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Sunday, 31 May 2015

On Forgiveness

I expect you may have seen, either on TV or in the newspapers, that recent historic 13 second encounter between Prince Charles, his ever-so-English cup of tea balanced precariously in his non-outstretched hand, shaking hands with Gerry Adams the current President of Sinn Féin.  I wonder what you made of it, this handshake, this moment of – what was it? was it reconciliation? – at the very least, a moment of what appeared to be a convivial tête-à-tête rapprochement  between the symbol of the British monarchy and the symbol of Irish Republicanism.

As well as the word ‘reconciliation’, the word ‘forgiveness’ was floating in the air amongst the commentariat – but I felt rather confused by the talk of forgiveness and found myself wondering, puzzling over, who was supposed to have forgiven who, and for what exactly?
What we know is that Gerry Adams had requested the contact with Charles, prompted by the Prince’s four-day visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the meeting took place the day before Charles attended and spoke at the church in Country Sligo near to where his godfather and great-uncle Lord Mountbatten had been murdered by the IRA in 1979.
What we know too was that in 1979 Adams had been an open apologist for the murder – even if he has always denied the allegations of former comrades that he was on the IRA’s decision-making army council when the Provisionals put a bomb on Mountbatten’s boat which killed not only their intended target but Mountbatten’s 14 year-old grandson as well as another local teenager and an additional guest.
Apparently, in the private conversation that took place after the public handshake – and we only have Gerry Adams’ account of this – Charles (who is still, we recall, nominally Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment responsible for the deaths of Bloody Sunday in Belfast in 1972) had expressed ‘regret’ over the lives lost in the Troubles. In a rather syntactically convoluted sentence that Adams shared with the press afterwards, the former terrorist stated: ‘Both he and we expressed our regret for what happened from 1968 onwards. We were of common mind and the fact that the meeting took place, it obviously was a big thing for him to do and a big thing for us to do.’ (Note the royal ‘we’ in the anti-monarchist Adams’ mouth – maybe this is Irish humour, I don’t know, but the irony shouldn’t be lost).
Well, ‘big thing’ or not, thirty-five years on from the murder, something significant did occur in this meeting, but it is hard to say exactly what it was. The situation is complicated by Adams’ steadfast refusal to detail his precise role in the Troubles. It makes talk of acts of forgiveness hard to swallow. Particularly if you come at this from a Jewish perspective.
Because there’s a basic  principle in Jewish ethics which says: ‘If a wrong-doer makes amends – confesses their sin and asks for forgiveness – it is the duty of the injured party to forgive them.’ This is the halacha – Jewish law. Forgiveness is dependent upon the person who has done wrong taking responsibility for what they have done – that’s what ‘confessing their sin’ implies – and having the humility and the courage to ask for forgiveness. If this happens, then it is the duty of the injured party – in other words it’s their responsibility (whatever they might feel about it) - to offer forgiveness to the wrong-doer.
So from this perspective it is clear that Gerry Adams – who has neither confessed to involvement in the crime, nor asked to be forgiven (because of course he’s done nothing wrong in his eyes) – hasn’t merited Charles’s magnanimous gesture. Maybe forgiveness was in Charles’ heart – it’s not of course for me to say – but somewhat mealy-mouthed joint ‘expressions of regret’ from Adams seem to miss the mark. I hope that’s not too jaundiced a view, but there just seemed to me something asymmetrical and askew in this supposed historic handshake.
Would it be too cynical to suggest that at the root of this meeting was Adams’ political concerns, an attempt to woo the Irish electorate prior to next year’s elections to the Dial, the Irish Parliament?  Particularly as they are falling behind in the polls to Fine Gail, trying to lay the ghost of the past can only help Sinn Féin win over sceptical voters. Prince Charles may have been demonstrating some true nobility of character but his open-heartedness also serves the political interests of Adams and his Sinn Féin colleagues.
But as we know, former terrorists who come to lead their countries are not exactly a rare species.  Israel has a rather undistinguished track record in this department. Menachem Begin was commander of the Irgun when they blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing 96 people. Yitchak Shamir was the head of the Stern gang who carried out a string of assassinations prior to Independence. And Ariel Sharon was found indirectly, but personally, responsible for the Sabra and Shatillah massacres of Palestinians in 1983. None of this bloody history stopped these men becoming Prime Minister. Yasser Arafat made a parallel transition from terror to statesmanship.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was accompanied by multiple terrorist acts – including the murder of the royal family. And 25 years later Stalin – steeped in the blood of his own people – was the resolute ally of Churchill and Roosevelt in the fight against fascism. VE Day could not have happened without him. And of course, famously, we remember Nelson Mandela. It wasn’t until a vote in Congress in April 2008 that Mandela, then 90 years old and a Nobel Peace prize winner,  was taken off the US terrorist list so he could visit the country at the invitation of President Bush.
But what’s all this got to do with us? Whether the Prince Charles/ Gerry Adams meeting involved forgiveness or not, the theme of forgiveness is still a real issue much closer to home: anyone who’s ever been hurt in a relationship, anyone who’s ever been let down, or abused, or betrayed, anyone who’s suffered mockery or humiliation, anyone who’s been wronged in a relationship – and this must include all of us, whether it is as a child with their schoolmates, or at work, or in business, or in friendships, or in a marriage – all of us know what it is to be the injured party.
All of us know the pain, the distress, when we have been wronged – by our peers, or by strangers, by colleagues, by our parents, or our children, or our partners. The hurt can be physical, or it can be emotional, or it can be mental, psychological. Or it  can be all of these. This is the stuff of everyday life, the hurt we inflict and the hurt we endure, the hurt we receive. We know it well, too well. And we know too how hard it is – when we are feeling injured, have been  bruised, damaged,  have suffered through someone’s actions, or lack of actions – we know how hard it is to forgive.
Why should we forgive, we say, when they haven’t suffered too? Why should we forgive, when they haven’t acknowledged our hurt? Why should we forgive, even if they have admitted their wrongdoing? Why should we forgive, just because they ask us to? As if it’s the easiest thing in the world. When forgiveness is one of the hardest things in the world. One of the hardest.
I still haven’t forgiven some people, for some things. I know this. And I see myself as quite a forgiving person. But some hurts still stick stubbornly inside, and some angers and resentments, and I can’t forgive, or at least I haven’t managed it yet. And I don’t think I’m alone in this – the recognition that to forgive is very hard work. So although Jewish teaching says it’s our duty, if we are the injured party, to forgive – it doesn’t tell us how we are supposed to do that.

