Volume 13 Number 1
The Power of Forgiveness
01 February 2000
Could you forgive someone who destroyed your life or, even worse, killed your child? In these edited extracts from his new book, Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate, Michael Henderson finds that the world has reason to be grateful to people who, against all the odds, have found a way to forgive.
Who can deny the hope given to the world when a person's suffering or hatred is turned to good effect, either through remorse and repentance or a courageous act of forgiving, or perhaps through a dramatic religious conversion? It encourages the belief that humankind can yet learn to do things differently.
A Vietnamese woman, Kim Phuc, now a Canadian citizen and a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO, is one example. In 1972 the Pullitzer Prize was awarded for a photo of her as a young girl, fleeing naked and screaming from her village, which had just been napalm-bombed in the Vietnam War; it is constantly reprinted. Now, after a miracle of survival, including 17 operations, a stint when she was paraded for Vietnamese propaganda purposes against the Americans, a period of study in Moscow, and emigration to the West, she is set to become a missionary. The way she has overcome her painful past has been a source of inspiration to millions. Her biography, The girl in the picture: the Kim Phuc story, was published in 1999.
Some have found a way to triumph over setbacks and a freedom in expressing this that almost defies understanding. Particularly those who have been hostages in the Middle East. Terry Waite writes in Footfalls in memory--reflections from solitude, 'My captivity was certainly a miserable experience which I would not wish to go through again. And yet, almost despite myself, something had come from it. I know that I was able to take the experience of captivity and turn it into something creative.'
Simon Weston, the British soldier who suffered burns over 46 per cent of his body as the result of a bomb in the Falklands/ Malvinas war, underwent 70 operations and will have to have more. He is badly disfigured, and can yet say, 'It might sound crass but I feel that being burnt and injured has been positive for me. I've been allowed to do so much. I've achieved a level of contentment that I might not have achieved otherwise.'
An author, a motivational speaker, a raiser of $30 million for charities, a vice-president of two charities, happily married with three children, he is on a mission. Weston says, 'I don't have time to worry about what people think of me--even if I am walking along like a wrinkled chip!'
The most important thing if you become injured, he says, is how you cope. 'If you spend your life full of recriminations and bitterness, then you've failed yourself, failed the surgeons and nurses and everyone else, because you aren't giving anything back. Hatred can consume you and it's wasted emotion.' According to an article in the London Daily Mail, 'Wherever Simon goes, strangers come up to him and want to shake his hand. He cuts across all ages, creeds and social classes, and he seems to bring out the best in everyone.'
Truck driver Reginald Denny had his skull crushed by a brick in April 1992, during the Los Angeles riots after four white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King were acquitted. He has a forgiving spirit towards the six attackers who stomped and bashed him with a brick and a hammer. A writer in People magazine says, 'Even more remarkable than his physical recovery, however, is his lack of resentment toward his attackers.'
No one would want to underestimate the physical and psychological damage done by incarceration, often in solitary confinement, or the wounds of personal tragedy or loss that never entirely heal. But thousands of lives, beyond the individuals involved, have often benefited and been blessed by their willingness to forgive.
In 1993 two English children, Johnathan Ball, three, and Tim Parry, 12, were killed and 56 other people wounded when an IRA bomb went off in the centre of Warrington. The tragedy has now led on to myriad initiatives for reconciliation by local citizens. Tim's father, Colin Parry, says that it was the single-minded determination to make their son's life and death count for something that has kept him and his wife, Wendy, going.
The Warrington Project was the first of a series of initiatives, known collectively as Warrington Ireland Reconciliation Enterprise, WIRE, set up shortly after the Bridge Street bombing. Because of the youth of the two victims, the project concentrates on working with young people. In Britain its programme 'Ireland in Schools', worked out with the Institute of Irish Studies, seeks to develop an informed interest in Ireland's culture. In Ireland it supports programmes that create better understanding. In both countries it encourages student and teacher exchanges and in-service training.
