On Monday 19 May St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace was filled with a multi-faith audience ready to discuss what forgiveness means across different religions for The Forgiveness Project’s third ‘Conversation on Forgiveness’ to mark our tenth anniversary.
Chairing the discussion “Do you need God to forgive?” was Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting who in February presented the first in a five-part series on forgiveness for BBC Radio 3, in which she explained why she believes forgiveness is a choice.
Madeleine began the evening by welcoming the opportunity to debate this topic with representatives of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths, saying that all too often the media has a tendency to polarise religions rather than encourage dialogue and collaboration.
First to discuss religion’s role in forgiveness was Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK and a vocal advocate of interfaith dialogue. Jonathan began the evening by stating that the most forgiving member of his family was his dog. He went on to highlight that for him understanding and empathy were the essence of forgiveness. “If I love my neighbour as myself then I need to do it from their point of view,” he said.
Bringing a different dimension to the topic was Catherine Pepinster, editor of the international Catholic weekly newspaper The Tablet. Catherine pointed out that, “The Catholic Church is known for its obsession with sin and the Catholic tradition is also famous for confession.” She made the point that people don’t just confess their sins to God but also to a priest who is seen as the symbol of the community, able to heal a broken relationship.
“People often dread confessions but they can be a cathartic moment and this reconciliation therefore conjures up the idea of hope. Similarly, if you forgive someone it can set both people free and can be the start of a new relationship.”
However, she also pointed out that one of the issues affecting places of conflict like Belfast and South Africa is the question of whether justice matters more than peace and whether we are willing to sacrifice one for the other.
The role of justice in the peace process was echoed by Usama Hasan, a London-based Imam and Islamic scholar, who spoke about justice as a basic human right. He explained that in Islam, “If you sin it is between yourself and God as you ask him for forgiveness. However, if you hurt other people then you must ask these people for forgiveness and God’s forgiveness is dependent upon theirs. It is easy to hold onto grudges but the real challenge is mercy triumphing over justice.”
As one audience member eloquently put it, “grudges are rather attractive to humans. You can polish them regularly with love and allow them to define you. One of the steps to having the space for forgiveness is to stop polishing them, allowing yourself to be a new and undamaged person.”
Having shared his reinterpretation of the Alexander Pope quote as “to err is human but to forgive is profoundly human”, Jonathan spoke about how it was important not to forget the past but to learn lessons from it, saying “there is a fine line between forgiveness and moral accountability which we need to be aware of.”
One point all the panel appeared to agree on was the role of God in helping people of faith feel able to move on. As Catherine explained: “God can be helpful as some people are unbelievably harsh on themselves and God can have a powerful part to play in that.”
Another area of discussion was around how do you forgive a person if they are dead, or how do you ask for forgiveness from someone who has died. Jonathan explained that in Judaism a ceremony is occasionally held for people who have died to ask forgiveness of the deceased with members of the community also present able to bear witness. It was agreed that wrongdoing is not just about what we do but also about what we fail to do.
There was also much discussion about what the biblical saying ‘turn the other cheek’ meant and one audience member suggested that at the time this could have been interpreted as an act of resistance.
Ultimately, as Usama summed up, the simple answer to the evening’s theme “Do you need God to forgive?” was entirely dependent upon whether you believe in God or not. “If you do then yes, but if you don’t then no. The important part of all this is disciplining the ego.” Jonathan decided that he didn’t think you did need God to forgive, though it would certainly help, and Catherine concluded, “whether you believe in God or not, finding your own rituals may help in being able to forgive someone.”
The next Forgiveness Conversation – What happens when unresolved trauma is allowed to fester between generations – will take place on 16 June. To find out more about the upcoming series and to join in the debate visit www.theforgivenessproject.com/events. Tickets cost £11 and the monthly dialogues are held at St Ethelburga’s Centre in Bishopsgate in central London.