Of course it is easier when someone who has done us wrong admits that they have – ‘confesses their sin’ to use that old-fashioned language I quoted before. Or if someone actually has the courage to ask for forgiveness. But that doesn’t always happen. Maybe they can’t. Or maybe they are no longer here to do it. And then, we might want to forgive, we might want to be released from old hurt, an old grievance, an old wound we still feel – but we just can’t find it in us, how to do it, how to forgive.
And then, perhaps all we can do is try to forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for our inability to forgive others. Can we at least do that? Maybe that’s the clue to being able to forgive someone else for the hurt or wrong they have done us. We have to be able to forgive ourselves – for being so weak, so sensitive, so fragile, so uncaring. We have to be able to forgive ourselves for our common, shared human frailties; and inadequacies. We have to be able to forgive ourselves for all the times we fail to live up to our ideals, all the times we don’t act from our generous and compassionate selves, for all the times we are mean-spirited and selfish and cruel, we have to be able to forgive ourselves for all the times we fail to live from our better selves.
And if we can do this work, this inner work - and it is psychological work and spiritual work, and it never ends – if we can do this work as best we can, then we might be able to begin to forgive others who have also failed to live out their better selves and have caused us the hurt and harm in the first place.
The beginning of forgiving others is learning to forgive oneself. Both are hard work, but it’s what being human is all about.
[based on  a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 30th 2015]


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