“I HAVE got to forgive them. I still forgive them,” Gee Walker says, talking about the murderers of her 18-year-old son Anthony.
“If it means I have to forgive the guy who killed my son, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do, because I need some mercy myself,” Mark Prince, father of murdered teenager Kiyan, says.
“We haven’t had any feelings of anger,” says Benoit Witchalls, husband of Abigail, left paralysed after she was brutally stabbed in front of her two-year-old son.
These comments and their authors inspire awe and reverence, and they are quickly sought after and seized on by journalists covering the tragedies.
But denying forgiveness can be equally newsworthy. The Revd Julie Nicholson’s decision to resign her post as a parish priest, because she was unable to forgive the bomber who killed her daughter Jenny in 2005 on the London Tube, won her many headlines and much sympathy.
She felt unable to continue declaring Christ’s forgiveness to her congregation and “leading people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness when I feel very far from that myself,” she said at the time. Her anger is, for many, easier to understand.
Those who are able to forgive immediately, like the Walkers and the Witchalls, are accorded saintly status by the press, for whom “Do you forgive?” has become a stock question, particularly if the sufferers have a religious faith.
But for most, anger is an important part of the process towards forgiveness, says Liz Gulliford, a researcher in psychology and religion at Cambridge University, and co-editor of a book on forgiveness.
“The desire for instantaneous forgiveness on the part of the media is a misunderstanding of what it means to forgive,” she said.
“It is felt that the Witchalls and the Walkers are superhuman, and from the psychological point of view there is a case that people may, in a rush to forgive, minimise the anger they are feeling. But people like these do demonstrate breathtaking generosity of spirit, and I would not question that.
“For most, though, forgiveness is a hard-won process, and in that process it is not unusual to feel mixed emotions. Everyone who goes on a journey of forgiveness will have times when forgiving is hard to hold on to.
“As Christians, we do not have to forgive from our own strength. The commitment to forgive may be all that we can put on the table, and hope and pray that it will be deepened. We pray that God will help us.”
Forgiveness has become a buzzword not only in the media but also in psychological circles, where for-giveness is encouraged for its therapeutic value, to allow the victim to be released from the negative emotions of bitterness or anger.
Ms Gulliford says: “There is a view that if you don’t forgive, then this lack of forgiveness is a bitterness which will poison you. But at the same time, you can’t forgive just because you don’t want to get bitter: you won’t get the deep forgiveness if you are doing it to rid yourself of feelings; it won’t be transformative.
“The Christian view of forgiveness has people forgiving as part of a community of people being forgiven by God, and forgiving each other. Understanding the motive of the person who has injured you will only take you so far — forgiveness is not about condoning.”
It is this reciprocal nature of forgiveness that Lindsey Clist struggled with. Her father is a convicted paedophile, and through lies and manipulation he wrecked her teenage years. But as she found faith in her 20s, she struggled with a need that she felt to forgive him for his crimes, as she was being forgiven by God.
“When I was preparing for baptism, it was hard: I was asking forgiveness from God when I could not forgive myself. I did struggle with it, and talked about it within the church. I was prayed for, and I do now feel the anger has gone away, for the first time in years.”
But being able to forgive her father did not mean that she felt she needed to have a continued relationship with him, particularly as she now has two young daughters of her own. He is keen to re-establish the relationship, but she says: “I don’t think it would be healthy for him or my family.”
WHO, in recent years, will forget the figure of the bereaved mother, Gee Walker, proclaiming outside the court that she felt no anger or bitterness towards her son’s murderers? Anthony Walker, just 18, and a committed Christian, was killed in a brutal, racist attack with an ice-axe.
In three years her position has not wavered. I ask if she has moments when she has struggled with forgiveness, but she says it is an obligation to the word of God and also to her murdered child.
“It is the word of God which I obey and that I teach my children to obey, to live by forgiveness. Sometimes I really do it for him, for Anthony. You know, when you have kids and you tell them something and they bounce it right back to you, Anthony used to remind me of the things I told him. It isn’t easy sometimes, but Anthony was such a forgiving boy. He would have forgiven his killers without a doubt, and he would have been the first to remind me that I have to, too.”
Without forgiveness, her family would have been destroyed by the anger and bitterness that would have enveloped them, she says.
“Forgiveness takes the sting out of the burn. If we did not forgive, it would have destroyed us. From day one, I decided that was it, and it’s been a part of me. Forgiveness is my survival tool. If I hadn’t, it would have brought anger and resentment into my soul, and I hadn’t got room for that. Forgiveness frees me up to love; it brings me peace and helps me today.
“The rewards of forgiveness are peace and calmness. The pain is huge. Unless you lose a child, you don’t know. A piece of you has gone, and that is enough pain to carry around with you, without additional things.
“The pain does get easier. The gaps between falling apart — when things catch up with you — widen a little as time goes on.”
Margaret Mizen, the mother of Jimmy Mizen, the 16-year-old who was stabbed to death at a bakery near his home in south-east London six months ago, has also rejected any feelings of anger.
