Belfast Telegraph

Thank God for an Archbishop who says it's OK not to forgive

By Robert McNeill

In an unusual development, a churchman talked sense this week.

The churchman under advisement was the Archbishop of Yon Canterbury. Rowan Williams, to give him his Sunday name, said you shouldn't expect people who've suffered terrible crimes to forgive the perpetrators as a matter of course. It simply ain't that easy. Well, halle-flippin'-lujah.

I admire forgiveness - depending on the crime. One reads of people whose daughters have been horribly murdered saying they forgive the perpetrator, and one not unnaturally ululates: Eh? How can that be possible?

It seems to me inhuman, and I mean that in a bad sense. It's an extension of the inhumanity of modern liberalism, the sick creed that, on hearing of the murder of a child, expresses first a hope that the paedophile's legal rights will be respected. I've actually heard two people saying that. It was a good 15 minutes before I let go of their heads.

An uber-liberal friend recently said she thought it awful that the west was arming the Libyan insurgents, as they were just lads who wouldn't know how to fire the guns. That's right. Far better, surely, that they just try karate-kicking Gadaffi's tanks. This scatty thinking has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, when daft sociology was spooned into the brains of citizens unused to education. I should know. I was one of them.

At first, it seemed fair enough. The main thesis was that it was all society's fault, which was arguably the case where poverty, for example, fomented theft. But the seamless shift was made between excusing the purloining of biscuits to forgiving murder because the poor axe-fiend had an unhappy childhood. Er, no. If you've a line about your person, draw it somewhere.

Forged from this extreme liberalism, the forgiving imperative developed into a new gesture for post-crime public consumption. It drew partly from theological baggage and partly from psychological advice, since the hellishly difficult act of forgiving makes things easier, while a lifetime of hate saps the soul. If that's the case, one might say to grieving relatives: go for it.

Anyone who has suffered in this way will know better than I, and I defer to their way of doing things. Goodness knows, in this part of the world, there are many people still working through such issues with the raw clarity that only awful experience can provide. In What is the Point of Forgiveness?, a BBC programme to be broadcast on Quite Good Friday, the aforementioned Archbish concedes it's unfair to expect victims of abuse, rape or torture to turn the other cheek with ease. He tells Radio Times: "[If] forgiveness is easy it is as if the suffering doesn't really matter."

Understandably, given his day-job, he still insists faith can help people forgive. Possibly, but I'd still put my money on time, and then only in a minority of cases.

Forgiveness itself just doesn't cover all the bases. Furthermore, as the dustbin of history closes on religion, we need new ways of thinking. That means exploring the vast, uncharted region between forgiveness and hate, the claiming of territory that melds anger, sorrow and acceptance.

Acceptance here is simply acknowledgement that something awful has happened, with accompanying confirmation that the world isn't fair, and renewed determination that it damned well should be.

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