When Anthony Walker's mother spoke last week of forgiving the two racists who coldbloodedly murdered her son with an ice axe, it was headline news. But though there was universal respect for this mother's dignified response, public opinion was more polarised. For some, to talk of forgiveness in such a horrific case seemed illogical and ill-conceived. For others, it was a message of hope, a value strong enough to put an end to the settling of scores which has wreaked havoc over generations.
Is Gee Walker's response so unusual? I have spent two years gathering stories from those who have chosen a route out of vengeance, a journey that may or may not lead to forgiveness. This search for a way forward is not uncommon , and does not only belong to the devout.
Andrew Rice, whose brother was killed in the twin towers on 9/11, was right when he told me: "Those people shouting loudest for retribution are so often the least affected."
For those whose life has been hurled into chaos by violence, the route to sanity is very often to search for meaning within something so utterly meaningless. Forgiveness, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted, "is not just to be altruistic: it is the best form of self-interest". So by releasing the victim from the grip of the perpetrator, forgiveness might be seen as the ultimate revenge. Think back to immediately after 7/7: practically every bereaved relative did not call for revenge, but rather to understand the mind of ordinary young British men who could commit such a bloody act in the name of their ideology.
After any malicious or violent act, a relationship is formed which inextricably links victim to perpetrator. Revenge identifies the person with the deed and can freeze relationships and life stories for ever. Forgiveness, therefore, appears to be a useful key to unlock the cage of hatred, a means of breaking that brutal bond.
When I met Bud Welch in Oklahoma City earlier this year he told me that after his daughter, Julie, was killed in the bombing of the Murrah federal building in 1995, all he wanted was to see Tim McVeigh executed. He also started to self-medicate with alcohol until, as he said: "One cold day in January 1996, I came to the bomb site - as I did every day - and I looked across the wasteland where the Murrah building once stood. My head was splitting from drinking the night before and I thought, 'I have to do something different because what I'm doing isn't working'."
Bud is not alone in discovering that vengeance does not work; his panacea was to search for meaning. "For the next few weeks I started to reconcile things in my mind," he said. "Finally, I concluded that it was revenge and hate that had killed Julie and the 167 others. Tim McVeigh had been against the US government for what happened in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and seeing what he'd done with his vengeance, I knew I had to send mine in a different direction. Shortly afterwards I started speaking out against the death penalty."
My work as founder of the Forgiveness Project (whoch promotes conflict resultion and restorative justice) has shown me that forgiveness is an inspiring, complex and exasperating subject, one which provokes strong feelings in almost everyone. I am careful not to say that people should forgive. Forgiveness is a choice. So, when on one radio phone-in this week I heard a church member telling a still bitter and angry victim of crime that he must learn to forgive, I shuddered. I reacted the same way recently when someone silenced me with the words, "I'm an eye-for-an-eye kind of man". It struck me then that at least forgiveness opens doors and presents possibilities, whereas revenge locks you into predictable repeated behaviour. On the other hand, if the only way for a victim to get through the day is to imagine the perpetrator hanging by the neck, then that is clearly a coping strategy to hold on to. Yet how long can vengeance be used as a sedative?
I was in Holloway prison recently when a young woman spoke powerfully about her desire for revenge on a partner who had cheated on her. "But you know," she told the other women in the group, "once I'd got even with him, I didn't feel any better."
When I met Margaret McKinney in Belfast, whose son Brian was one of the disappeared, she told me how her anger for the first few years had been so intense that if she'd known who her son's killers were she would have asked for their children to be killed, because, as she said, "I wanted them to know how it felt". Only after several years was she able to let go of this anger, after the IRA disclosed the whereabouts of Brian's body and she was able to find peace. Nowshe would like to meet whoever killed her son; she would like to sit that person down at her kitchen table and ask "Why?".
What makes some people able and willing to forgive while others steadfastly get locked into revenge? Being a Christian, like Gee Walker, may inspire someone to try to forgive but it doesn't automatically make it any easier since personality traits play a large part in any predisposition.
According to Everett Worthington, a leading American scholar in the field of forgiveness: "Among the main personality traits, agreeableness has a positive relationship to forgiving while neuroticism (emotional reactivity) has a negative relationship. Traits like anger, fear, hostility, aggression and narcissism all predict unforgiveness, while having a disposition for empathy, sympathy and compassion predicts forgiveness."
But forgiveness is a word no one can agree on. It is a journey people choose to go on: it doesn't have a beginning and an end because one day you might forgive and the next hate again. But, above all, it isn't a soft option; it doesn't let the perpetrator off the hook. As Worthington told me last week: "It is perfectly possible to find a place of forgiveness deep within yourself, but still want the perpetrator to stay firmly locked up in jail."Reuse content