Image by  S. Hermann & F. Richter

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been saying some interesting things about forgiveness this week. He told the Radio Times: “I think the 20th century saw such a level of atrocity that it has focused our minds very, very hard on the dangers of forgiving too easily…because if forgiveness is easy it is as if the suffering doesn’t really matter”. In this Easter message, he states that it’s not fair to expect victims of abuse, rape or torture to turn the other cheek with ease.

I totally agree.

All too often we sanitise and simplify forgiveness, when in fact it’s an arduous, exhausting task – messy, risky and unpredictable.

Putting forgiveness back on the agenda

As a result of Dr Rowan Williams putting forgiveness back on the agenda this week, I have given six interviews for six different Radio stations. On two occasions I was pitted against two victims of an appalling crime, both of whom hardly surprisingly struggle with the very notion of forgiveness. The first was Colin Knox, whose son Rob Knox was stabbed to death in London in 2008. At the trial, the convicted man, Karl Bishop, refused to hear impact statements from Rob Knox’s parents and, as reported in The Times, “swaggered into court smiling at three friends in the public gallery…and smirked as he was sentenced.”

The second victim was Carol Quinn, whose daughter and two grandchildren were murdered in 2000 by Phillip Austin – her daughter’s husband and the father of the children. Carol Quinn had the horrifying task of walking into the house and discovering the bodies. The pain is as raw as the day it happened and indeed amplified by the fact that Phillip Austin, who received three life sentences, has never shown any remorse.

In both radio shows the presenter suggested that forgiveness might be good for these two, still very traumatised, parents – and then handed over to me. Of course, I didn’t go there. I hate the notion that anyone should be coerced into forgiving.

Forgiveness should never be an obligation. It is a personal choice and not necessarily right for everyone.

Indeed, to expect victims to forgive simply revictimises and heaps yet more guilt on them. Also, forgiveness is not black and white – to say you can’t forgive doesn’t necessarily mean you are eaten up by bitterness and rage. Colin Knox didn’t sound in the least bit bitter – just desperately sad.

When Colin Knox and Carol Quinn describe the lack of remorse and acute disrespect demonstrated by these two offenders, it’s easy to see why both parents feel that forgiveness is impossible and undeserved. Certainly no one deserves forgiveness – it is a gift from one person to another and only the sufferer is qualified to make that decision.

Forgiveness, a highly contested concept

Some contest that forgiveness is interpersonal, a contractual relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, and that without repentance or remorse, you may be able to free yourself of vengeful anger, but it isn’t really forgiveness. As the philosopher Charles L. Griswold concludes, “forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.”

Terry Waite, for instance, who never had an opportunity to hear an apology from his kidnappers, describes his forgiveness as incomplete. For Griswold unilateral forgiveness is imperfect. Forgiveness must include, as a bare minimum, the giving up of revenge by the victim, and an assumption of responsibility by the offender. Anything less is either excuse or pardon.

So what of those who have suffered at the hands of perpetrators now dead, or unwilling or incapable of showing remorse? Are such perpetrators never deserving of forgiveness?

Forgiving in the absence of remorse

Those who believe in unilateral forgiveness would claim that forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator and that if you wait for remorse you might be waiting for ever. According to author, Tony Wilkinson, “the perpetrator may rarely understand what drove them, and their lack of understanding may prevent them from feeling or expressing remorse, but why does it matter? This process is part of your inner life, your inner journey and doesn’t depend on them, which is why insisting on remorse before forgiveness put the power in the wrong hands.”

There are in fact many people I’ve met, who, despite the perpetrator not expressing remorse, say they forgive. For instance, Rebecca DeMauro, whose daughter was brutally murdered, explains how she decided to forgive following a long process of tormented grief which left her depleted and looking for another way forward. She says, “I knew if something didn’t change I would be in the graveyard, dead from a broken heart, next to my little daughter.”

In this sense forgiveness means not allowing the pain of the past dictate the path of the future; understanding that life is morally complicated, people behave in despicable ways, and that some things are inexplicable. At its most basic forgiveness is about acceptance and letting go.

So why might Rebecca DeMauro, and others who have never received an apology, choose to forgive? Is it because they recognise something distorted and broken in the perpetrator that might be traced back to childhood? A belief perhaps that a child’s moral growth can be thrown off course by trauma and deprivation, storing up problems for society that explode when these children become angry adults. I have noticed that people who forgive tend to look upon those who have committed atrocious acts not as evil monsters but – to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare – as “ruined pieces of nature”. And, in that space of brokenness, some find room for forgiveness.

Rachel Bird, Director
21 Nov 2021