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Forgiveness: a moral minefield

Friday, 17. May 2013

Forgiveness: a moral minefield

Marina Cantacuzino

Forgiveness cuts public opinion down the middle like a guillotine. People are inspired by it or they are affronted by it.’ This is how Marina Cantacuzino, founder of the Forgiveness Project, introduced the concept of forgiveness when she gave a Greencoat Forum on 19 March in the London centre of Initiatives of Change.

The Forgiveness Project, founded by Marina in 2004, was born from her need to restore the balance from the language of retaliation that dominated politics and the media in the lead up to the war in Iraq: ‘I was a journalist with a small voice and I thought “I need to do something”.’
A striking story of reconciliation in a local paper prompted Marina to start  collecting stories of forgiveness and reconciliation with a photographer who she was working and travelling with at the time. Their work was eventually shown as an exhibition called ‘The F word – images of forgiveness’.

‘The Forgiveness Project uses story telling, real stories of victims and perpetrators of crime and violence, to explore the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation. The very broadest aim is to inspire people to consider alternatives to revenge, retaliation and resentment. If you hear other people’s stories it stimulates an inquiry into yourself.’

Beyond exhibitions worldwide, annual lectures, and story telling sessions in schools, the Forgiveness project runs a victim empathy restorative justice programme in prisons, facilitated by ex-offenders and victims of crimes. It encourages prisoners to explore concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation in a framework that fosters greater accountability and responsibility. Marina said: ‘Restorative justice is looking at how we can mend relationships that have been broken with the community, with the family, between victim and offender.’

‘So what is forgiveness?’ asked Marina. Exploring various definitions, she finally came up with her own: ‘Forgiveness is about coming to terms with things that you cannot change. Making peace with them.’

Forgiveness: a moral minefield audienceShe then took the participants through various existing conceptions of forgiveness, based on stories of people presented by the Project.
She mentioned the vision supported by faiths like Islam and Judaism of forgiveness as a social contract, a moral relationship between self and other. This ‘contract’ required the perpetrator to be identified and to make repentance before the victim could forgive.

She then explored the relationship between forgiveness and justice, explaining how some people think that justice must come first. Marina warned of the close relationship between justice and revenge but also said: ‘Some people need to be in prison. You have to respect the laws of the land.’

But the most accepted notion of forgiveness, she said, is that it is an act of self-healing. There she gave the example of a father who drank to forget the death of his daughter in the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. One day he realised: ‘I have to do something different because what I’m doing isn’t working.’ That is how his path towards forgiveness began.

Then Marina asked: ‘How do you forgive when someone shows no remorse but also when the offence has been so extreme and barbaric?’ The answer she gave, based on another story, was through ‘finding empathy for someone who is imprisoned in their tormented, distorted mind; trapped with a brain that wants to do harm.’

Exploring the impact of forgiveness on the perpetrator, Marina told the story of the founding member of the largest racist skinhead organisation in the world who was astounded when people started reaching out to him including survivors of the Holocaust from the local synagogue. This made the difference.

Finally, bringing this down to ordinary relationships, Marina shared her personal feeling: ‘The more I work in this area, and the more I live, and the more I see relationships around me tumbling, […] the more I think forgiveness is the oil of personal relationships. And it’s designed for us to be able to co-exist because we as human beings have expectations and when those are not met, we get disappointed. And when we get disappointed, we can either go down the blame and punishment route or we go down the empathy and forgiveness route.’

A participant shared his own story of forgiveness after having seen his parents being killed for being the children of religious leaders in a Marxist revolution, and after being jailed himself for nine years. He shared how in prison he had had nobody to listen to but his inner voice, which led him to forgiveness: ‘I realised there is a reward for everything,’ he said. ‘The reward for forgiving is peace and tranquillity.’

Marina concluded: ‘Forgiveness is risky, it’s messy, it’s difficult, it’s costly, it’s unpredictable, but it’s actually transformative. Forgiveness is a journey. It’s not a destination, it’s a process. In some cases you move in and out. Every case is different. There is no right or wrong.’

And answering another question, she said: ‘All studies on forgiveness show that having a forgiving nature has a good impact on our mental and physical health. We’d be crazy not to give it a go.’

Photos by Jonty Herman