Friday, February 3, 2006

In Britain in the past year, unexpected responses to tragedy have caught the attention of the media, and have inspired many.

Occasionally some individual act that runs counter to perceived notions of human behavior catches the public imagination. We are inspired by it and wonder if we could have taken the same approach.

In Britain we have recently had two such acts.

Last summer a young black man in Liverpool, Anthony Walker, was brutally murdered with an ice axe in his skull after being chased by white racist thugs. Anthony was a bright 18-year-old student, whose ambition was to be a lawyer and a judge. He loved performing, looked after his five siblings as his parents had separated, and was a devout Christian who had declined an invitation to take part in trials for the England basketball team because they fell on a Sunday. Thousands took part in an anti-racism vigil and also in a candle-lit walk to the park where he was attacked.

In December his killers came to trial, were found guilty and jailed for life.

Minutes after the verdict Anthony’s mother, Gee, who had sat through the two-week trial, faced the press. ‘It’s been real hard going,’ she said, ‘but I feel justice has been done. Do I forgive them? At the point of death Jesus said, “I forgive them because they do not know what they do.” I have got to forgive them. I still forgive them. It will be difficult but we have no choice but to live on for Anthony. Each of us will take a piece of him and will carry on his life.’ The London Times headlined her statement across a page, ‘I forgive them, says mother.’

Anthony’s father, Steve, a former boxing champion, was visited after the murder by a number of people who urged him to take revenge, even saying that they were ready to unleash the kind of violence which blighted the area in the Eighties. They offered to provide him with a gun so that he could hunt down his son’s killers. But he makes clear that he wants his son’s death to be a catalyst for racial harmony and not for further bloodshed.

Abigail Witchalls, 26, was stabbed in the neck as she pushed her son in a buggy in a quiet Surrey village. She was left partially paralysed. Her attacker committed suicide. Shortly after being discharged from hospital Abigail gave birth to another son. She feels no anger towards her attacker. Her mother, Professor Sheila Hollins, has forgiven the man who was behind the attack and called his subsequent suicide the ‘real tragedy of the story’.

The Archbishop of Canterbury in his 2005 Christmas sermon spoke of both deaths and the response of the two mothers and said they showed the difference made possible by the ‘miraculous love’ offered by God to the human race. Professor Hollins, he said, was ‘not making light of her daughter’s terrible ordeal or denying the complex evil of the action but simply making space for someone else’s fear and pain.’ Of Gee Walker, he said, ‘What made this so intensely moving was the fact that her forgiveness was drawn agonizingly out of her, without making her loss easier.’

Refusing to hate or to seek revenge, it should be remembered, does not mean condoning an evil act. It is right that perpetrators of evil should face justice. Neither is forgiveness an easy option. It is the courageous often unexpected attitude that helps us keep alive the faith that in any situation the chain of hate can be broken. It does not remove the pain or senselessness but in some strange way it turns a human tragedy into a triumph of the spirit.

One other triumph of hope over tragedy was the enthronement at the end of 2005 of John Sentamu as Archbishop of York. The 56-year-old priest was born in Uganda, the 6th of 13 children. In 1974 he was a judge in the High Court but his criticism of the Idi Amin regime for its human rights violations led to his arrest and departure for Britain. When his friend, the Uganda Archbishop Janani Luwum, was murdered he vowed to take his place and was ordained in 1979. He is Britain’s first black archbishop. ‘Yes, I am black,’ he says. ‘But what is important is that I have got a living faith in God. I would like people to share my life, my faith, my hope.’