“Forgiveness… call me naive… it has worked for me”. These words of a man who, as a schoolboy in Northern Ireland, was blinded by a bullet fired by a British soldier are captured in the remarkable BBC documentary series ‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’, which narrates the pain and anger of the Troubles as experienced by those affected on all sides.
In recent years, that blind man has developed a close relationship with the soldier who shot him. Now, they meet as friends. When first meeting, he told the soldier: “I’m here to let you know I forgive you.” The soldier sought to justify what he had done and could not apologise. Reflecting on this, the man observed that, if he had first sought an apology, the two would never have met: “If we want reconciliation, you can’t meet the person you would like to meet. You’ve got to meet them for who they are.” “Finding out who he was does change everything. He is no longer a soldier; he’s a human being…”
Looking back over his career as a television journalist, the broadcaster Jon Snow reminisced recently on Channel 4 about meeting Nelson Mandela. Forgiveness is “utterly central to Mandela’s position and legacy… Mandela taught the world that forgiveness works, that if you can cope with, come to terms with, and never forget but at least put to one side what you personally have been through, you become a very strong moral force.” In Mandela’s words, “Let bygones be bygones, let what has happened pass as something unfortunate but which we must forget.”
Those who have been glued to the last season of the television series ‘Ted Lasso’ will know that forgiveness is a theme which runs through this heart-warming story of an American coach thrown into leading an English football club. “I hope that either all of us or none of us are judged by the actions we take in our weakest moments, but rather for the strength we show if and when we’re given a second chance.”
This isn’t the place to explore the Biblical roots of forgiveness – many of the people Jesus is said to have befriended should, by all accounts, have been enemies – but perhaps this all reminds us that, whether based in theology or not, forgiveness has often been an important element in building lasting peace. And yet we know that letting go of resentment, anger, hatred, the desire to avenge, is very hard to do. Perhaps it takes exceptional people to demonstrate what can be achieved: the blinded schoolboy, Nelson Mandela, even coach Lasso.
And what about us? In our day-to-day activities, where might forgiveness sit? Is there a situation in which we might need to meet someone for who they are, and find the human being, rather than see them as the object of vilification? Can we let bygones be bygones, and what has happened pass as something unfortunate? What would it take to do that?
There is an interesting difference between Jon Snow and Nelson Mandela. Snow talks about never forgetting. Mandela says that we must forget. I suspect that, for many of us, letting go does not mean completely forgetting. We learn from our experiences and we need to be wise about our dealings. To ensure no repetition, parameters may need to be set, based on what we have learned. I think of Ukraine. What would forgiveness mean in that situation? That’s a hard question to answer.
John Sturrock, The Scotsman, Monday 24 July 2023