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Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill: 'If the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, does Northern Ireland need 50 words for forgive?'

Forgiveness is the theme of next month's 4 Corners Festival in Belfast. Co-chairs Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill explain why it is central to the transformation of the country


Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and Fr Martin Magill of St John’s Parish

Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and Fr Martin Magill of St John’s Parish

Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and Fr Martin Magill of St John’s Parish

Scandalous Forgiveness - that is the name of 2019's 4 Corners Festival. We believe it is a vital theme for our city and country in our current political inertia and any possible vision we might conjure for a peaceful future.

Forgiveness has been a recurring word from the contributors and audience at our last few festivals. Last year, at a panel event, it came as a question from the floor: "Do we have to forgive people who have wronged us?" Fr Brian Lennon was on the panel and in his answer, he threw up another question: "Forgiveness? What does that look like?"

It was a fascinating question. Here was a word that we hear weekly in churches across Northern Ireland, no matter what denomination. 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 is complex. But surely it is vital if we are ever going to be able to deal with our past?

Fr Brian's words fired the direction of the 2019 festival. Professor John Brewer, from the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University, 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.

The festival planning committee took time over adding the word 'scandalous'. We believe that 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 of Israel. In Jewish 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.

There was a scene in a television documentary where 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.

We have sympathy with her thoughts, but at the same time 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 and seemed to be a major symbol in her own life. Yet, it was not at all in evidence as she spoke.

Have we concentrated ourselves on God's forgiveness to us, but somehow blocked out and ignored that Jesus asks us to follow him by forgiving others the way he forgives us?

We are both convinced that forgiveness is a key contributor to peace-building. We believe that it can contribute to personal peace, as well as societal peace. To forgive someone who has caused us deep pain is not so much for the good of the one forgiven as much as it is for the one 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.

It has been said that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow. Should we in Northern Ireland have 50 words for forgiveness?

We often hear from friends at Stormont that, never mind not getting into the chamber together, some politicians hold such resentment that they won't even share a greeting when they meet certain others on the stairs.

The name that we call a city can cause all kinds of bitterness of heart.

Wearing the wrong football shirt in the wrong place can be a dangerous thing. Self-forgiveness might be something that we don't find easy either. These all call for different shades and weights of forgiveness. Then there is the heavier forgiveness that will be necessary if we, as a society, truly seek a way to deal with our bloodied past.

We need to be able to find forgiveness for what our communities have done to one another for hundreds of years: the hurt, the pain, the prejudice, the killing.

We believe that forgiveness is a resource, maybe the most powerful resource in delivering a better future. The Bible has the hope of "Shalom" at the heart of God's dream for the world. We believe forgiveness between human and human, community and community, as well as God and humanity, are intrinsic to God's intentions for redeeming the world.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem that first Christmas and angels sang "Peace on Earth", they were already looking ahead to Easter, when God reconciled himself to the world in Jesus's death on the cross.

Jesus uttered the words "Father forgive them for they know not what they do". Interesting!

We encourage the city of Belfast and beyond to use the events planned for 4 Corners Festival 2019 to look at forgiveness from a whole range of angles.

We will look at how CS Lewis portrayed forgiveness in a family-friendly event, The Gospel According To... Narnia; how Seamus Heaney took up Greek myth to speak into our modern dilemma in a reading of The Cure At Troy, with public figures playing the parts; a new documentary, Guardians Of The Flame, in which people impacted by the Troubles share their different takes on forgiving; Belfast songwriter Brian Houston will share themes of forgiveness in his body of work; and David Porter, along with Nicola Brady, will inspire us to live as a forgiving city moving forward.

We are delighted to have Fr Greg Boyle, whose idea of bringing boundless compassion to the violent gang members of Los Angeles has deeply impacted lives and communities.

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 10 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.

Rev Steve Stockman is minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and Fr Martin Magill is parish priest of St John's parish, both in Belfast. They are co-founders and co-chairs of the 4 Corners Festival, now in its seventh year, which runs from January 30 to February 11, 2019. For further details see 4cornersfestival.com

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