As hurts and grievances extend across generations in the burgeoning ethnic and factional conflicts of Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, the topic of The Forgiveness Project’s fourth Forgiveness Conversation – “How do we deal with unresolved pain when trauma festers across generations?” – seemed particularly significant.

The event, held at St Ethelburga’s in London on 16th June, was expertly chaired by Dr Scherto Gill, Director of the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace and author of Critical Narrative as Pedagogy. Dr Gill stated the intention of the evening was to explore how we can prevent communities and individuals being entrapped in the entanglement of the past.

The first member of the panel to speak was Jean Paul Samputu – one of Africa’s most prominent musicians and a tireless activist for peace. He told of how he had lost his parents, three brothers and a sister in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, describing how in the aftermath of the conflict, anger, bitterness and alcohol had gripped his life. This would almost certainly have killed him had he not been encouraged by friends to go into the wilderness to reflect and find a new path. It was here that he heard a voice tell him he had to forgive. Samputu then explained how he had forgiven the family friend who had killed his parents and how his forgiveness had in turn rehabilitated the offender. Addressing the problem of future generations and of the grip of the dead on the living, he said:

Hatred is transmitted from parents to their children so it is very important how we talk to our children.

Dr Duncan Morrow, Director of Community Engagement and a lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster, has actively sought to address sectarianism in Northern Ireland for the last 20 years. He began the evening with the sobering message that the biggest obstacle to the future was the past. He spoke of justice, noting that while the law does not eliminate trauma it can provide a different order by identifying who is the victim and who is the perpetrator and exacting measured retribution. “However, justice is dependent on the existence of an authority seen as just,” he pointed out, “and when that’s absent who then can bring justice?”

He went on to explain that if a past trauma requires equalisation and recompense, then it may be met by equal or superior trauma which erases any capacity to distinguish between victim and perpetrator. “Perpetrators become heroes in defence of others and then all that matters is the position of the group.”

He also pointed out that behind many of our traumas lies a claim that we were the first to be traumatised. He explained: “‘It could have been me’ – is very hard for people to imagine. They think the chain started somewhere outside themselves, and then the justification for violence becomes ‘I had no other option’.”

The tragedy of trauma is that it alienates and captures at the same time.

Festering trauma also has the capacity to become festering dehumanisation because if you fear your neighbour you cannot risk equality. The risk is if you’re equal to them they may kill you.

Alexandra Asseily, founder of the Centre for Lebanese Studies in Oxford and creator of the Garden of Forgiveness in Lebanon, spoke about the deep ancestral connection she felt with the agony of war which manifested in her life during the multifaceted civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. “It was much easier to run around doing good things than dealing with the inner pain of war,” she said speaking personally of her own journey towards understanding and forgiveness. She talked of the horror of seeing her good friends who were Christians destroying everything she had worked for with her Muslim neighbours. “I saw grievances being played out that went back to the Crusades,” she said, explaining why she would not wear a cross for 20 years. “It was after I came to London that I tried to make sense of my life, and started to ask the question, what was it that made me at the same time human and inhuman?”

She also created much interest in the audience when she described the world’s current raging conflicts as Wars against the Authoritarians. “They replace one Authoritarian with another,” she said, “and therefore you become what you hate, unless, like Mandela, you have gone through an inner transformation through forgiving the Authoritarians. Only then do you become free. When we forgive the tyrants and bullies in our lives, we are internally liberated and free to act in an integrated way.” She concluded with the very powerful statement:

It is the responsibility of the living to heal the dead.

Dr Morrow closed by saying that in societies repairing from the divisions of war, such as Northern Ireland, people have to see each other as being both victim and perpetrator and that this is an extremely complex journey. “Rehumanising of the relationship is the most important thing and rebuilding the trust of humanity is the most difficult,” he said. “It cannot be legislated. It requires people to take a step on the journey from dehumanisation to rehumanisation.”

Jean Paul Samputu ended the evening with his most beautiful and haunting song ‘Forgive’ which filled the nave of St Ethelburga’s with a sense of hope, and left people in no doubt of the healing power of music.

Marina Cantacuzino MBE, Founder
18 Jun 2014