For The Forgiveness Project’s 5th Forgiveness Conversation held at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London on Monday 14 June, the subject that the panel and audience grappled with was ‘Can Revenge ever Work?’.
This was the first ever public speaking event for Natalia Aggiano whose mother was murdered by her father in 1997. The room went quiet as she told of how it was her mother’s words to her as a child to love her father “for who he was, not for what he did” that had enabled her to reach out and forgive him. She explained to the audience, “I’d already lived most of my life with hatred for my dad. I didn’t want it anymore. Forgiving him was such a big release. I’ll never forget what he did – but forgiving brought me peace inside.” She explained that she had been determined not to let the tragic event define her.
Virginia Ironside, The Independent newspapers’ Agony Aunt for over 20 years, made the point that revenge might be instantly satisfactory but it never actually made you feel any better in the long run. She stressed that forgiveness was the ultimate revenge because it gave you an advantage and confessed she had come to the conclusion that there was even something ‘smug’ about revenge. To one audience member who said they were finding it very hard to forgive the hurt done to them, Virginia insisted that forgiveness was messy and that people should be kind to themselves and not expect to be able to forgive because very few people could. She also referred to constructive revenge – when people build themselves up rather than pull the other down.
Robin Shohet, a psychotherapist for over 30 years, quoted the old Chinese proverb “he who seeks revenge should dig two graves”. He said that, “Revenge can give us a sense of purpose, prevent us feeling emotions that are too painful. It can give us a sense of justice and is very visceral. To go beyond revenge we have to be willing to feel the pain.” He also acknowledged that choosing to forgive gives you back responsibility for your life, as well as making you feel just a whole lot better by enabling you to let go of a heavy load.
The audience raised matters to do with punishment and restorative justice and one audience member made the point strongly that too much talk about the ineffectiveness of punishment missed the point that punishment was the collective verdict of society to lock people away for the wrongs they had done. Others also talked about the importance of punishment not becoming vindictive. And one audience member stressed, “revenge is causing harm to someone to show that causing harm is wrong”.
The context was set as Marina Cantacuzino, founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, addressed areas where revenge was currently very much alive in the 21st Century. For instance, in state sanctioned revenge such as the way in which the US liquidated Osama Bid Laden; the escalating Israeli and Palestinian crisis where all proportionality seems lost; the march of ISIS across Iraq in a bid to avenge Sunni injustices from the past; honour killings; and the all too frequent occurrences of parents (usually fathers) killing their children to take revenge on a spouse who has left them. Marina also asked the question – why were some chosen traumas still so alive in the minds of some revengeful communities even though the injuries had taken place centuries ago?
The evening drew to a conclusion with one audience member saying that he’d arrived at the event believing that revenge was dynamic whilst forgiveness was a static state of surrendering. The Conversation, he said, had turned his perception on its head.