Vicar struggles to forgive the terrorists who killed her daughter

Peace and reconciliation - but Julie Nicholson cannot forgive the terrorists who killed her daughter Jenny, so she has resigned as vicar of a Bristol church. Paul Vallely explores the nature of loss and forgiveness
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The Independent Online

"It's very difficult to stand behind an altar and lead people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness when I feel very far from that myself." So said the Rev Julie Nicholson, announcing her intention to resign her role as vicar of St Aidan's church in Bristol. What has estranged her from one of the most fundamental tenets of her Christian faith is the killing of her daughter, Jenny. The 24-year-old, a gifted musician, died in one of the four terrorist bomb explosions in London on 7 July last year.

Mrs Nicholson and her husband, Greg, were on holiday in Wales when they found out their daughter had been murdered. She had not publicly discussed Jenny's death until yesterday, declining to speak at her funeral at Bristol Cathedral in August.

She went on extended compassionate leave and has now decided that she is unable to return to her job. She plans to continue working for the Church outside the priesthood, running community arts projects. "I am looking for a way in which I can still have priestly ministry when there are some things I can no longer practise, or I can't currently practise," she said. "For me that's about integrity."

Who could blame her lack of forgiveness? Certainly not Gee Walker, whose 18-year-old son, Anthony, was killed in a racist attack in Liverpool just days after Jenny Nicholson was blown apart at Edgware Road. Yet when two youths were accused of the killing of her son, Mrs Walker astonished the nation by announcing that she forgave the murderers. This week she gave another interview in which she elaborated that she feels "no hate for them whatsoever" and indeed she wanted to find out what lay behind the hate which led them to kill her son. "I just feel like, what's missing in their lives?" she said. "I know it's strange, but it's true. I'd love to do the motherly thing and sit them down and find out why. But as for hate, none at all. I just feel sadness."

Human instinct draws the vast majority of us closer to the vicar's response. Our instinct is to fight hate with hate. So much so that Anthony Walker's mother was actually criticised in several red-tops for voicing sentiments of forgiveness. Murdering scum did not need forgiving, it was said. Mrs Walker's reaction, they implied, while nominally laudable, was somehow unnatural. "Every Christian theologian," one broadsheet loftily - and wrongly - informed us that "forgiveness and rehabilitation can come only after true repentance".

Repentance, of course, is not essential. If it was, forgiveness would not seem so perverse. In the gospels, St Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive those who wronged him? Seven times? No, says Jesus, 70 times seven. It seems - like Christ's request to God, as he is crucified, "Father forgive them they know not what they do" - just impossible. Counsels of perfection may be OK for the son of God, but we mortals struggle with the notion.

Acts of forgiveness are tremendously costly. One of the most celebrated of the last century was that of Gordon Wilson, who was standing at the war memorial in Enniskillen for the annual Remembrance Day service in 1987 when an IRA bomb exploded. Eleven people were killed, including Mr Wilson's daughter, Marie. The world was touched when, in a voice cracking with grief, he told of how he clutched her hand as they lay beneath the rubble and then said: "I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She's dead."

Forgiveness did not diminish his grief, it magnified it. The moment became a turning point in Ulster's history, as the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, was forced to declare that another such atrocity would utterly undermine the Republican cause.

Something is transformed, in such moments, in the soul of society and of the person who forgives. Gee Walker understands the personal dimension of that. "Why live a life sentence? Hate killed my son, so why should I be a victim too? Unforgiveness makes you a victim and why should I be a victim?"

But Archbishop Desmond Tutu articulated the social dimension of the same insight at the weekend in the remarkable BBC 2 programmeFacing the Truth, which brought face to face victims and killers from Northern Ireland's Troubles.

The archbishop, who oversaw the running of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his South Africa after the end of apartheid, said that for the victims, "holding on to your resentment means you are locked into your victimhood - and you allow the perpetrator to have a hold over your life. When you forgive, you let go, it sets you free, and it will probably set free the perpetrator. There is much to be won from making yourself a little vulnerable." For society that gave a way out of a cycle of recriminations about the past.

It is a truth which reaches beyond South Africa. Forgiveness is a process rather than an act. The theologian Henri Nouwen understood that. His book The Return of the Prodigal Son is a meditation on the gospel parable as illustrated in Rembrandt's painting of the same name. Initially, he explains, we are drawn to the image of the prodigal himself, putting ourself in his shoes, recalling the wrongs we have done in our life, feeling his guilt, expressing his repentance - although we resist the idea that we need complete forgiveness because it goes against our human nature.

It is only later in life that we realise we have more in common with the elder son in the parable, who does not stray, but stays at home and works his father's land - and is deeply resentful of the prodigality of the father's generosity in welcoming back his errant younger son. His self-righteousness is the more common response, and just as in need of the father's forgiveness.

Again it is more difficult to translate this away from the personal, which is what Desmond Tutu has been trying to do. But the wrongs of contemporary society are as much breaks in good relations between classes, races and nations as ruptures in relationships between individuals. So what we need to address that is a politics of forgiveness.

