Our [son] would probably turn ‘round and say to you, “Now look Da, its gone.” I think he actually got over it a lot quicker than [my wife] and I ever did.

I have probably  felt a wee bit more forgiveness in me, but to me there is no forgiveness in her.

Whereas I could maybe sit across the table and maybe be prepared to sit, if she was across the table from him, she would just kill him. I don’t think there would be any forgiveness in [my wife] at all for him.

—From Northern Ireland

 


INTRODUCTION

Forgiveness means many things—a personal burden, an impossible task, a societal necessity, a religious imperative, a method of self-healing, an act of courage, an indefinable idea. The image above illustrates the intensely personal and diverse reactions people have in the face of lasting consequences of pain. “We cannot forgive the wrongs they have done,” one Sri Lankan respondent said, “but we must forgive and bring them to a certain level. They must also live in society.”

Many of the interviewees were similarly ambivalent, feeling they “should” forgive—for their own good and that of society—and yet were neither willing nor able to do so. Religious traditions from Christianity to Buddhism, as well as mental health and political healing, were all reasons people cited for why they felt an obligation to forgive. Yet others bristled under the weight of an imperative they neither understood nor desired. Much of this stems from a lack of consensus of what forgiveness entails.

Does forgiveness require forgetting? Is forgiveness necessary for moving on with life, individually and socially? Can one forgive while continuing to seek accountability for past actions? In Northern Ireland, Gordon Wilson famously said of those who had just killed his daughter Marie and ten others that he bore them “no ill will.” Despite popular misrepresentation, this was not a trite denial of his real and unimaginable pain nor an offer of consequence-free engagement with those responsible. Instead it was the withholding of revenge, a refusal to strike back as part of a process of seeking to end the violent conflict. He was not willing to allow his grief to become a justification for the taking of one more life. His refusal to avenge has come to be seen by some as an act of forgiveness, and it may point toward a more realistic understanding of the concept, which has so often been a source of further wounding, or merely ignored as an impossible task. Forgiveness in this light is not the suppression of grief, nor the betrayal of memory, but a continuum that begins with the refusal to avenge.

In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to turn forgiveness and reconciliation into political values. While its very existence was a remarkable undertaking, the lasting consequences of politicizing a theological notion of forgiveness that did not result in wide-scale legal or economic justice have important implications in post-conflict processes worldwide. Forgiveness can be seen as a form of social betrayal and undeserved absolution if it happens before other needs have been met. For some, forgiveness cannot be offered until the other party repents. However, some people understand the experience of personally forgiving to be a cathartic necessity on the journey to psychological well-being; they consider it anathema to wait for the social conditions to change before offering forgiveness.

Building trust at a societal level and withholding revenge on the personal level seem to be of a piece: people in all three locations understand the utility of forgiveness as a coping mechanism—both as part of a larger social and political struggle and a personal challenge or possibility, even if they feel ambivalent about it in practice. Mandela’s refusal to avenge and his invitation to all the people of South Africa to identify as a rainbow nation stands as an example of what leadership in forgiveness can look like. The fact that such leadership is rare only illustrates the difficulty of practicing the concept.

 


1) Sometimes I have a deep sorrow that they deprived me of my children. Actually, when I hear Tamil spoken, I experience great pain. That this happened because of the Tamils…. So much sorrow I experience. There is nothing to do.

It is difficult for me to forgive, I think, if I see those people or meet them. Don’t you have the same pain as I do if you were to lose your child?

—From Sri Lanka

 

 

Even though there is a saying—“we forgive and forget”—it is not possible for the Tamil community. It is possible in individual cases…. There is little hope that these people will forget their wounds. If they have lost property or have been affected psychologically, they could receive foreign help to buy property and receive counseling to get out of trauma. But what about the families with severe injuries and loss of life? Or what about the families whose members are still missing without knowing what happened to them? The above incidents will remain in their minds forever. In these cases, if you really expect these people to forgive, you should win their hearts and minds. Their true feelings should be accepted and proper steps should be taken to fulfill their desires. If their shattered lives can be improved and if they could lead a happy life, there is a strong possibility that they will forget about their past and will forgive those who have been responsible for their past life. Otherwise, though they will not speak openly, they will carry their wounds with them and this may lead to several other problems. At present our people are suffering a lot and according to my knowledge we have been facing war, displacement, loss of property, and loss of lives, and that’s all. So, at least in the future, there should be a situation where people should be able to live in peace and harmony.

—From Sri Lanka

 


2) The reconciliation thing again doesn’t sit easy with me. I know that we need peace and that is why I voted for the Good Friday Agreement. We need peace and we need prosperity and we need good health and good wealth. And for that we need peace.

