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As new evidence came to light this week about who was involved in the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 30 years ago, I’ve again been struck by how it can be possible to live with such a terrible tragedy befalling your child. Over the years, we’ve heard too many stories of families going through such horror at the murders of loved ones, and at times I’ve been shocked by people who choose to publicly forgive those responsible.
Stephen’s father, Neville Lawrence, has previously spoken about forgiving his son’s killers as a way of helping him cope. On the other hand, Baroness Doreen Lawrence said that she could not forgive them because they had not acknowledged what they had done. I’m not sure I would have it in me either, should anyone hurt my children.
And yet there is something profound about forgiveness. When we hear examples of it in the face of such pain, violence, abuse and oppression, it feels like such a terrifying and alien act. There’s something unsettlingly beautiful about it, too. Perhaps because it feels so unnatural; a counter–narrative in a world that says you must pay for every single thing you have ever said or done.
We live in unforgiving times.
I’ve had many conversations with good people, committed to justice and turning the world the right way up over the past few months, in which we’ve shared fears of unintentionally saying the wrong thing on Twitter or in the things we say or write. There are careful calculations, rephrasing and deleting of drafts going on, in an attempt to not upset people on the perceived binary left or right of whatever particular topic we’re talking about. The Twitterati on both sides roam around looking for whom to devour. As journalist Jon Ronson writes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we’re “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland”. This is not just about words on Twitter, but about our political culture and how a forgiving, grace–filled atmosphere can contribute to a flourishing society.
While some sectors of our society bemoan cancel culture, there’s an awful lot of cancelling going on behind the scenes – and in public too. We’re all at it; and some of us are nervous of even guilt by association.
Yesterday, I joined 700 people at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, including 180 MPs, in which Dr Amy Orr–Ewing delivered a keynote address on the power of forgiveness in public life. There were people in the room who wildly disagree with each other on many things; many who have not forgiven others for what they have said on certain issues in the past. It’s so easy in our unforgiving culture to cancel those with whom we disagree, to mute them from our timelines, to avoid them when we bump into them in Westminster Hall. To choose not to hear them out. As Orr–Ewing said: “We have lost the art of forgiveness… A lack of grace thrives… Accountability is everything… Redemption feels impossible.”
That’s why I take the time to listen to those guests with whom I vehemently disagree on our podcast The Sacred. It is a space to hear the humanity in our socio–political opponents. Once you’ve listened to the motivations and passions, values and upbringing of another, you’re more able to see their humanity. Once you start to see another person not as a one–dimensional character whose whole existence can be reduced to the worst thing they ever said on Twitter, it’s more possible to forgive them. They are wonderfully made and spectacularly flawed, just like us. Wes Streeting MP in the latest Sacred episode out today told host Elizabeth Oldfield: “I’ve got friendships across the political divide… I think it’s healthy that we listen to each other a bit more; and we avoid impugning each other’s motivations… Social media has brought out the worst in us. I think there’s something about being able to have an argument with someone online that you don’t have to look at them face to face and meet them in the eyes and respond to their emotional reaction there.”
It’s easier to talk about the need for forgiveness when we’re referring to Twitter spats. But what about the big things, where – as Amy Orr–Ewing said at the parliamentary prayer breakfast yesterday – “forgiveness might sound like a minimizing of harm” or even “moral weakness”? What about racial oppression and injustice, misogyny, violent persecution based on religion, gender or sexuality; terrorism, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, murder?
What about if someone kills your child while they’re at a bus stop in south–east London?
How on earth can forgiveness be possible – or even desirable – in these instances? Truthfully, I don’t know. But there are others who have thought about this for centuries, often in the face of unimaginable atrocity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and once wrote in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World:
“What about evil, you may ask? Aren’t some people just evil, just monsters, and aren’t such people just unforgivable? I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behaviour.”
No one said it would be easy. But perhaps it’s time for us to do better at modelling forgiveness in our public conversations, practising civility despite seemingly unfathomable political differences, seeking to understand, making an attempt at what psychologists describe as ‘unconditional positive regard‘ for those flawed souls whose opinions we instinctively recoil at. Because, as we were told in parliament yesterday, perhaps “we are wired for redemption”.
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Image: Doyle of London, CC BY–SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Chine is Director of Theos. She was previously Head of Community Fundraising and Public Engagement at Christian Aid. She has 16 years’ experience in journalism, media and communications across faith, media and international development organisations.
Posted 28 June 2023
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Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to Labour MP Wes Streeting. 28/06/2023Podcast
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.