What does it mean to forgive?


By Marina Cantacuzino, journalist, author, and founder of The Forgiveness Project charity

People often ask me ‘why forgiveness?’ Why have I spent the past 16 years of my life grappling with issues of pain and recovery, sharing stories from people who have lined themselves up to forgive? I say ‘lined themselves up’ deliberately because so often forgiveness is more an intention than a journey’s end.

The answer to the question why forgiveness is because I find it endlessly intriguing, because it’s something I can never completely fathom, and because forgiving can sometimes be the only way of reconciling with pain. Duncan Morrow -….when talking about repairing broken communities once described forgiveness as ‘essential yet impossible’. It summed up for me the whole messy, complicated yet often transformative quality of what it means to forgive. It is hugely contentious and contested territory.

As an author, a journalist and founder of The Forgiveness Project charity I have spent the past 16 years collecting, curating, facilitating and sharing stories from victims and perpetrators.

I believe in the transformative power of storytelling, but I also know that stories can just as easily fan the flames of prejudice and normalise hate. That is why I choose to work with ‘restorative narratives’ – stories that heal, restore and re-humanise.

For example, Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist in America who once radiated violence and hostility but who had a turning point when one day “a black lady at a McDonald’s cash register” greeted him “with a smile as warm and unconditional as the sun.” Even when she noticed the swastika tattoo on his finger, she didn’t erupt with outrage but instead gently told him: “You’re a better person than that.” Powerless against such compassion, Arno ran from the venue, soon to refocus his life on a journey away from hate.

Then there is Grace Idowu, whose adored middle son was murdered aged 14 by a boy from another school in an unprovoked knife attack. Overwhelmed by grief Grace finally came to meet the boy responsible for her son’s death in a restorative justice meeting in prison. For her it was a key to healing by finding the gift in the wound.

The Forgiveness Project hasn’t been without controversy. In 2009, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Brighton bombing, we held an event at the House of Commons to bring together in dialogue Patrick Magee, the former IRA activist who planted the bomb, and Jo Berry the daughter of MP Sir Anthony Berry, one of the five people killed that day. Most Parliamentarians welcomed this display of reconciliation but there were some who condemned it. Understandably, none were more angry than Norman Tebbit who had been gravely injured in the blast and whose wife had been paralysed.

The dilemma for those of us creating a platform for “formers” like Michaelis and Magee is how far do we pursue a debate around understanding and forgiveness at the risk of offending victims?

Any attempt to understand why people commit acts of violence should never become an evasion or consolation but rather should seek to prevent further harm.

I remain convinced that these stories of change and recovery provide evidence for peaceful solutions to conflict and help to influence the dominant narrative of our times, nudging it away from hate, division and demonisation towards reconciliation, compassion and peace-building.

The charity: The Forgiveness Project

The podcast: The F Word Podcast

The book: The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age

• VIEW issue on VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS – https://issuu.com/brianpelanone/docs/view_issue_51