. Ban-ki Moon once said, that ‘the greatest barriers in life are not walls around buildings, but walls around hearts’. And he went on to say: ‘Societies cannot grow until those walls come down.’ Every story in this exhibition is an illustration of people who perhaps carefully and patiently, or perhaps suddenly and passionately have demolished these walls around their hearts.”
The exhibition will be in place until 4th February, for more details and to register click here.