Peace without the reconciliation…. When I walk into a room…and all the people involved in this situation are sitting in the room, and I go in with my family and shake their hand and say “I forgive you for what you have done,” well, that is them off the hook. They are never going to jail anyway. But they can say “thank the Lord, this man lost his daughter and he has forgiven me now for the sin I have committed.”

And I have taken on his sin. Where do I go? If I come home and I say to myself—I have shook the hand of the man that killed my daughter, I have shook the hand of the man that killed my daughter, where do I go with that? Who helps me?

Q: So you find that by forgiving the people who actually did that, you would become guilty?

A: I don’t mean that I would become guilty; I mean that I am taking on their burden. I am taking something away from them. That they can stand up and say “well I met [this man] and [he] shook my hands and says that he forgave me for killing his daughter.”

I wanted my daughter to grow up. My daughter was very intelligent. She wanted to be an airline hostess. I wanted her to be fit to hop on an aeroplane and my daughter coming down and handing me tea and biccies and a big smile on for me.

These people have taken that. How can I shake a man’s hand? My daughter is lying in [the] graveyard rotting away. She should be full of life, she should be living her life…

Why should I shake the hand of the man that done it? How could I shake the hand of the man that done it? That child was brought into this world and they have taken away something that they can’t replace. Something that was good. That girl was in doing charity work…along with her friend. How could you shake the hand of the man that thought it was his political right, and still does think that it is his political right, to do that?

—From Northern Ireland

 

 

If you were to ask me would you like to see him going to jail for the rest of his life for shooting a wee girl in the head from 10 yards? I would say no. If you were to ask me would I like him to be arrested and questioned? I would say no. But that is just me.

But then you move on and ask, do you forgive him? Who am I to forgive him? Forgiveness is almost a sacred word and when I look at my life and the mistakes that I have done and the things I have done and the corners I have went ‘round, the things that have happened, who am I to say that I forgive him for that? He didn’t get up that day and say, “I am going out to shoot a child that day.” It just goes back to the madness…. I am not saying that what he did was right. What he did was a terrible crime. But there it is. The term of “forgiveness” in many ways is used as a weapon. And a sort of a hierarchical tool to impose the hierarchy if you like, and it is a way, to me, and I am not for one moment having a go at anybody who says this on TV or whatever. People say, “I forgive them”—it is a way of raising yourself above them. Now that is completely legitimate as clearly someone who has been bereaved by someone who walked in and shot a member of their family, an innocent member, the family dead in a pub or while they were in a shop or something, well clearly they have every right to feel better and every right to raise themselves above that person in whatever way they want.

But then you are talking about a sort of, using a spiritual concept in order to oppose that superiority. Which is difficult for me to see other people do. I have no interest in it, first of all. The forgiveness thing is just not part of my life. I have never thought about it.

—From Northern Ireland

 


3) I will forgive them when the lifestyle and standard of life of my people is equally good as it is in other parts of the country. There shouldn’t be any division between north and south and our people’s lifestyle should be upgraded. All the citizens in the country should be treated equally and then I can forgive them. If I were to forgive those who were responsible for my people’s present state before ensuring their dignity, then it would be a betrayal of my people.

—From Sri Lanka

 


4) Q: You were wounded in war. If you meet the one who disabled you, will you be able to forgive him?

A: I met him in fact. It is a true story. I met him face to face. He shook hands with me. He spoke to me. He was former [Tamil Tiger]. Now he is a member of parliament in my own party. I’m a politician and he is a politician; we have met.

I told him that I am disabled because of him. Then he told me: “This happened when you were pursuing your goal and when I was pursuing my goal.” That is the end.

I have no anger toward him now. Having such anger, I do not think people or a country could advance forward.

—From Sri Lanka

 


5) I think if one has a broader understanding of the social context in which this happened, one can say we must move on.

But of course no one has come to me and asked for forgiveness, so how do you actually forgive someone if they don’t come to you? It is a difficult process.

No one has come to us. There are not many white leaders in South Africa who have come forward and said, “We need reconciliation.” Most people who have spoken about reconciliation are black leaders like Mandela, Tutu, and so on.

—From South Africa

 


6) Perhaps we did talk too much about forgiveness and what it was going to achieve. And certainly we were accused (not only because of the Archbishop; there were a number of clerics on the commission) of being too religious. And I think that’s true in a way. But this is quite a religious country. Whatever faith people hold, they follow it, more than in many other countries that I have seen…and I think for many other societies, the religious aspect of the South African TRC wouldn’t work.

—From South Africa

 

 

The people who killed Ashley Kriel killed him with a spade and then shot him; they bludgeoned him with a spade. They created bombs to go off, dummy bombs; they bombed our community centre and blamed it on us…. They would create the notion, in their media, that it was our failed attempts at bombing that detonated these bombs.

So it’s a great request to just forgive. It’s this whole Christian notion of forgiveness. And so we have agreed to forgive, but we can’t forget our experiences because it has become part of our psyches to often think or remember these things when we get angry about stuff.

