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Dealing with the f-word

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THE HIGHLIGHT of Greenbelt for me was the Forgiveness Project, an exhibition of photos, with testimony by people who have been forced by great suffering to think harder about the nature of forgiveness.

 

Eric Lomax meets the Japanese officer who tortured him during the war. Andrew Rice, whose brother died in the World Trade Center , has an encounter with the mother of one of the suicide bombers. “One day I’d like to meet Zacharias Moussaoui. I’d like to say to him: ‘You can hate me as much as you like, but I want you to know that I loved your mother, and I comforted her when she was crying.’”

 

In contrast, Marianne Pearl reflects on how much she continues to hate the murderers who killed her husband Daniel.

 

As secular culture has generally absorbed the concept of forgiveness within the language of therapy and counselling (the confessional being replaced by the psychiatrist’s couch, and all that), we commonly represent forgiveness as something private and internal: we speak of those who have found it “within themselves” to forgive.

 

This understanding of forgiveness begins to look like an impossible change in emotional chemistry. What the stories of the Forgiveness Project show is that forgiveness is not about magically replacing feelings of hatred with feelings of sympathy. Often forgiveness has little to do with how one feels.

 

We often sentimentalise forgiveness in such a way that it becomes something fantastical. This, in turn, provides the perfect alibi for those who want to reject it as impossible. It’s not that I won’t forgive, it’s that I can’t: so goes the thought process that dismisses forgiveness as something practised by people who are patronisingly admired as exceptional. Forgiveness is for the barely credible figures we used to call saints.

 

In contrast, those who practise forgiveness often speak of it as much more like self-interest: a practical strategy for survival. Forgiveness is about not retaliating in kind.

 

Too often, we respond to an offence by replicating it: “If she’s not speaking to me, then I’m not speaking to her.” Forgiveness is a refusal to copy — and thus become a copy of — the abusive other. This conception of forgiveness takes a detour around how one “feels”, and calls a halt

to the repetitive, self-propagating nature of violence, through an act of defiance against the culture of revenge. Forgiveness is a way of stopping a bloody past being endlessly replicated into a hopeless future.

 

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College , Oxford .

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