“Forgiveness. What does that look like?”
Those are the words of Fr Brian Lennon at a panel event during 2018’s 4 Corners Festival. A question had come from Alan McBride, sitting in the audience. Alan wanted to know if it was necessary to forgive. Very aware that Alan had lost his wife in the Shankill bomb I was very cautious about demanding forgiveness. It was then that Brian asked what forgiveness looks like.
The words triggered something inside my head. Forgiveness was a word I had used for almost 40 years. It is at the very centre of the Christian faith and yet we were asking what it looked like. Surely that question should have a quick and confident answer. In the context of Northern Ireland forgiveness was complex but I reckoned vital if we were ever going to be able to deal with our past.
I think it was Alan’s question that probably fired the direction of the 2019 Festival. Professor John Brewer has for some years challenged us in the Church to keep words like forgiveness in the public conversation. That is what we will be doing in the 2019 Festival.
We took a lot of time over adding the word Scandalous. I have been using the idea of scandalous grace for some time. Jesus was constantly doing scandalous acts. Whether it was the forgiveness he showed to a woman caught in the act of adultery or having dinner with a tax collector, sharing a drink at a well with a Samaritan woman or telling a Roman Centurion that he had never seen such faith in all if Israel. In Jesus culture these were all scandalous acts and forgiveness is somewhere in the mix.
In Northern Ireland many will see it as scandalous if someone forgives the person who killed their husband or wife or son or daughter. It could easily be seen as a scandal if a paramilitary murderer was forgiven. Some might suggest that that isn’t justice.
Yet, it might also be scandalous if those of us who talk so much about God’s forgiveness are not acting in forgiving ways - if forgiveness is not at the forefront of all that we do.
I was struck recently by a scene in a television documentary. A woman, whose mother had been murdered many years before, was being told how miserable her mother’s murderer was in prison. She was so pleased to hear that. He deserved that. I have sympathy with her thoughts but on the wall in front of her was a big cross with another small cross by its side. The cross is a symbol of forgiveness. Have we concentrated ourselves on God’s forgiveness to us but somehow blocked out and ignored that Jesus asks us to follow him in being forgiving to others the way he is forgiving to us.
I do believe that forgiveness is a key contributor to peace building. I believe that it can contribute to personal peace as well as societal peace. To forgive someone who has caused you deep pain is not for the good of the one you forgive so much as for you who forgives. The bitterness that we hold can damage us even more. Forgiving can let go some of the hurt and indeed control that the perpetrator holds over us.
In Northern Ireland we need to be able to find forgiveness for what our communities have done to one another for hundreds of years. I believe that forgiveness is a resource, maybe the most powerful resource in delivering for us a better future. The Bible has the hope of shalom at the heart of God’s dream for the world. I believe forgiveness between human and human, community and community as well as God and humanity are intrinsic to that intention of God’s.
So our hope for 2019’s 4 Corners Festival is to look at forgiveness from a whole range of angles. We want to use poetry, song, drama as well as personal story, practical teaching as well as theological wrestling to open up and highlight the pearl of forgiveness. It will be messy and difficult. We will struggle with it, find complications in its outworking. At times it will get scandalous but maybe as we surmise it over the ten days of the Festival, and beyond, we will journey to the very heart of God and towards our own salvation and the transformation of our country.