On 17th September we held the seventh in our series of ten Conversations on Forgiveness at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. The topic for discussion was ‘Can you move on without forgiveness?’. On the panel were Camilla Carr, who was held hostage by Chechnyan rebels for 14 months in 1997, and Richard Wilson, whose sister was murdered in Burundi by a group who have never admitted responsibility and who continue to kill civilians amid a climate of near-total impunity. The conversation was led by Simon Fanshawe, broadcaster, change and diversity consultant and co-founder of Stonewall.
Simon began the discussion by posing two important questions: firstly, what do we mean by the phrase ‘moving on’; secondly, what do we mean by ‘forgiveness’? Neither of these have a universally accepted definition and can mean very different things to different people. Simon discussed “the myriad of psychological places that forgiveness comes from and goes to” – he described it as “endlessly contested territory”. He concluded his introduction by highlighting that one of the crucial parts of conversation around this issue was that there cannot be an assumption that forgiveness is necessary; this was something that was later explored at length.
After raising these two questions as points of consideration, Simon invited Camilla to share her story. She spoke movingly about her experience of being kidnapped with her partner in Chechnya. One of the first things that she highlighted was their immediate realisation that they had to start a dialogue with their kidnappers who seemed “divorced from their emotions and humanity”.
Camilla shared how after several months of imprisonment, she was raped by one of the guards, whom they’d nicknamed Paunch. This continued over several months, until she eventually confronted him. This confrontation allowed Camilla to begin the process of forgiving her captors. She described a press conference she and her partner attended after their final release, at which they stated that whilst they in no way condoned the behaviour of their captors they felt no bitterness towards them. She also described her choice to forgive in terms of “loosening the grip of the perpetrator” – she no longer wanted to think about Paunch.
Camilla’s description of forgiveness as ‘fluid’ was a point of particular interest. Forgiveness was not something absolute, your feelings could shift from day to day. She also spoke about how initially, forgiveness was not really a word she and her partner used about their experience, rather “we behaved in a forgiving way”.
Richard then shared his experience and highlighted the key differences from Camilla’s experience, firstly that because he was a secondary victim and did not feel he had the right to forgive on behalf of his sister. He said he didn’t need to affirm that he had ‘forgiven’ those involved in order to begin a process of moving on. He spoke about the pressure there was to ‘publicly forgive’ which can have a damaging impact on those who have been through traumatic experiences – “it’s an absolutist position to assume you can’t move on without forgiveness” and it can even re-victimize. The decision to forgive should be completely in the hands of the victim and their choice must be respected.
Richard spoke of how when forgiveness is taken out of the hands of those directly involved it can be incredibly harmful. He described how in Burundi, the rhetoric of forgiveness has been used by politicians to avoid accountability.
The discussion was then opened to the audience; several people shared their own stories and others asked questions to Richard and Camilla which stimulated thoughtful responses. The idea of ‘victimhood’ and the possible limitations of this identity were discussed; Richard spoke about reclaiming the word victim whilst Camilla admitted “I consider myself both a victim and a survivor”.
The most significant conclusion of the conversation was that forgiveness should never be pushed on victims or survivors as a necessary path to ‘moving on’ or ‘moving forward’. For some people, forgiving either publicly or on a more personal level can be incredibly powerful but for others, it seems inappropriate in the context of their experience. This sentiment echoes one of the key ideas upon which The Forgiveness Project is founded: we wish to create opportunities for people to choose forgiveness, rather than insisting that they do as the only way to overcome trauma.
— Our next conversation will take place on Monday 13th October; we will be asking the question, ‘Does knowing a person’s story make it harder to hate them?’ Discussing this will be Jo Berry and Pat McGee. To find out more about the upcoming series and to join in the debate visit www.theforgivenessproject.com/events.