The futility of forgiveness

Prospect Magazine

The futility of forgiveness

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Richard Wilson’s sister was murdered, and her killers showed no remorse. Could he forgive them?

Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers posing in 2008: victims of the war in Uganda have been offered the chance to forgive participants

In the rage-filled summer that followed my sister’s murder, a close friend was reduced to tears as I described my efforts to track down those responsible. “But don’t you think you should try to forgive?” she implored me. At the time, the question just made me feel angrier, more frustrated, and more alone.

Charlotte had been killed with 20 of her fellow bus passengers in an ambush by rebels on a remote hillside above Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Hutus were released unharmed. The last to leave was told to tell the authorities “we’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do.” Tutsis and foreigners were stripped, robbed, forced to lie face down on the ground and shot at point blank range.

Not only were the killers unrepentant, they were continuing to kill. Each week brought new reports of massacres in the same area. The same randomness—the same casual sense of entitlement.

But the question kept coming back. My search for justice, futile though it seemed, had consumed me to an extent that friends and family found disturbing. Was this really what Charlotte would have wanted? Shouldn’t I try to “move on”?

It was only when I began writing a book about Charlotte’s murder that I was forced to confront the issue head on, and started an exploration that continues today. Was forgiveness an intellectual decision or an emotional state? Was it simply a psychological process or did it have a more abstract, moral dimension? Was it something instant, or a long-term undertaking? Could it ever be right to forgive people who have shown no remorse and seem hell-bent on continuing to commit the same crimes? Was it possible to forgive on somebody else’s behalf?

Among the books and articles I came across, the overwhelming view was that “unconditional forgiveness” was the ideal—the only way for victims to free themselves of anger and avoid being “imprisoned by the past.” The “healing power of forgiveness,” it seemed, could mend divided societies, transform hardened killers into law-abiding citizens, and save victims from a lifetime of rage and hatred.

Yet there was something about all of this that jarred—a moral absolutism combined with wishful thinking that seemed both dangerous and demeaning. According to Desmond Tutu, forgiveness and reconciliation were “the only truly viable alternatives to revenge, retribution and reprisal.” But what of those who, like me, had neither a wish for revenge nor any intention of reconciling with an unrepentant murderer?

As I struggled to make sense of these questions, one story hit the news that seemed to go radically against the consensus. In Bristol, Julie Nicholson, a Church of England vicar, had told the media that she refused to forgive the suicide bomber who had killed her daughter Jenny in the July 2005 London bombings, and was stepping down from her post.

Calm, eloquent, and reflective, Julie Nicholson seems as far from the stereotype of the unforgiving victim as it is possible to get. In her book, A Song For Jenny, she writes movingly of her determination “not to hate” and to avoid ascribing blame for her daughter’s death to the Muslim community as a whole.

“I don’t want revenge in any way,” Nicholson tells me. “But neither do I believe that what happened is something… I should be forgiving.”

“To own an anger, to own real feelings and the immensity of the feelings—I would argue that in many cases it’s healthier than spending a lifetime trying to forgive something that you might do better just to lay to one side.”

In the months after her story made international headlines, Julie Nicholson received dozens of letters from people who had tried, without success, to forgive things that had happened decades earlier, believing this to be their moral or religious duty. Reading of her stand, many said, had been “like a big burden being lifted from them.”

Nicholson believes that the reaction was “actually nothing to do specifically with me… it’s just that it resonated with human nature.”

“I don’t believe anyone that says they have nothing to forgive, or it’s never been an issue. We are all troubled with difficulties with relationships, with people who hurt us by their actions or their words.”

“For me, the whole area of forgiveness is like a huge spectrum… at one end you’ve got a fracas in the playground, and at the other end you’ve got mass slaughter… And yet you’ve got this one word that’s supposed to fit everything.”

Like me, Julie Nicholson has “struggled to find coherence in what forgiveness really means. I’m sure some people would say there was a concrete answer but if there is I haven’t found it yet.”

When a profound moral concept is too loosely defined, the danger is that it can come to mean whatever the people who shout loudest want it to. And those on the receiving end of brutal crimes seldom have the loudest voices.

After the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its Ugandan leader Joseph Kony were indicted for war crimes, the group embarked on a donor-funded “reconciliation tour” of the region it had ravaged. At a series of events stage-managed by the LRA and observed by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), war victims were invited to say publicly whether they forgave Kony for his atrocities. While most who spoke declared their willingness to do so, others later complained to the IWPR that they’d been unable to make their voices heard, due to the LRA’s tight control over proceedings.

To many, reported the IWPR, the rebels were not offering a genuine apology, merely “trying to create an impression that the Acholi community [an ethnic group based in northern Uganda and South Sudan] has forgiven Kony and is opposed to a trial for Kony and his top commanders [at] the International Criminal Court.”

But in recent years a more nuanced view has started to emerge. In Ancient Forgiveness, Charles Griswold, a Boston University philosopher, traces some of the traditions that have left us with a “hodgepodge of conflicting and overlapping meanings” around forgiveness. And in Forgiveness is a Choice, the psychologist Robert Enright, a leading proponent of the benefits of forgiveness, is nonetheless clear that the decision must sit with the victim, and be separated from the question of justice:

“A man who was sexually molested as a child may decide to forgive… and still… testify against [his abuser]… To say ‘I have forgiven’ and then allow another child to suffer would be to deny the rights of future victims.”

While there remains widespread disagreement about the meaning of the word, most definitions of “forgiveness” that I’ve found have some core elements in common. These include forswearing revenge, moderating our anger, and reframing our view of the wrong-doer, to the point where we can see them as someone not wholly evil, and not wholly defined by their actions towards us. There is also a broad acceptance that forgiveness-by-proxy is problematic: the most I could do would be to forgive my sister’s killers the harm they did me through what they did to her.

I no longer rage over Charlotte’s murder as I once did. This probably is partly a result of the efforts I’ve made to understand the vicious context in which she was killed, and the psychology which enables ordinary human beings to engage in extraordinary brutality. Were the killers to face trial, I would speak out against any application of the death penalty. I do not believe they are monsters, however monstrous their behaviour. If this were all forgiveness meant, I’d be happy to sign up.

But things get more complex when we look at another commonly-held feature of forgiveness: relinquishing resentment. In its barest sense, “resentment” can simply refer to the anger we feel when reminded of a past injustice. However, it can also carry a wider meaning, linked to the idea of outrage, indignation, and protest.

Charles Griswold offers an elegant defence of the unforgiving victim. Resentment, he argues, in part “testifies to a moral standpoint,” embodying “the demand that the wrong-doer show [us] the proper respect, and be accountable for not having done so.”

For forgiveness to be warranted, Griswold suggests, the wrong-doer must “demonstrate that she no longer wishes to stand by herself as the author of those wrongs,” by admitting responsibility and expressing regret. To forgive without an apology is to “collaborate in a lack of censure,” condoning the offence.

A decade after Charlotte’s death, her murderers have neither admitted responsibility nor apologised. Worst of all, the group, now based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, continues to ambush and kill civilians. Looked at from this perspective, it seems to me there are good reasons for retaining a measure of indignation, and perhaps even resentment. If that makes me one of those “unforgiving victims” too, then I’m Spartacus.

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Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson is the author of “Don’t Get Fooled Again—The Sceptic’s Guide To Life.” He works for a human rights organisation 

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