One of my all-time favourite films is Get Carter. It is a 1970’s cult movie, set within a few miles of where I live and full of memorable lines and great acting performances. The story follows a London gangster, Jack Carter played by Michael Caine who travels back to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, his home town to investigate the events surrounding his brother Frank’s supposedly accidental death. He becomes increasingly convinced that his brother was murdered and ruthlessly interrogates those who may know something, with his mind set only on revenge. It ends violently with his own death, but not before he has dealt with those whom he holds responsible for his brother’s death.
The list of revenge movies is long and illustrious – Gladiator, Kill Bill, Cape Fear, Old Boy, Mad Max, to name but a few. Forgiveness on the other hand, is not a theme that sets the pulse racing nor does it offer easy promotional headlines or glamorous images. Interestingly, the stories about forgiveness that do exist are nearly always about real people who forgive – Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela. It’s as if we can’t invent a story about someone who sees forgiveness as the way to live. It’s just too implausible. Across cultures and over time, revenge and retaliation are regarded as just and right – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Its all about strength, dignity and pride to enforce justice by means of revenge.
The movies may glamorise the idea of revenge and build up the vengeful into heroic characters, but deep down we know that this is not true. Death in the pursuit of revenge is not a glorious end, but a sad defeat in the course of a fruitless quest. Through the lives of those who eschew vengeance and violence, we discover that forgiveness is not weak or character-less, nor are they door-mats for those who do wrong; in fact they appear to be strong and attractive people whose lives continue to inspire and influence us long after they have died. The greatest example of course is Jesus. He preached against our so-called justice and revenge – we are to love our enemies, return good for evil, offer blessing for curse and forgive those who wrong us without limit. Jesus did not just preach forgiveness and the way of peace but practiced it throughout his life – and even at his death, when he prayed to God for forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.
Jesus’s teaching about forgiveness is not simply about creating healthy and whole relationships with one another, but offers us a radical corrective to our distorted image of God and forgiveness. Instead of a vengeful, angry God, bent on hunting us down, he shows us a God who loves us passionately and looks for us along the highways and byways, to forgive us and restore our fractured, fear-based relationship to one of love and trust. He is the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son overwhelmed by love and longing for his son. To follow the way of Jesus is to love with all our hearts, forgive as God forgives and to trust that this is the pathway to wholeness and peace. Forgiveness should therefore be generously and constantly extended to all, with no strings attached. This is right at the heart of a Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer, the pattern of prayer Jesus taught us to use, asks God for forgiveness for what we have done wrong, as we forgive others who do wrong to us. Forgiveness and forgiving, both of which we need and must do, are inextricably intertwined.
Forgiveness is central to good recovery too. In the course of addiction, there is a lot of collateral damage and many people get hurt. As those who have done wrong to others and also people who have been hurt by others we are left to carry a lot of emotional baggage that hinders the process of recovery. (Which is true for everyone, both in and out of recovery.) Step 8 in the Twelve Step Programme says that “we made a list of all the persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them”. Step 9 makes amends to those we wronged and Step 10 helps us to continue to behave in a right way towards others. Much of this is about seeking forgiveness but we also need to grant forgiveness to those who have done us wrong, and this is generally a good deal harder than asking for forgiveness.
Over recent years we have learned a lot about forgiveness as we see the wrongs of national and civil wars, tribal and religious conflict and individual fanaticism lead to atrocities and extreme acts of harm done to others. Personal examples of forgiveness have always taught and inspired but formal procedures and processes are important too. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are a form of restorative justice aimed at the healing of a whole community or nation, broken apart by violence and oppression. Restorative Justice seeks to bring together offender and victim to offer a place for repentance and forgiveness. This allows both parties to move forward more positively. Much has been learned from these Commissions about the process of forgiveness. Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, who chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has subsequently written about the four steps to forgiving and healing:
- Telling the Story
- Naming the Hurt
- Granting Forgiveness
- Renewing or Releasing the Relationship
Ideally, it is a two-way process but this is not always possible. Thankfully so too, because if forgiving depended upon the culprit owning up, then the victim would always be at their mercy and remain bound in the shackles of victimhood. Archbishop Tutu says that “Forgiving is a gift to the forgiver as well as to the perpetrator. As the victim, you offer the gift of your forgiving to the perpetrator who may or may not appropriate the gift but it has been offered and thereby it liberates the victim. It would be grossly unfair to the victim to be dependent on the whim of the perpetrator. It would make him or her a victim twice over. The gift has been given. It is up to the intended recipient to appropriate it. The outside air is fresh and invigorating and it is always there. If you are in a dank and stuffy room you can enjoy that fresh air if you open the windows. It is up to you.” This, it seems to me is equally true for the wrong-doer when they ask for forgiveness and it is not given. They can do no more, but it in no way lessens the importance of what they have done in releasing them. Many people who have undertaken steps 8 and 9 can vouch for the truth of this when their attempts to make amends and admit their wrongs have not been accepted. It still allows them to move forward in the process. Meanwhile the one who was wronged is also on a pathway which may ultimately lead to them accepting the gift and breathing freely of the clean air of forgiveness. Not to do so will only hurt themselves. As is so often said in recovery about carrying wrongs and resentments, we are allowing the wrong-doer to live rent free in our heads. It can help to remember that everybody has experience as both a doer of wrongs and a recipient of wrongs. Dealing with our part in both of these helps us to remain emotionally and spiritually healthy.
All of this makes forgiving seem like a simple process but we all know from experience that it is far from easy. As C.S. Lewis says, ‘Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.’ Even if we grasp on an intellectual level that it is good for us and in our own interests, we do not have a switch to flick which makes us forgive. It is a process, a deep hurt that takes time to deal with. And this can be a hard road, which may take us some time to travel. But travel it we must if we are to become whole and free. And we can be inspired by the stories of those who have been able to forgive, especially those ordinary people who have suffered appalling wrongs and shown extraordinary forgiveness to those who have hurt them. In doing so they send ripples of hope across the world. Because in the end peace in our hearts and peace in the world will never be achieved by revenge and resentment. Forgiveness is the only way and love is always at its centre.
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. Mark Twain
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. Mahatma Gandhi
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning. Desmond Tutu
The dying can teach us much about genuine forgiveness. They do not think, “I have been so right, and in being so right, I can see how wrong you have been. In my bigness I will forgive you.” They think, “You’ve made mistakes and so have I. Who hasn’t? But I no longer want to define you by your mistakes or have myself be defined by mine.” Elizabeth Kubler Ross