The Forgiveness Project
Late one evening, almost exactly ten years ago, I saw a report on a local London TV station which has reverberated with me ever since. It was the story of a medical blunder, when a three-year-old girl died after a careless doctor administered the wrong drugs. As the medical staff and family emerged from the coroner’s court, a reporter thrust a microphone under the father’s nose asking how he felt about the doctor responsible. I expected to hear angry words about litigation and reparation but instead the father said simply that having seen the distressed consultant, he’d crossed the room, hugged him and told him, ‘I forgive you.’
At the time I was working as a print journalist, and this moving and rare moment of television was the start of a year-long search for stories of forgiveness and reconciliation from around the world. With the war in Iraq still a topic of fierce debate, and against the rhetoric of pay-back and retaliation, celebrating stories which explored the concept of forgiveness & reconciliation in the face of atrocity felt both counter cultural and highly relevant.
The stories I collected were from people who had emerged from an atrocity or trauma without hatred and bitterness – parents who had forgiven their child’s killer, survivors of violence who hadn’t tried to get even, former violent extremists now working for peace, and ex-offenders trying to repair the damage they’d caused. I have always believed what Alexander Solzehnitzyn said, that ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’, and therefore it felt crucial to share stories of those who had perpetrated violence as well as those who had been on the receiving end of it.
The end result was ‘The F Word: Stories of Forgiveness’, an exhibition of strong portraits and powerful testimonies drawing together voices from South Africa, America, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and England. The exhibition examined forgiveness as a healing process, a journey out of victimhood and, ultimately, a journey of hope. I called the exhibition ‘The F Word’ because I had come to realize by now that forgiveness sliced public opinion down the middle like a guillotine. People were either inspired by it or affronted. And because forgiveness was so often perceived as a soft option, or as excusing an offense, or as a state of moral superiority, I didn’t want to express it in a sanitized, pristine way. I wanted to portray forgiveness as the grueling task I perceived it to be – messy, risky and unpredictable, but potentially transformative.
When the exhibition launched in London in 2004, it received a huge amount of attention both in the UK and all over the world, from individuals as well as institutions. Suddenly my career as a journalist was overtaken by a need to continue this work, promoting compassion and understanding through collecting and sharing narratives of hope at a particularly bleak time. I had become convinced that the more you slam down on something, the more people regroup and emerge in a stronger more resilient way and so what had started as a very personal response to the angry, muscular rhetoric of revenge, almost overnight became a public forum for discussion and healing.
Now, nine years later, The Forgiveness Project is a radical, lean, and secular organization located in a small office in central London, and operating a pioneering prison and school’s program in the UK. We have collected and shared widely nearly 200 stories from all over the globe. These are presented in a variety of formats including our touring “F Word” exhibition which has been shown in over 400 locations, including Robben Island in South Africa and Oklahoma City to mark the 10th anniversary of the bombing.
A key message of the Forgiveness Project is that we are not separate from those who harm us. American born Linda Biehl, whose 26-year-old daughter Amy was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town in 1993, has since employed two of the men convicted of her murder. Having visited the townships where these men grew up, Linda came to realize: ‘we all share basic human desires. It’s just the context that’s different.’ She concludes: ‘I’ve even asked myself if I’d grown up in a township, could I have behaved like that?’
There is also Rami Elhanan whose daughter was killed by a suicide bombing in Jerusalem who says, ‘when this happened to my daughter I had to ask myself whether I’d contributed in any way. The answer was that I had – my people had – for ruling, dominating and oppressing three and half million Palestinians for 35 years. It is a sin and you pay for sins.’
Even Marian Partingon whose sister Lucy was the victim of notorious British serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West, says: ‘My work has been about connecting with Rosemary West’s humanity and refusing to go down the far easier and more predictable path of demonizing her’.
And then there is Jo Berry whose politician father was killed in a bomb planted by the former IRA activist, Patrick Magee. Jo has met Pat on numerous occasions since his release from prison and quite frequently she makes the comment that she has come to realize that ‘no matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did.’
I have met and interviewed most of the stories that we publish and share widely from The Forgiveness Project website. I am often asked what I have learnt about the process of forgiveness from hearing all these stories. Of course it would not fit into the messy portrait of forgiveness I’ve presented to conclude that the process consists neatly of a few necessary steps, but nevertheless there are still some patterns. For instance, while a few have been inspired to forgive almost instantaneously, others experience life-changing encounters which shift their consciousness and attitudes, but most come to the decision to forgive through a long and costly process of grief and hatred which leaves them depleted and looking for another way forward. In that sense, forgiveness is not something that is done, but discovered – and, as the theologian and pastor John Patton has said, the relevant discovery is that the offender is ‘human like myself’.
I have come to see forgiveness as a huge and complex subject. I believe that in the midst of violent conflict, when people are only focused on survival, it may not be appropriate to talk of forgiveness. However, with communities recovering from the divisions of conflict, when punitive justice may be in practical, forgiveness is a very useful tool indeed. I have also come to believe that those who have suffered most, and indeed those who have caused the greatest suffering to others, often have the most to give. And most crucially – in an age where forgiveness has been adopted as an imperative within psychotherapy – I have come to believe that forgiveness should never be an obligation. It is a choice, a process, a deeply personal journey, and essentially a creative way to live with the past while not being held captive by it.
Marina Cantacuzino is an award-winning journalist who in 2003, in response to the imminent invasion of Iraq, embarked on a personal project collecting stories in words and portraits of people who had lived through violence, tragedy or injustice, and sought forgiveness rather than revenge. As a result, Marina founded The Forgiveness Project—a UK-based not-for-profit that uses the real stories of victims and perpetrators of crime and violence to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation and restorative justice can be used to impact positively on people’s lives. The Forgiveness Project has no religious or political associations. Marina also has a regular blog on The Huffington Post, a twitter following of 2000, while nearly 3000 members have joined the Forgiveness Project Facebook group. In 2012 she spoke at the UN before Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about her work and is a contributor in the upcoming documentary Beyond Right and Wrong directed by Roger Spotiswoode.