When I told a friend that I was reading about the experience of Marian Partington, the sister of one of the women killed by Frederick and Rosemary West, in her journey to try to forgive, he said something along the lines of, ‘Why the hell should she?!’ – as if it was an unreasonable request, or something she’d earned the right not to have to entertain. Certainly, no one would request it of her, or try to blame her if she harboured a desire for revenge. In fact a great deal of our legal system is built around attempting to quantify people’s pain and equating that with a scale of punishment, in the name of compensation. It is a transaction that we understand, especially because of the way it is filtered through the media, but it isn’t one that sits well with the less tangible, more costly and lofty ideal of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a foreign language Forgiveness is a subject that is, as Anita Roddick put it, ‘as mysterious as love’. It does seem as human, as pervasive and as tough, but nowhere near as well explored. As soon as I began looking into it, I discovered that where it does come up in our society it is almost entirely investigated through stories, and that it is one very rich seam for finding some amazing people. Each story begins with trauma, personal pain and suffering caused by somebody else. One relatively recent and very poignant story began with the forgiveness that Gloria Taylor, mother of Damilola Taylor, the schoolboy murdered in south London in 2000, expressed for her son’s killers very soon after his death. It made headlines and surprised everyone in the UK; we seemed to respond with another ‘why the hell should she?’, and a sort of sympathetic suggestion that she hadn’t quite understood the gravity of the situation. It seems like forgiveness is some quaint and distant concept that we now have different solutions for.
Gloria Taylor’s language of forgiveness is a deeply religious one – her route of forgiveness is to call on her God. ‘I pray for them every day. I pray for God to touch them,’ she said of the perpetrators on the BBC television programme Panorama. Another recent story is that of the Reverend Julie Nicholson, mother of Jenny Nicholson, killed in the 7 July London bombings in 2005. The story contrasts starkly with Gloria’s, as Julie Nicholson resigned from her church, saying that she couldn’t preach peace, reconciliation and forgiveness while she felt so far from it herself. She remains ordained and describes herself as waiting for the wound to heal.
Gloria Taylor’s process of healing seems to have begun with the intention to pray, which must have been instrumental in her offering forgiveness from the start. Julie Nicholson, as the spiritual leader of her community, needed to retire to find hers, but the sparse quotes in the news show that she’s on a journey of her own. She says that priesthood begins in the world, and that she is redefining her priesthood. It seems a shame that she is suffering extra anguish through feeling that she is not fulfilling her religious duties – part of the wider problem of spiritual leaders being expected to be unrealistically superhuman.
Marie McNiece, founder of Women against Violence (WAVE), a victim support group in Northern Ireland, warns about the dangers of lip-service forgiveness. She says that often people keen to ask that there be no retaliation are squeezed into offering forgiveness before they feel it. Journalist Marina Cantacuzino writes that in cultures where forgiveness is expected of people, the hurry to forgive actually victimises people all over again as they are not allowed to go through the necessary stages required. Marie McNiece’s own terrible experiences showed her that forgiveness is a long, slow process that can’t be pretended or pushed, and involves accepting the very worst in yourself – anger, rage, bitterness and desire for revenge – as part of the process.
Marian Partington has written extensively and beautifully about her experiences, and the process is clearly an incredible effort. She refers to it as her ‘work’, and she seems comforted by her certainty that it is an important and crucial work to undertake.
So, why the hell should they? A commentator on Radio 4 called the confusion following Julie Nicholson’s decision a ‘theological dyslexia’ suffered by the country. It’s a brilliant term, and the issue of forgiveness is one...