Having spent the majority of my life living in Northern Ireland, I have seen the damage that holding on to hurt and pain as communities can cause. I have seen more news reports on bombs and shootings and deaths than there ever should be.
For decades now politicians and practitioners on the ground have worked to try and fix the country. Sometimes we have made huge leaps forward, such as the Belfast and St. Andrew agreements and other times we have taken huge steps backwards such as recent riots over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.
Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it disastrously wrong.
One idea that we often get wrong is the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a difficult topic to address. How can we encourage people who have lost family members due to violence to forgive those who carry out such actions? How do we allow people the right to be angry but allow them the grace to work through it to a place where they can find peace?
Not easy questions and there are no easy answers.
But I think we owe it to ourselves to work for those answers.
The first stage of achieving this is to look at how we define forgiveness. I think for far too long we have defined forgiveness in a way that is diametrically opposed to true forgiveness.
One definition that plays this out is the idea that you can only forgive someone if they are truly remorseful for what they have done.
This is a terrible mistake to make and is not forgiveness.
What makes this idea of forgiveness even more confusing is when Christians on both sides in Northern Ireland hold this view tightly. It’s confusing in light of the example of forgiveness that Christians claim to live by. This is found in the death of Jesus on the cross and epitomized by his prayer to God.
“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”
Right there in one simple but honest prayer is forgiveness perfectly defined.
There are no clauses or stipulations for restoration. You do not need to show me that you have changed for me to forgive you. You don’t even need to understand fully the impact of how you have hurt me for me to welcome you back into community.
This of course is very difficult but when confronted with the alternative is there really any other choice?
An alternative that includes letting pain brew inside you until you turn that pain into anger and that anger into dedicating your life to destroy the person that tried to destroy you. Revenge is a dish most definitely served cold.
Most of the time our upside down view of forgiveness is based upon the idea that forgiveness is letting the other person off the hook. To a certain extent this is true. Someone who hurts you is probably doing so because of some hurt that has been allowed to grow inside of them. They also have been damaged by words or actions and instead of forgiveness have turned their anger onto you.
So essentially what forgiveness does is bring an end to a cycle that without it, will spiral out of control. It finally says enough is enough. Not forgiving allows the anger to grow into the generations after us. By acknowledging your pain and the pain that most likely exists inside the person who has hurt you, the playing field is leveled.
You are saved from entering into the cycle and by your forgiveness are allowing an escape route for your former ‘enemy’. You are giving each other a chance to become fully human.
This is why focusing on what we have in common is important for restoration. We start to see each other not as people diatonically opposed to each other but with similar dreams and desires. As people who have both been hurt. We open ourselves up to the idea that we can live together because we know what it is like.
Because forgiveness is not a one time deal. It is the beginning of living and working together. It is an attitude we have, not an event. It is the way of living that allows people like Jo Berry to sit beside Pat Berry, the man who murdered her father.
Is this process straightforward? Of course not. Do we have to practice it in the small everyday ways if we want to do it on a large, political scale? Yep. Did Jesus find it easy to do what He did? Not for a second. Will we? Just look at our past.
But it is simple. This is not a new, groundbreaking idea. But if we’re honest have we been successful?
We often consider Jesus death as our ticket out of here. To get away from evil. This also is true to a certain extent. But only to the extent that it brings restoration for all people. Neglecting the crucial aspect of Jesus death and resurrection in beginning a restoration of all things will result in an us v themuns mentality.
A mentality that has dominated the minds of politicians, the church and the general public in Northern Ireland for far too long. Where both sides are afraid to let their veil down in a fear of appearing weak.
But real weakness is hiding behind the walls we have metaphorically and in some cases physically built to separate each other. Walls so rooted in history and a painful past that only a incredibly strong sledgehammer will break them down.
A sledgehammer called forgiveness.
And it’s time for us all to pick up ours.