Prayer can be part of the struggle to forgive, says Jo Bailey Wells
Greatness of heart
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember the fruits we bought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and, when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen.
Anonymous, Ravensbruck concentration camp
I KNOW a man who was a prisoner of war, forced to work on the Thai railway under horrific conditions. Ever since — for more than 50 years — he has searched for the ability to forgive the Japanese soldiers who tortured him. The pain and the longing have virtually crippled him, physically and emotionally. Recently, in his old age, he has reached the point where he can finally conceive the possibility of forgiving.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5.44; cf. Luke 6.27, 35). That has been the script for my friend’s life ever since the war, even though much of the time it has been beyond him.
This prayer was found written on a piece of wrapping paper in Ravensbruck, the largest of the concentration camps for women in Nazi Germany. We do not know whether it was written by Christians or Jews. We can only marvel that we, too, through this prayer, are recipients of the fruits these women bought, “thanks to” their suffering. On that basis, I am happy to line up beside the perpetrators and be stretched to greatness of heart.
Apart from the grace of God, I do not understand how the transition is made from the injustice of torture to the freedom of goodwill. In our era, perhaps it has been demonstrated most visibly by Nelson Mandela — who would not claim to be a Christian.
He invited his white gaoler to attend his presidential inauguration as an honoured guest, the first of many spectacular gestures he made that showed a breathtaking magnanimity. President Mandela’s willingness to forgive became the inspiration for a whole nation’s reconciliation.
I first came across this prayer in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents at Norwich Cathedral, and have used it for several years. I am always struck afresh by the grace it encapsulates. To find the word “thanks” in the same phrase as suffering is amazing.
But it is only recently that I have realised what this prayer does not say. Unlike my PoW friend, these women are not asking God for the ability to forgive those who caused their suffering. Rather, they ask that God might forgive the perpetrators on judgement day.
Perhaps it was too hard for these women to forgive. Certainly, it was less relevant. It seems to me that the women here have moved to a different place. Far from being focused on their own needs, they have become concerned for their abusers. Here is the outworking of Jesus’s command to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. These women are praying for the ultimate welfare of their persecutors on judgement day.
In so doing, they have moved from anger to sadness, and from sadness to hope. Their focus is no longer on their own pain, or even on the evil of those who have hurt them. Like Mandela, their longing is not for retributive justice, but for restorative justice: for courage where there has been fear; for loyalty in place of unfaithfulness; for humility and generosity, instead of the abuse of power.
Surely this is the fruit of forgiveness: their suffering has become a resource, a resource from which to minister not only to their captors, but also to the whole of society.
The Revd Dr Jo Bailey Wells is Tutor in Old Testament at Ridley Hall, part of the Cambridge Theological Federation
The fourth Holocaust Memorial Day is Tuesday 27 January. Further information about it, including prayers and other resources from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, is at: www.holocaustmemorialday.gov.uk