She is a devout Roman Catholic. “I do not feel angry. If I did, the bitterness would destroy my family. Everyone has the right to be forgiven by God.” Mrs Mizen has eight other children whom she needs to support — and many of them do still feel angry at what happened.
“I’m not 100-per-cent sure that I have totally forgiven: it is still early days for us. Also, someone needs to ask for forgiveness, and I haven’t been asked. People keep asking me if I feel angry, but I just feel a terrible sadness, a sadness that I cannot get rid of. My prayers don’t take away that, but they do take away the anger.
“If a person is sorry, I think they will be forgiven. I know I make mistakes every day, and I pray that God will forgive me.” The trial of those accused of killing her son is due in two months’ time.
Both mothers reject any notion that they are superhuman in not claiming revenge. Mrs Walker says: “I am just a normal person. I’m not a saint. When I go into schools to talk about it, I don’t have any props, just a photo of Anthony and me. I sit and talk to them as a mum, and wish them all the best as I would wish my own children. If I did not have the peace that comes from forgiveness, I think they would run away from me. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
Mrs Walker is considering meeting Anthony’s killers at some point in the future. One has already asked for her forgiveness, she says.
THE Forgiveness Project, a charity that explores forgiveness through people’s stories, and works in conflict-resolution in schools and prisons, was set up by a journalist moved by cases such as those of the Walkers and Mizens.
Its founder, Maria Cantacuzino, says that the issue of forgiveness polarises opinion: some see it as awe-inspiring, and others see it as the soft option. Through an exhibition, “The F Word”, made up of narratives from real people, she explores these different responses.
“I chose the subject because, as a journalist, I find I’m far more moved by stories of forgiveness than revenge. In fact, revenge scares me a little. I don’t understand the thinking that advocates the settling of scores, because this just creates an interminable cycle of attrition. On the other hand, the further I have ventured down the forgiveness route, the more I’ve realised that forgiveness is not the other side of the coin to revenge.
“Who has the right to ask anyone to forgive? It is an intensely personal choice. As Alistair Little, the former Protestant paramilitary, told me: ‘Often in a conflict situation there’s a huge pressure on people to forgive. If they don’t, it’s seen as a selfish act, and that I think is reprehensible. To expect them to forgive only victimises them all over again.’
“And yet for some rare people forgiveness is the most constructive way forward, one that has immense rewards for victim and perpetrator, as well as society.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to help deal with the legacy of apartheid. He said last autumn: “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. In the telling of stories like these there is real healing.”
JILL SAWARD was raped by a gang of men who broke into her home 22 years ago, in a crime that gained notoriety as the Ealing Vicarage Rape. She also granted forgiveness when asked to do so by one of the burglars. (This was not the man who raped her.)
Forgiveness in her case was “an instantaneous thing, though there are times when the Devil tries to tempt you”, she says.
She was praying for forgiveness for her attackers “on day one, or just after. I was praying that I would be able to forgive them. I prayed to God to help me do it. We are not compelled to do it from our own strength. I feel forgiveness as a release and a freedom.”
The rape has directed and transformed Ms Saward’s working life: she has spent years since then working to support victims of sexual violence. It is not an area where she has found the Church very helpful, she says.
“The Church does almost nothing for the victims of sexual violence. It doesn’t mind going out and helping prostitutes or sex offenders, because they can be made better; but with victims of sexual violence it doesn’t seem to know what to do.
“It is a very long process when you are dealing with abuse, sometimes long-term abuse. Condemning people for not being able to forgive shows a lack of understanding of people and of forgiveness itself.”
JULIE NICHOLSON says she has not changed her views since she stepped down from parish ministry in 2006, although she is still challenged by the concept of forgiveness.
“My feelings remain the same. Forgiveness is a very complex issue, and I feel the issue of forgiveness was not appropriate to my daughter’s death. The perpetrator [Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the suicide- bombers who exploded his bomb at Edgware Road Tube Station] is dead; so there is no one for me to forgive. The person who needs to do the forgiving is the victim.”
This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel injured herself, as a mother. But she doesn’t feel compelled to forgive her daughter’s killer. “The most I feel a need to do is to seek to understand and be compassionate.”
Her definition of true forgiveness involves establishing a relationship between the injured party and the attacker — a relationship that she found impossible to have.
“In forgiving you are setting someone free to live a life without that burden and that worry. So you need to be in some kind of relationship.”
As part of her own journey of healing, she researched and presented a radio programme on the subject of forgiveness, and is now writing a book about her experiences.
She spoke to other victims of terrible crimes who have said they forgive their attackers, and has a profound respect for them, she says. She believes the difference between her own feelings and theirs is not a difference of faith or theology, but a difference of character.
“It is in the nature we hold, our uniqueness as characters. Some people cannot bear to live their lives out without being able to draw the line under it. Some people feel a strong duty or obligation to forgive. I don’t feel I have a duty. I can try to understand what motivated the deed, but don’t have to forgive, necessarily.
“I think I will be angry for the rest of my life for what happened. [But] when a life is cut down, then you should be angry.”