Last year, a 14-year-old was sentenced to 11 years in prison for stabbing his teacher, Vincent Uzomah. It was a shocking crime made all the more unsettling given the boy’s Facebook status: “The motherf****r getin funny so I stick the blade straight in his tummy.” However, Mr. Uzomah’s response was surprising. He stated: “I have forgiven this boy… I pray he will make use of the support provided to him to become a changed person.”
As Christians, we are taught that this is the faithful response. We know this off by heart. But what is it that makes forgiveness so powerful? What tangible difference does it make?
Another moment of depraved humanity engraved into public consciousness is the shooting at the Emanuel Church in Charleston. While attending a Bible study, Dylan Roof shot 10 and killed nine people in a racist attack. Two days later, relatives of the victims confronted the attacker in a courtroom.
Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, was crying. “You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you. It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you.”
A relative of Myra Thompson offered a similar sentiment: “I would just like him to know that… I forgive him and my family forgives him.”
Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons, epitomised how forgiveness can totally change the narrative: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof… that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
Clearly these are faithful responses. But whatever you believe, it’s hard to ignore the transformational power of their words. As the relatives speak, they don’t neglect the need for punishment, the presence of intense anger and sadness or the difficulty of forgiving. It’s not said lightly. But it also changes our response to the situation. As a member of the public, we remain dumbfounded, but our over-riding emotion is admiration. We’re bolstered by the ability of good to endure. Maybe that’s why Obama tweeted that the “decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families.”
As well as radically altering response, forgiveness has been shown to speed up the healing process in tragic situations, often aiding mental health.
In 2006, Charles Roberts shot 10 schoolgirls in an Amish community before killing himself. Despite incomparable grief, some of the victims’ family members attended Roberts’ funeral and, when Roberts’ mother chose to leave the community, they persuaded her to stay. Acts like this led to the healing of the community, with CBS News reporting years later that Roberts’ mother was acting as the primary caregiver to a girl permanently wounded in the attack. The mother summed up the process like this: “Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”
Again, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way for a victim to feel following a crime. Anger, grief, hatred, shame, paralysis; these are all equally valid responses. But here forgiveness led to reconciliation – once more highlighting the strength of the community rather than the evil of the crime.
There is one example of forgiveness that will go down in history. On 8 November 1987, an IRA bomb exploded during the Enniskillen Remembrance Day parade. Gordon Wilson and his daughter Marie were caught in the explosion, leading to the death of Marie. Only a few hours later, Wilson gave the following interview to the BBC, stating something truly remarkable (and revolutionary) that became international news.
Wilson described his last conversation with Marie: “She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said: ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life… She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
The historian Jonathan Bardon recalled: “No words in more than 25 years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.” His words had deep historical significance, with the call for reconciliation being called ‘the Spirit of Enniskillen’. Wilson became a peace campaigner, meeting members of Sinn Fein and even the Provisional IRA. He also met loyalist paramilitaries to ask them to avoid revenge.
I don’t want to suggest that one opinion can begin to unpick the deep chasms caused by loss and violence. But I do feel it’s important to bring attention to the repercussions that forgiveness dialogue can cause. It changes discourse in media, it alters audience response, and it even allows widespread healing. But more importantly, as Gordon Wilson’s example shows, forgiveness has the power to break cycles of hatred that no political bargaining or news reporting can. For what has more ability to make us sit up and reassess than someone who is plunged to the worst of human experience and re-emerges with humanity?
And therein lies the power of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. No one in history has been plunged deeper in suffering, or risen higher in forgiveness for humanity. That’s why forgiveness works.