Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tit for tat, tit for tat. Forgiveness is a denial of that endless chain of violence.

Over the last few days, I have been thinking and praying a great deal for my colleague, the Rev'd Julie Nicholson. Julie, you may recall, is the Anglican priest who has recently resigned as a Vicar in the Diocese of Bristol because she feels unable to forgive the man who murdered her daughter in the terrorist attack on the 7th July.

And who can blame her. A beautiful girl, so full of life, and so senselessly murdered. That's the evil and wickedness of terrorism. Little wonder Julie is unable to forgive. If anybody murdered my daughter, I'd feel exactly the same.

Which is why Julie's resignation is an important challenge to the cheap and casual way many Christians bandy about words like forgiveness. Jesus spent much of his ministry attacking outward displays of piety, however well intentioned. And much Christian rhetoric concerning forgiveness falls into this category.

Yet, for all of this, there is little argument that forgiveness is at the very heart of the gospel message. Yes, too often it's made to sound like a cheap religious platitude describing a human impossibility. Nonetheless, the ethic of forgiveness is woven deep into the fabric of the Christian imagination. There's absolutely no avoiding it.

I think the mistake we often make is to think of forgiveness as a process by which we become friends with our enemies. As if we could have a hug and invite them round for supper.

But what if forgiveness means something different. What if it's simply a refusal to believe that the best response to some moral evil is to repeat it? That forgiveness is a rejection of the formula: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

For that's the real challenge. The whole idea of "getting even" is deeply compelling. We feel we need some satisfying show of strength! to set things right. Let's not forgive them, let's squash them, they deserve it - that's the instinct. The authentic ethic of forgiveness is a refusal of that instinct. For it recognises that to respond back in this way sets up endless and repeating cycles of violence. Tit for tat, tit for tat. Forgiveness is a denial of that endless chain of violence. It isn't about being friends with the person that has murdered you child - it's about not copying them, not resorting to their ways.

The problem is we all too readily reduce forgiveness to how we feel about this other person. That's a huge mistake. For if forgiveness means doing an impossible emotional somersault, then we give ourselves a massive excuse never to try. On the other hand, if forgiveness is refusing the supposed satisfaction of "getting even", if its about not answering violence with more of the same, then it's not only achievable - it's essential.

The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser, on BBC Radio