In the first days after the IRA bombing the Warrington Male Voice Choir, one of Britain's oldest and finest, assisted the victims of the tragedy and created links with groups in Ireland working for peace. Since then, they have given concerts for peace and reconciliation in Dublin, Drogheda, Belfast and Derry. In 1997, working with the Dublin Rotary Club and the Irish Peace Institute, the Choir was responsible for a Christmas Concert of Peace in Dublin's National Concert Hall. A 260-strong Youth Choir for Peace--children from North and South, Catholic and Protestant, was brought together, symbolizing hope and harmony.
On the second anniversary of the bombing an Irish Festival or fleadh, now an annual event, was held in Warrington. It was organized by The Bridge (named after Bridge Street), a project focusing on cultural exchanges, often with a community dimension, such as families hosting each other across the Irish Sea.
The Warrington Town Centre Clergy, made up of five denominations, have taken the lead in creating worship opportunities which explore the commemoration aspect of the event in terms of moving forward in understanding. Stephen Kingsnorth, a Methodist minister, writes, 'One role we value as clergy in Warrington, is to challenge those within and without the "peace movement" to explore new ideas, to listen to those whose views we find alien. If reconciliation is to come, it is through mutual understanding, and Warrington, as a "victim" community, is in a unique position to listen, without being accused of collaboration.'
Kingsnorth was invited to speak in Derry at the Bloody Sunday Rally in 1999. He said, 'Warrington's gift was in taking an isolated but shattering tragedy and a few deciding it would not make us the more firmly chained to our history. What happened in Bridge Street could form a bridge of learning to the histories of others.'
Each year on the anniversary of the bombing there has been a Community Peace Walk, sometimes in England, sometimes in Ireland. On the first walk participants were greeted by 2,000 people at St Michael's Church in Dun Laoghaire in the Republic. In 1997 a River of Life pedestrian mall was opened with the release of doves by the mothers of the two boys who died. In 1999 Warrington Peace 93 was one of many Warrington groups and individuals helping to raise well over £1 million to create a Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Young People's Centre for peace and reconciliation programmes.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Donald Caird, said at a United Service in the town centre that Warrington had become a byword for gracious response in the face of evil. Colin Parry makes the same point: 'In Ireland Warrington is held up as an example of how a town can react with dignity following a tragedy.' The Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alisdair McDonnell, says, 'They have turned hatred, despair and conflict into friendship, brotherhood and the hand of peace.'
A Belgian teacher whose 23-year-old daughter, Ann, was murdered by her boyfriend chose to tread the path of forgiveness and founded an organization of support for the families of victims.
When the news broke of Ann's death, Lou Reymen immediately thought back 20 years to meeting an Irish woman who wanted to meet the killers of her son and a woman who had been a victim of a serious road accident and was free of blame. Within 48 hours he and his wife, Mariette, were sure that they should reach out to the parents of the killer. 'It was a question of putting our faith into practice,' he says. 'At that cruel moment I had to ask myself what I was going to do as a believer.'
With his daughter not even buried and the young man already in prison, as he puts it, he sought the help of the local priest to tell the family that the Reymens were ready if they wanted to say something to them. Two hours later, the doorbell rang. It was the murderer's parents. The wives embraced, consoling each other. 'How is it possible that we could set foot in your house?' said the murderer's mother. The two couples prayed together for their children. Reymen says that taking this initiative 'kept us from a feeling of hatred and wanting to take revenge'.
In an interview in the French magazine Changer (July/August 1994) Reymen described his decision to set up a support organization for bereaved parents. 'Sometimes parents have a need to talk,' he says, 'but are often incapable of doing so.' It started with four couples, whose children had been murdered, meeting once a month over a simple meal. Since then the association, called 'Parents of a murdered child,' has been contacted by 60 couples, with half of them becoming members.
Reymen and his wife found that sharing their story helped others. A truck driver whose daughter had been killed said, 'If these parents have had the courage to see the parents of the murderer of their daughter, then I do not have the right to kill the man who killed my daughter.'
The Belgian teacher also decided to write a book that would not only contain stories but also include help with practical questions about money and legal matters, and reference addresses. It was sent free, thanks to sponsors, to members of the parliamentary commission on justice, the minister of justice, his staff and the courts. Within a short time the book was being used in police training, with the president of the court recommending it to lawyers.
