Forgiveness is a personal thing
(Recent developments mean I’m going to postpone the next two parts of ‘Not at the Dinner Table’ until after this breaking news item!)
Last year saw the passing of the much lauded Nelson Mandela. In listing his achievements one of the most frequently mentioned was the ‘Truth and Re-conciliation Committee’ (TRC). The commission, formed of three separate sets of hearings, took an innovative approach to dealing with the aftermath of the violence and in-justices of apartheid-riven South Africa. Bringing together victims and those accused of the relevant crimes and abuses, the commission was empowered to grant amnesty to perpetrators, with the caveat of the crimes having been politically motivated and proportionate. Key to the process was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty.
The TRC was a very different way of dealing with the crimes and abuses of a wide range of people against the backdrop of a society divided against itself. (For example, the Nuremberg trials that followed the end of the Second World War resulted in death sentences being handed out to some of the Nazi German High Command.) The TRC was tasked with allowing both those who had perpetrated crimes and those who had been victims to share their experiences in a bid to establish both the facts and the experiences of those involved. This witnessing and recording of the ‘truth’ around the events was key to the TRC mandate.
This week the U.K. press has been full of the controversial decision by Judge Mr Justice Sweeney to allow a suspect in the Hyde Park bombings, Mr John Downey, to go free because Downey had passed over a letter from the British Government. The letter, written in 2007, stated clearly that he should not answer charges around the IRA bomb blast of 1982, which claimed the lives of eight British soldiers, “on the basis of the information available” at the time. Because Downey was in receipt of this letter Judge Sweeney declared that he should not have been arrested when entering the U.K. in May of last year.
Downey’s letter, which secured his release on what appeared initially to be a technicality, was subsequently stated to have been issued ‘in error.’ Following this, current revelations appear to be showing that the British Government had somehow – the exact apparatus for this is in question as I write – engaged in the issuing of many such letters to IRA suspects. These letters are increasingly seen as being equivalent to the former members of the IRA being issued with an amnesty for any crimes they may (or indeed, may not) have been involved in.
So what is the difference between these two cases? How can one Amnesty be different from another? Why are people and politicians in the U.K. and Ireland so incensed by these events, whereas the TRC and its instigator Nelson Mandela received a much more positive response? And what should my response be, as a Christian who believes in a loving and forgiving God, to these events?
The reaction of the individual is key to answering these questions. Although the U.K. press has quickly become obsessed with the wider political ramifications of the issuing of these letters – who was in office at the time and therefore responsible, which party had they been talking to etc, etc – it is missing the point that forgiveness is at the heart of any concept of an ‘Amnesty’. And as such, it is a matter as much between individuals as it is between Governments. Amnesty is, in a sense, an authoritarian attempt to replicate the important principal of forgiveness.
In fact I would say that the difference between an Amnesty and an act of forgiveness is that the former can be declared by a State or official, whereas true forgiveness can only operate on an individual level. To summon an innocuous example, my local library may issue an ‘overdue-book Amnesty’ in which I become exempt from any fines. But it cannot legislate for the glowering scowl of the Librarian towards those returning their errant books. On the other hand, I may come with trepidation to return my overdue books, expecting to pay a hefty fine, only to discover that the librarian decides to forgive me and waives the money I owe, without the need for official intervention.
It is worth noting here that, whatever the resulting politics of separating affairs of Religion from affairs of State, our modern Western democratic system has inherited the bedrock of its ideals from Christianity. Many forget that even the ‘liberalist’ or ‘enlightenment’ beginnings of democracy, from the writings of people such as John Locke, were clearly founded upon Christian doctrines of moral equality. And there is no doctrine so central to the teaching of the church, then and now, as forgiveness.
So is the teaching of Christianity one of Forgiveness or Amnesty? Is God Personal or Authoritarian? The answer is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here we see that God did not issue a blanket statement from on high declaring that no-one would be held to account for the wrong things they had thought, done or said. Instead he came as an individual, Jesus, to accept on the cross the judgement that is due, to each individual, in their place.
Most importantly, after the events of the cross, when Luke records the message of the risen Christ, it is not “Everyone has been forgiven,” but “There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.” (Luke 24:47) There, and elsewhere throughout the Bible the message is so clear that God is willing and more than able to forgive. But in order for this to happen, we must accept our need, confessing the truth about what we have done and agree with God that we should not carry on as before (repentance.)
As God is passionate about relating to us as individuals, so his mercy and un-deserved ‘amnesty’ also depend upon us coming to him, as individuals, through Christ.
The Truth and Reconciliation Committee brought together people who had been at enmity with one another, often face to face. In sharing their versions of events they were able to confess to one another the details and realities of what had happened between them. This was not easy and there remain criticisms that in some cases, although an amnesty was eventually issued, this was at the sacrifice of justice. But at least the perpetrators had, for the most part, been honest about what had taken place.
Here in the U.K. the case of John Downey, and others like him, will continue to provoke anger and resentment as long as the individuals themselves remain silent. Whether it is to confess or to deny, they must, through the courts, speak to those who suffered the loss of their loved ones and the authorities that seek to protect us. If the State then considers it politically expedient to issue an amnesty, I for one would be ready to applaud its commitment to reconciliation.