‘It is unusual for the Bible - with chapter and verse - to be quoted in parliamentary debate.
But yesterday, Steve Baker, Conservative Member of Parliament for Wycombe, quoted two texts in an openly theological speech in the debate about the consequences of 'Partygate'. As a Christian who is very open about his faith and seeks to let it inform his work he struggled openly with the difficulty of forgiveness. Another MP, Stella Creasy, responded with a quotation from the poet, Alexander Pope: ‘To err is human, and to forgive divine' but to transgress repeatedly…is something else’.
At issue was the Prime Minister’s apology to the House for his allegedly inadvertent breaking of the Covid lockdown rules - rules which he himself had established. Baker said: ‘I do want to forgive our Prime Minister…I am under a command to forgive’. He felt at first that the PM had made an apology ‘worthy of forgiveness’. But he quickly concluded that these were empty words designed only to save Johnson’s political skin. I have been tempted to forgive but I have to say that the possibility of that is now gone’. For Baker the moment for forgiveness is past. 'Forgiveness is difficult;' he mused, 'no one should pretend otherwise’.
While Parliament was debating matters which by one measure can be seen as very trivial, war was still raging in Ukraine. It will undoubtedly seem impossibly difficult for those Ukrainians to forgive Putin’s thugs who have visited them with such mayhem. How can you forgive those who have raped, tortured, murdered and pillaged among communities which were home to friends and family? It will take a long, long time - if ever - for most Ukrainians to forgive Putin sympathisers for their inhumane behaviour since the invasion of their land. Some may find them echoing the words from the Cross, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?'
What are we to do about our tendency to get locked in to a cycle of resentment, retaliation and revenge?
A woman who has refused the inevitability of this dark downward spiral is Marina Cantacuzino. In 2004 she founded The Forgiveness Project to explore ways in which personal narratives of violence, tragedy and injustice can finally lead to forgiveness rather than revenge. ‘The FWord’ exhibition first opened in London in 2004 and travels the world. It features the stories of victims and perpetrators alike whose lives were broken by tragic events. It tells the stories of some astonishing acts of forgiveness.
Several years ago we had the privilege of listening to such a story of unbelievable magnanimity when we heard Jo Berry whose father had been murdered by the IRA in Northern Ireland speak alongside his killer. After many difficult conversations over a long period of time they have become friends and witness together to the power of forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed that it is possible at a community level not simply a personal one.
Baker is right. Forgiveness is often very difficult. Especially when we seek to respond to numerous acts of injustice, dishonesty or violence. But what other alternative is there to the plunge into darkness and bitterness. Forgiveness takes time too. And skill. And will. And many tears. It does not mean that tyrants' behaviour should not be named for what it is. And they must not be allowed to win. But a visit to the Forgiveness Project website (theforgivenessproject.com) is a moving experience. And real movement within is essential in the process of forgiveness.