Rev Julie Nicholson is known worldwide as the vicar who couldn’t forgive. The Anglican priest stepped down from her position because she was unable to forgive the suicide bomber who had murdered her daughter at Edgware Road tube station in London in July 2005. She could no longer speak the words of reconciliation which were fundamental to her role.
Christian prayer and liturgy is rich with the themes of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus makes a specific link between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. In Luke 17 we are enjoined to forgive those who sin against us and repent, even if it happens seven times in one day. But what does it mean to forgive, or to be forgiven?
The Christian concept of forgiveness is sometimes viewed by the secular world as a mark of sycophantic goodness. It’s a spineless, cheek-turning forgiveness which lets the offender off the hook. Ms Nicholson, full of unforgiving rage, has been excised from this meek flock.
Similarly, God is regarded as something of a soft touch. In the 1967 film Bedazzled, written by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the devil bemoans the sneaky last-minute repentance of sinners: “I lost Mussolini that way, all that work, then right at the end with the rope around his neck, he says, ‘Scusi. Mille regretti,’ and up he goes!”
Yet the Christian concept of forgiveness is both powerful and challenging. It recognises evil and demands truth, and walks a soul-searching journey towards reconciliation.
Sorry about that
As a nation, saying “sorry” has become a political strategy to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. In 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, followed in 2013 by an apology to victims of forced adoption by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The Uniting Church has done a fair bit of apologising. In 1994 the Church entered into a covenant relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, recognising and repenting of our complicity in the injustices perpetrated on Australia’s Indigenous community.
In 1997 the Uniting Church made a formal apology to the Stolen Generation, and in 2004 we apologised to those harmed while in the care of institutions of the Uniting Church and its predecessor churches. This year, several synods and Uniting Church agencies apologised for their complicity in forced adoptions, and the Uniting Church in Australia asked the Pacific Conference of Churches for forgiveness for the divisions and pain caused to Pacific communities in the past.
The link between repentance and forgiveness seems to be assumed, as though to do otherwise would be mere truculence.
Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace points out that “the heart of forgiveness is a generous release of a genuine debt, relinquishing retribution”. In forgiving, we absorb the injury, he says, and our forgiveness is predicated on nothing perpetrators do or fail to do.
“Forgiveness is not a reaction to something else. It is the beginning of something new.”
Truth and justice
Sometimes there may be no repentance and no reconciliation, as Adele Dingle knows from her experience in the area of domestic violence and grief and loss counselling. She was the chair of the first Uniting Church Sexual Abuse Complaints committee in Queensland and a project worker for four years for the Joint Churches Domestic Violence Prevention Project JCDVPP).
Ms Dingle says that special care should be taken when dealing with the issue of forgiveness in relation to the survivors of abuse. In this context, she says, forgiveness is about empowerment. It does not mean forgetting, and may not bring immediate reconciliation or final restitution; nor does it mean that we accept the behaviour of the other person.
“The person who forgives is able to regain the power. Forgiveness means moving ahead with your life rather than being controlled by the past.”
The JCDVPP training resource underscores the link between forgiveness and justice.
“Forgiveness must maintain integrity,” it says. “We can’t do a whitewash job, we can’t avoid naming things. There can be no reconciliation where there is no truth.”
The link between truth, justice and reconciliation has been recognised at an international human rights level by bodies such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, tasked with investigating human rights abuses committed under apartheid. Closer to home, The Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor have heard testimony from witnesses and victims of human rights violations.
In Australia, the Royal Commission to investigate institutional responses to child sexual abuse, appointed in January 2013, will hear about the management of and response to allegations and instances of abuse. The truth will make difficult reading and demand a courageous response, yet we recognise that it is elemental to healing.
The road to healing
Forgiveness as part of the journey out of victimhood is an integral component of The F Word exhibition, a collection of images and personal narratives from South Africa, America, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and England launched in London in 2004. The exhibition is now part of The Forgiveness Project, which uses the real stories of victims and perpetrators to facilitate conflict resolution and to promote behavioural change.
Founder and director, Marina Cantacuzino writes “I began to see that for many people forgiveness is no soft option, but rather the ultimate revenge. For many it is a liberating route out of victimhood; a choice, a process, the final victory over those who have done you harm.”
Rev Ruth Hill, a retired Uniting Church hospital chaplain, knows that forgiveness sometimes comes too late. She has seen many people struggling with unresolved anger and bitterness after the death of a family member.
“It is possible to separate forgiveness from apology, because you may never get that apology,” she says.
Ruth points to the importance of working through the Prayer of Confession used in the funeral service in Uniting in Worship 2. The words are simple, yet powerful: “Father forgive us if there have been times when we failed [name]. Enable us by your grace to forgive [name] anything that was hurtful to us”.
“I always talk about the prayer with people. You have to help someone get to that point of saying ‘God we forgive them’ if they have been really wronged, and to leave it to God to deal with justice.”
She recalls a counselling session which included a former prisoner of war in Changi, who felt alienated by what he perceived as the Church’s insistence that he forgive his torturers.
“We accepted him, and he came back the next week, and later started coming to church. In the end he told us his story.
“Sometimes it is offensive to suggest forgiveness to people. They need to know that God’s love for us continues, even when we can’t forgive others.”
Miroslav Volf reminds us that we forgive as sinners, not as the righteous; words echoed in former slaver John Newton’s Amazing Grace (1779): “‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
This article first appeared in Journey, our sister publication for the Uniting Church in Queensland Synod.