Repercussions of the Reymens' work have included the appointment in each court of a social worker whose job is to get in touch with the families of murdered children and to be the go-between with the magistrates; the right of a family to have access to the inquiry files; the right to see the body of the child in a 'decent state'; and also some changes in the rules for national and municipal police forces in the cases of children's murders.
He wrote in 1999, 'Our life story is divided between "Before Ann" and "After Ann". It happened nearly 11 years ago. It still is as if it happened yesterday. I do not weep as much as at the beginning, but the pain remains the same.' Forgiveness is still for him the most difficult thing in his life, and in his faith. For years he could not pray, 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Even to recall his experiences is still costly for him, but 'I can actually say I am grateful to have suffered'.
Another dramatic example of the value-added dimension of forgiveness is the response of the parents of American student Amy Biehl to her murder in South Africa.
The Cape Town-based Amy Biehl Foundation and its Project Mosaic are training women community workers, supporting violence reduction, mental health education, and other education programmes, all areas which would have been dear to their daughter.
Amy Biehl was on a Fulbright Scholarship in South Africa, attached to the University of Cape Town, and had gone there to support the black majority's struggle for freedom. On 25 August 1993, two days before she was due to leave the country, she gave a lift home to some African friends and ran into a mob shouting anti-white slogans. Her friends tried to protect her, saying that she was a 'comrade'. But the mob saw only a white person and she was stabbed to death, one of thousands killed in the violent political climate preceding the 1994 elections.
Amy Biehl (Centre)
The news was phoned to Peter and Linda Biehl. Amy had prepared them, repeatedly telling them that angry black youth were only doing what had been done to them by generations of white oppressors. They remembered her observation that when blacks died they were just numbers, when whites were killed they got complete obituaries 'with names, families, pets, everything'. 'There was never any question about our position,' Peter wrote in the California State University quarterly, Reflections, 'It was a time for humility--a time for forgiveness.'
The four young killers were brought to trial and sentenced to prison. Then they applied for amnesty under the terms set up for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Biehls wanted to participate in the hearings. Amy believed strongly in the importance of democratic elections and had told them four years earlier that the Commission was a pre-negotiated condition for free elections. They announced that they would not oppose amnesty to the killers if it were granted. 'We were certain Amy would concur.'
The Biehls were besieged by the media who plied them with questions like 'Aren't you angry?' or 'You mean you are prepared to forgive the killers?'. This response they found curious. 'What should be so strange about this,' asks Peter, 'in a country where reconciliation and forgiving is national policy, rooted in centuries of African tradition?'
At the hearing Linda did not feel anger when the killers came in, only a sort of sadness, a void, a feeling which Peter says describes his feeling too. They met the parents. 'We wanted them to know that we understood a bit what they might be thinking and that if their sons should be fortunate enough to win amnesty we expected them to be accountable for the behaviour of their sons. Accountability is an important part of forgiveness,' he says.
One of the mothers was wearing an Amy Biehl Foundation T-shirt. Linda hugged her, a gesture which, Archbishop Tutu said, was a message that 'sent electric shocks down your spine'.
Peter ended his evidence to the hearings, after describing what Amy was doing in South Africa, with an offer to help in literacy training and education and job skill training. 'We at the Amy Biehl Foundation are willing to do our part as catalysts. All anyone need do is ask.' They have been taken up on their offer. They now spend half the year in South Africa, their lives linked permanently with the country.
Peter wrote in Reflections, 'We grieve our loss, yet forgiveness has freed us. We can honour our daughter, we can remain true to her convictions, and we can carry on her work.' They are often asked whether the amnesty process had brought them closure. He says, 'We have never sought closure and have no desire to close the book on Amy.'
It is not given to all of us to live through such testing experiences of violence and pain as many of the men and women in this book. But all of us in some degree or other share in the human experience of hurt and disappointment and broken relationships. And all of us can experiment with forgiving or asking for forgiveness. The results can be rewarding.
We might always remember the cautionary word from Philip Yancey, 'The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.'
'Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate' by Michael Henderson is published by BookPartners, Wilsonville, Oregon, 1999. These edited extracts are reprinted with permission of BookPartners Inc.