In the light of the recent chemical weapons attack upon the Syrian citizens of Douma, alongside March’s assault upon Sergei and Yulia Skripal when a Novichok nerve agent was used in Salisbury, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world has sunk to a new low and that the world had become a much darker and dangerous place. What has become of our moral values, common decency and respect for human life?
In recent weeks, we have seen the American, French and British authorities take military action against those who use chemical weapons, but there have also been two incredibly moving stories which perhaps given the circumstance have not been given the prominence that they rightly deserve. The first was the comedian Patrick Kielty’s BBC documentary entitled “My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me”, exploring the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement as it reached its 20th anniversary. Patrick’s story is poignant as his own father was murdered by paramilitary gunmen during ‘The Troubles’ – men who were subsequent released from prison as part of the agreement. Patrick’s view was nuanced, because although he admitted that he couldn’t forgive the gunmen, he accepted that their release was necessary if there was ever to be reconciliation. He was stunned by an interview with Richard Moore, who as a child had been totally blinded by a rubber bullet fired at him by a British soldier – and yet Richard had forgiven his assailant and had made great strides to find him in order to say so, resulting in a lasting friendship. How could Richard forgive the soldier so?
[Patrick Keilty carrying his father’s coffin in 1988]
This was followed by an amazing interview given by Neville Lawrence, the father of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, whose story has regularly been in the headlines for 25 years. Two men had been convicted of Stephen’s death and yet it’s understood that five were involved. Neville revealed how he had forgiven them all for the murder of his son. Like Patrick, Neville’s story was incredibly hard and painful, and described as a ‘life sentence’ that would never go away, and yet he had forgiven his son’s murderers. How could this be possible?
It seems that both Neville and Richard had discovered an ancient Christian truth which is that forgiveness is not dependent upon the perpetrator saying sorry or even being met with. It’s an act of the heart and mind which allows the victim to find peace, ‘to let go’, and won’t allow any anger, hurt or pain they feel to fester and become a well of bitter malice within them, which probably does nothing to bring about reconciliation, and may not even be known by the perpetrator, but simply mars and cripples their own life henceforth. It comes from a deep-seated understanding that you are not going to hold a grudge or allow hurt to define you. Naturally, this isn’t easy – and shouldn’t be remotely confused with ‘letting other people get away with it’ or not wanting justice. Neville Lawrence wants justice as keenly as ever he did – it’s just that he won’t allow his anger and hurt to corrupt and corrode his heart and soul.
True forgiveness isn’t ‘a trick of the mind’; it isn’t secretly hoping for revenge or holding on to resentment. It has to be genuine and is therefore both a true art and an act of grace. Whether forgiveness is or isn’t asked for, it certainly isn’t deserved – it can only be given. It’s therefore a beautiful thing – a gift, which allows the victim to find peace, and can wonderfully, occasionally lead to repentance and reconciliation by all parties.
The Christian will see clear parallels between this and the Gospel story – how our sin naturally makes us all perpetrators, leading to the death of Jesus upon the cross where he graciously and lovingly takes upon himself the punishment for our sins (justice demands it) so that we might be reconciled and freely forgiven by God when we turn to him in sincerity, faith and repentance.
The stories of Richard, Neville (and perhaps even Patrick, who began to wonder if he had actually forgiven his father’s murderers after all) demonstrate that by God’s good grace and mercy there is still a lot of love and light in the world – and the world isn’t quite as dark as it might be.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”