You are listening to a programmes from BBC Radio 4.
Good Morning. The F word. It’s one of the most provocative in the English language. We use it sparingly. It takes us by surprise, going against our natural instincts. The F Word is forgiveness.
Some people can practice it. Jill Saward, who has died this week, was among them. She became a household name after being attacked and raped at the Ealing vicarage where her father was the local priest.
From somewhere deep inside Jill found the resources to make light from darkness. Over time she became a champion for the rights of those who’ve faced sexual violence. She made a distinction between the act of aggression and her aggressors.
‘Forgiveness gives you freedom,’ she said. ‘Freedom to move on without being held back by the past.’
In that familiar prayer, Christians say ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’
Jill Saward found her faith called her to forgiveness… but not everyone shares that faith.
And not everyone who shares it, can make such a clear-cut decision to forgive.
It’s easy to sentimentalise forgiveness… until we ourselves are the victim of some abusive partner, some violent stranger, some political tyrant. Some conniving colleague or friend who breaks trust.
When the journalist Marina Cantacuzino was collecting stories for an exhibition called The F Word, she observed that some people see forgiveness as a noble response to atrocity… and others see it as a ridiculous response.
Taking part in restorative justice courses inside prisons, I’ve often seen prisoners reflect movingly on the impact of their crimes - sometimes, when meeting victims.
Janine - not her real name - stabbed another girl in a drunken argument. I watched her nervously rise to her feet, in a circle of twenty of her fellow inmates, and read a poem she’d written addressed to her victim, explaining her sorrow and regret.
Some people crave forgiveness for what they’ve done, but others don’t. Some victims decide to forgive quickly - others can never do it.
Forgiveness is as mysterious as love or compassion, it won’t be forced and isn’t compulsory.
Even for those who choose forgiveness, it’s not a momentary decision but a resolution to weave this new thread into the ragged fabric of our everyday relationships. Less of an act and more of an attitude.
Forgiveness can be the WD40 that oils the creaking hinges of our friendships and, sometimes, keeps the doors from falling off altogether.
‘All friendships of any length,’ says the poet David Whyte, ‘Are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.’
But it’s not easy, it’s not about forgetting and it doesn’t always lead to reconciliation – except, perhaps, with ourselves.
For the practicing Christian or practicing Moslem, for the practicing agnostic or practicing atheist, the practice of forgiveness is one way to break free of a past which wants to trap us.
‘Forgiveness,’ as Jill Saward said, ‘can bring freedom.’