Thursday, January 29, 2004

The word forgiveness, or 'the F word' as it is described in an exhibition that has just opened in London, carries with it a lot of unhelpful baggage.

The word forgiveness, or 'the F word' as it is described in an exhibition that has just opened in London, carries with it a lot of unhelpful baggage. To some it conjures up the idea that an enemy is getting away unscathed with an evil act, to others that justice has not been served, or even that ancestors are being betrayed. To Dame Anita Roddick, Body Shop founder, forgiveness is 'as mysterious as love'

I sometimes wish the word could be replaced with a concept that does not evoke the feeling that it is a soft option. And that we could do away with facile phrases like forgive and forget. For forgiveness is needed as a powerful ally in the work of reconciliation. As Archbishop Tutu proclaims in the title of his last book, 'There is no future without forgiveness'.

A visit to the exhibition, 'The F word: images of forgiveness', quickly gets rid of any notion that forgiveness is either soft or about forgetting. It is appropriate that Tutu, who has seen its role in helping South Africa move unexpectedly peacefully out of its apartheid years, was present at the launching to give his view that forgiveness 'draws out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our whole existence.'

The exhibition, which opened at London 's South Bank Oxo Tower in January and will tour Britain and abroad, is the result of a year's work by photographer Brian Moody and journalist Maria Cantacuzino. Working together 'so that the stories and pictures really connect and you look at the victims and hear them speak', they have combined portraits of people in seven countries with moving words about what they have suffered and where they are heading. Many of them were present at the launching. Some use the word forgiveness freely, some say it is not appropriate for them, and some are not yet ready for it. According to Cantacuzino, the exhibition is 'about revenge turned on its head', about people who have suffered and called for retribution but now 'seek dialogue rather than revenge'.

The portraits range from American Linda Biehl with two of the men who murdered her daughter in South Africa to Marianne Pearl, whose husband American journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist group in February 2002, from Marian Partington whose younger sister was murdered by Frederick West to Tom Tate, ex-RAF airman who has built bridges with the people of the German town where five of his crewmen were lynched. They include bereaved men and women from Israel and Palestine now working together through the Parents' Circle, and sufferers from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

One marvels at the generosity of those who are ready to forgive and understands those who are not at that point. I talked with South African Duma Kumalo, one of the Sharpeville six who spent seven years in prison, three of them on death row, for a murder he didn't commit. He has forgiven and even become friends with those who persecuted him. 'I don't hate the people who did bad things to me,' he said. I talked also with Salimata Badji-Knight from Senegal, who was circumcised at the age of five and has spent most of her adult life campaigning to prevent the practice of female circumcision in African cultures. Before her father died she had told him what had been done to her. 'He cried and said that no woman had ever explained the suffering to him. Then he apologized and asked for forgiveness. The next day he called my relatives in Senegal and told them to stop the practice. A meeting was cancelled and fifty girls were saved.'

Being half Irish I was particularly glad to meet Irish who are featured. Margaret McKinney, for instance,whose son was murdered by the IRA, a crime only admitted to 21 years later. She has no hatred for his killer and would like to sit down and talk to him, ask if he's sorry for what he did, and why no one ever told her what had happened. 'Until that happens, I can't say I forgive, because I don't know who to forgive.' And Alistair Little who joined the Protestant paramilitaries and at the age of 17 walked into the home of a man he didn't know and killed him, an action for which he received a 13-year prison sentence. He told us that he did not think he was entitled to ask for forgiveness. 'Forgiveness makes me very uncomfortable. It has been politicised. Many people can't forgive because they feel it would be the betrayal of a loved one. Who are we to say that someone has to forgive? It is a very personal journey.' He has since worked in Kosovo with Serbs, Croats and Albanians struggling to find alternatives to war.

Having spoken and written about Jo Berry and Patrick Magee and their ongoing dialogues I was grateful to meet them. Jo's father, was killed in the IRA Brighton bombing during the 1984 Conservative Party conference, Patrick was given multiple life sentences for his part in the bombing. He was later released under the Good Friday agreement. Last year, with Jo's help, he set up Causeway, a project that helps individuals address unresolved pain caused by the Troubles.

Jo told the crowded gallery at the launching that she knows less and less about forgiveness as each day goes by. It is a daily choice. Her children help her. When she is tempted to withdraw or accuse others, they say, 'We are in a no blame house. Why are you blaming?' 'I am in no way finished,' she said. I'm just beginning.'

The exhibition has the backing of the Forster Company, a communications agency specialising in social and environmental change, and of Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop. Roddick speaks perhaps for many confronted with these stories when she says, 'I've never really believed that I would forgive, but then nor have I ever really understood the cage which anger locks you into.' Jilly Forster says that the exhibition examines forgiveness as a healing process. It is 'a journey out of victimhood, and ultimately, a journey of hope'. She describes it as 'an education of the human spirit'.

It is, indeed, and a tribute to humankind at its best. If I ever get asked to write another book on forgiveness, I would want to call it 'Forgiveness: Journey of a Lifetime.'