Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Forgiveness is becoming a live issue in the British media, though sometimes alternating between marvel at the act and ridicule of it.

Forgiveness is becoming a live issue in the British media, though sometimes alternating between marvel at the act and ridicule of it. A mother whose son was killed in a vicious racist attack expresses forgiveness, a young woman who lost her legs in an horrific terrorist attack does not. A woman minister is praised by some for giving up her position in a church because she is unwilling to forgive and yet a Forgiveness Project draws many column inches in the national press. A TV program where Archbishop Tutu brings together men and women from Northern Ireland, perpetrators of horrific attacks and those or their families who suffered from them, is met with both scepticism and praise.

Forgiveness is like that. It doesn't seem to leave people neutral. Even those who praise the act realize that they do not know whether they would behave as generously if they were in the same position.

I took issue with one national columnist who particularly expressed her dislike of forgiveness being offered in ‘extreme cases'. I asked who is to decide which case, or which person, is too extreme to be forgiven. I cited the example of a good friend of mine, Les Dennison, who had just died the week before.

I saw him recently in Coventry, his home town. Living on a disability pension, he was proudly riding a mobility scooter given him by the Royal British Legion, Britain's veterans' organisation. Earlier he had helped launch his city's Peace Month along with a survivor of Hiroshima and the Japanese ambassador. His local paper, the Coventry Citizen carried a headline ‘Time for us all to forgive – POW backs Peace Month'. The paper wrote, ‘Despite the horrific treatment of Les and his comrades, he is keen to leave the animosity of war where it belongs – in the past.' It quoted him, ‘For a long time I felt bitterness and hatred but I don't want that to be passed on to the second generation.' Ambassador Masaki Orita wrote him afterwards, ‘It is through the efforts of brave people like you that British and Japanese people are able to grow closer together in the spirit of peace and friendship, without forgetting the past.'

Les was captured at Singapore and became a prisoner of the Japanese, suffering appalling conditions while working on the infamous Burma railway and building one of the bridges over the River Kwai. More than 16,000 prisoners died from malnutrition and exhaustion during the construction of the railway and bridge. He watched fourteen of his fellow prisoners decapitated. His weight at the end of the war was 74 pounds. Nightmares persisted throughout his life but he could still write, ‘The many unforgettable memories can be lived with in the deep healing peace that is nurtured out of one's basic change of attitude.'

This change came about in an unusual fashion. In 1962 Les reluctantly attended a conference in Caux, Switzerland. Reluctantly, because he learned that a Japanese delegation was attending. One of the delegation, General Sugita, who had been present at the surrender of Singapore, addressed the conference. Bowing low, he said, ‘I know what happened during the campaign, I can never expect you to forget what happened.' Bowing once more, he said, ‘I am sorry. Please forgive me and my nation.'

It was then, says Les, that the healing of bitterness and hatred began. ‘ He was genuine and that was the beginning of a remarkable change in my attitude. Saying sorry must bear the transparency of humility and gives repentance and assurance that removes all possible doubt. Since then I have experienced the care and friendship of many Japanese who have shown sincere remorse and apologies.'

This healing peace meant that when asked on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb what he would say if given the chance to speak to the Japanese nation he could reply, ‘I would bow low in humility and I would beg their forgiveness for my callousness at the time when I heard of the bombs being dropped on the cities of Japan and I would ask their forgiveness for the years of my bitterness, resentment and hatred against the people of Japan.'

In meeting and writing about dozens of people who have had such courage I have been struck by how much personally their lives have been enriched, their examples have inspired others, and their actions have helped ensure that past acts of cruelty are not seedbeds of future violence.

This article first appeared on the website: in June/July 2006