It is important not to confuse forgiveness with pardon. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions will not always be a substitute for justice. Nor does forgiving someone such as Myra Hindley mean it was not right that she should die in prison. And sometimes the time is not right for forgiveness.

On Facing the Truth Clifford Burrage was brought face-to-face with Mary McLarnon, whose brother he had shot as a young soldier in Belfast in 1971.

The ghosts that haunted them were laid bare in what Desmond Tutu called the ritual of forgiveness. But though Mr Burrage asked to be forgiven, Mary McLarnon could not give it. Even so there was a clear sense of progress made. It may yet come. As it may for the vicar in Bristol.

Not everyone is convinced. The psychiatrist Professor Roy McClelland chairs an organisation in Northern Ireland called Healing Through Remembering. He has reservations about the BBC's Irish experiment.

"The BBC may have offered some [counselling] support to those in the programme," he said, "but there will be no support mechanisms for the hundreds of viewers who could re-live their individual experiences and trauma within their own living rooms ... Dialogue and discussion are parts of the healing process, but this takes time and can not be achieved during a series of one-off broadcasts."

Perhaps so, but there is an important sense of something exemplary here. Social justice - as distinct from the narrower criminal kind - is about creating a system which recognises that the perpetrator and the victim are members of society and that both need reintegrating into something like normality.

Forgiveness is a moral act of gratuitous love that introduces an opportunity into history. It opens up a possibility in relations between individuals, and between an individual and society. It attempts to break the repetitive cycle of hate. It does not deny that a rupture in the right order of things has taken place.

But it refuses to be bound by the logic of hatred. It is not about the erasure of truthful memory; it does not deny what has been done or its consequences. But it is determined that the event or action should lead to new possibilities.

At the heart of that is a key insight of Desmond Tutu's. His experiences in South Africa, he says, have made him believe that there is no such thing as an "evil" person - only evil deeds. "Perpetrators don't have horns, don't have tails, they are as ordinary looking as you and I."

Perhaps that is what makes it so hard to forgive them.

'Anger begets hatred, begets more violence'

Marie Fatayi-Williams, Mother of July 7 victim Anthony Fatayi-Williams

The parents of Anthony, 26, an oil company executive from north London who died in the Tavistock Square bus bombing, have said they forgive the bomber. Described by his family as a "world citizen", Mr Fatayi-Williams had a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. He was educated in Nigeria, Paris and Britain.

Mrs Fatayi-Williams said at the funeral mass in Westminster Cathedral: "I am distraught, but I'm not angry. What would that do? Anger begets hatred, begets more violence, so let's forgive."

His parents launched the Anthony Fatayi-Williams Foundation for Peace and Conflict Resolution in his memory.

Gee Walker, Mother of race murder victim Anthony Walker

Anthony, 18, was killed with an ice axe in Huyton, Merseyside, last July. Paul Taylor, 20, and Michael Barton, 17, were jailed for life for the racist attack. Outside court, Mrs Walker said: "At the point of death, Jesus said: 'I forgive them for they know not what they do.' I have got to forgive them.''

Last week, she added: "I feel no hate for them. I just feel like, what's missing in their lives? I'd love to do the motherly thing and sit them down and find out why. But as for hate, none at all. I just feel sadness." The Walker family set up the Anthony Walker Foundation to promote racial integration.

Colin Parry, Father of IRA bomb victim Timothy Parry

Mr Parry has devoted himself to peace work since Timothy, 12, died in an IRA bombing at Warrington in 1993. He set up the Tim Parry-Johnathan Ball Trust, to persuade young people "that they can resolve any problems without violence".

'They were evil and they are still evil'

Aileen Quinton, Daughter of Enniskillen bomb victim Alberta Quinton

Ms Quinton's mother, Alberta, was killed in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 and has been a persistent campaigner against the IRA, which carried out the attack, and similar organisations.

Last month she attended a Protestant protest in Dublin, and in 1997, on the 10th anniversary of the bombing, staged a protest outside Sinn Fein's offices there.

She said: "Am I meant to be grateful because the IRA says it is going to stop doing something that it had no right starting? It will have no compunction in starting up again ... Some will dismiss my opinions as 'coloured by her grief'. The ultimate victory for terrorism is when we give up on our values."

Denise Fergus, Mother of murder victim James Bulger

Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, the two-year-old who was murdered by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged 10, in Liverpool in 1993, has said that she can never forgive her son's killers. James was abducted while his mother was shopping. He was taken to nearby railway tracks, tortured, sexually abused and then murdered with bricks and pieces of metal.

In 2001, when Thompson and Venables were released from prison with new iden-tities eight years after the murder, she said: "I never knew I had so much hate in me ... They were evil and they are still evil.''

Winnie Johnson, Mother of Moors victim Keith Bennett

Winnie Johnson, 72, mother of the only victim of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley whose body has not been found, said she could never forgive. Keith was 12 when he disappeared in 1964. After Hindley's death in 2002, Mrs Johnson said: "I hope she goes to hell."