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Free to forgive

30 November, 1999

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole country blind,” said Gandhi. People who despite tragedy and atrocity have found in themselves the freedom to reconcile or forgive is the focus of an exhibition discussed here by Michael Fogarty.

 “Nothing is easier than to condemn the evildoer, nothing is harder than to understand him.” Dostoyevsky said it in the 19th Century, and through the ages people have grappled with its truth.

Jo Berry’s and Pat Magee’s lives have been inextricably linked since the IRA’s bombing of Brighton in 1984. Jo’s father, Sir Anthony Berry, was one of those who died. Pat Magee was one of five men given multiple life sentences for the atrocity. Both have since found common ground and their stories are featured in a touring exhibition that was launched in London early in 2004, and was seen by over 10,000 people.

Drawing together voices from South Africa, Romania, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and England, The F word: images of forgiveness explores and celebrates the stories of people who have survived tragedy, lived through atrocity and who have found it in themselves to reconcile or forgive. The visionary figure behind it is Marina Cantacuzino, a British journalist who founded The Forgiveness Project in 2002 as a brave new initiative in the fields of conflict resolution and victim support. The project saw her set out on a quest to find people who had emerged from an atrocity without hatred and bitterness. Inspired by Gandhi’s maxim that “An eye for an eye leaves the whole country blind,” and by what Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel address, that “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” she teamed up with photographer, Brian Moody, to capture stories of forgiveness in words and images.

Their initial year-long trawl yielded over 20 personal testimonies, including those of Jo Berry and Pat Magee, and the story bank is growing all the time. Other high profile contributors and case histories include Francis and Berthe Climbie (the parents of 7-yearold Victoria who was tortured and killed by her aunt), Margaret McKinney from Belfast (whose 22-year-old son Brian was abducted and killed by the IRA in 1978), Marian Partington (her sister Lucy was one of Gloucester murderer Fred West’s 12 victims), and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who says, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest.”

This is a radical thought echoed by Marina Cantacuzino. According to her, the exhibition is about revenge turned on its head, about people who have suffered and called for retribution but now seek dialogue rather than revenge. But she also acknowledges that forgiveness is never a soft option: “That’s why I called it ‘The F Word’,” she says, “because forgiveness is not a word to be used lightly. It is a choice, a process, part of a continuum of human engagements in healing broken relationships.

It is also an extremely difficult journey in the course of which one day you might forgive and the next day be filled with hatred all over again.”

Indeed not everyone who features in the exhibition has forgiven, but almost everyone has used their catastrophe as a spur; almost everyone is in no doubt that revenge only fuels further violence; and a great many believe their life is in some way inextricably linked to the perpetrator. For this reason the exhibition is as much about those who have committed crimes as it is about their victims.

The story of Father Michael Lapsley is a case in point. In 1976 he was exiled by the South African Government and he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became one of their chaplains. Whilst living in Zimbabwe, he discovered he was on the South African Government’s hit list. In April 1990 he received a letter bomb in the post, hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines. In the bomb blast he lost both hands and one eye. Today he runs the Institute for Healing Memories in Cape Town and believes that all people are capable of being perpetrators or victims and sometimes both.

The former middleweight boxing champion, Michael Watson, has also tried to see the bigger picture; and he too is motivated by a strong Christian faith. He has never blamed Chris Eubank for throwing the lethal punch which left him paralysed in 1991.Watson says from the moment he emerged from a coma, he prayed for his opponent. “How can you fail to be moved by the words of Jesus on the cross?'” he says, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

For the most part the exhibition features less well known stories and storytellers, Like Alistair Little from Northern Ireland. He joined the Protestant paramiltary organization, the Ulster Volunteer Force, when he was 14 and at the age of 17 received a 13-year prison sentence for shooting another man dead. While in prison he renounced violence as a never-ending, all-consuming cycle and today dedicates his life to the process of truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Marina Cantacuzino says she has been overwhelmed by the public response to the exhibition and believes it has touched something deep in the human condition: “People are finding a space for themselves in the stories, a realization that we are not separate from those who harm us, and that the slow, often painful path of forgiveness is the only way to final freedom.” .

This article first appeared in The Word ( September 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.


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