—From South Africa

 


7) The religious type of forgiveness won’t do here. Religious forgiveness is personal. But in the case of social evils like the war, religious forgiveness won’t do.

We must look for the causes of conflict…. We cannot employ superficial forgiveness. The fire should be completely put out. If it is not, the fire beneath the ashes will ignite fire once again.

—From Sri Lanka

 

 

In terms of religion it is good to understand forgiveness. But there is also a law in the country. Law is above all other things. There is also a thing like that. Law is above even people’s power. Law is the highest thing in the world. So I think if we are [speaking] along these lines, forgiveness may not count.

—From Sri Lanka

 


8) What they did to us, we forgive them. As a Muslim and also as a Christian, we believe God forgives. Don’t we? And I will ask myself, who am I not to forgive? Now this is a very good example: if you take Mandela, he was in prison for 27 years, and he was released in 1990. He could have declared war. But he said to the National Party, I don’t hate you; I forgive you for what you did to me.

—From South Africa

 


9) I remember during the Troubles that a friend of mine and a friend of [my husband] was shot dead one Sunday morning on his way to Mass in front of his wife and children. And his wife from the outset forgave them. From the very outset. And I remember—how the hell can she be so convinced that she forgives them? And it was her Christian, her Catholic belief that enabled her to do that. She was a very strongly religious person. And that is what it was.

But I do think though that faith and your religious belief, be it Catholic, be it Christian, Protestant, or whatever, I think there is that common duty of a Christian to forgive and I would say that if I were challenged on it I would find it difficult to deal with that one.

But I do think that I would probably end up coming to the forgiveness stage. So using that example—that always inspired me, I suppose is the word I am looking for.

—From Northern Ireland

 

 

Well, the way I look at forgiveness is: Because I have great faith. I have never been approached by anyone to say, “Look, will you forgive me?” But I know within myself I have got to forgive them because if I don’t forgive them, how can I expect God to forgive me for my sins?

—From Northern Ireland

 

There is definitely a strong religious belief that unless I forgive others, I am not forgiven. So basically that is what the bible would say. Unless I forgive—that doesn’t mean to say that I do forgive, but I do see it—even forgetting about the religious side of it, it is destructive to your personality…not to forgive. So forget about the religious aspect of it. I feel that you have to forgive for your own benefit.

—From Northern Ireland

 

[In Buddhism] we say Nahi verena verāni. [“Hatred is not removed by hatred.”] Instead we got to show compassion to our enemies. To the extent we show them compassion they may also show us compassion in turn.

—From Sri Lanka

 

According to the teachings of Buddhism we know that during this short life we should live well without hating. We feel that we cannot live hating others. Had the war been there it will be difficult to think like that. Had the war continued we would have still had hateful feelings towards them because we had to lose our people and live in sadness. Now also we feel that we lost our loved ones. Although there is no feeling of hatred, the thought about their loss comes to our minds.

—From Sri Lanka

 

According to my religion, Buddhism, there have been many instances when the Lord Buddha forgave. [Those moments are] what we need to take as models

—From Sri Lanka

 

The religious exhortation to go about without hatred in the heart has impacted me to an extent. In Buddhism and in Christianity the teaching is to forgive anyone. It is not needed to say that one must forgive. It must be in our heart.

—From Sri Lanka

 


10) I have forgiven the perpetrator. Whoever planted that bomb is forgiven. Because I know his profile. He was an eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old male from inner South Belfast. Probably a semi-literate yahoo who supported Rangers and who didn’t make it into medical school, basically. That is his profile. And he got caught up like hundreds if not thousands of people.

—From Northern Ireland

 


11) We cannot forgive the wrongs they have done. When you look at this destruction and waste, damage to life—can’t forgive them. But we must forgive them and bring them to a certain level. They must also live in society.

Must we not forgive them so that their children at least can live with other people? Leaving aside the faults they committed, they must live with the people here. Giving up the intentions they had, they must come forward…. They must come forward to live in cooperation with the others as citizens of Sri Lanka.

—From Sri Lanka

 


12) But I would say you have to come to that place, however hard it might be to come to it, you have to come to it at some stage or else you will wreck yourself.

—From Northern Ireland

 

 

Well I think you can [forgive] and I think you have to for your own well-being as well. I think if you go through life with hatred you are not going to make anything of your own life. I think the most important thing, at the end of the day, is to keep myself well.

—From Northern Ireland

 

I think trust grows with the process. I think it has to grow if the process is to succeed. Forgiveness—I honestly would be telling a lie if I said I could forgive. Because I have never been put in the position where I have had to forgive. But I have conversed with Republicans and spoken to them, whereas ten years ago I would have burnt them. Is that forgiveness? Who knows?

—From Northern Ireland