Images of Eva Kor embracing former SS guard, Oskar Groening, at his trial in Lueneberg this week have been shared on social media and in newspapers worldwide. These images, and the responses to them, reveal much about the complex, surprising, inspiring and challenging, sometimes even threatening, nature of forgiveness. Our relationship with forgiveness, collective and individual, is always nuanced and often ambivalent. It is a slippery, shape-shifting concept that rarely exists without an undercurrent of emotion. Forgiveness can be experienced as both restorative and undermining. It may be perceived as noble and a betrayal. We may aspire to it even as we fear it. Forgiveness is a force that may be resisted or harnessed or, perhaps more often than we acknowledge, both.
Few have thought more about forgiveness than Maina Cantacuzino. Ten years ago she founded The Forgiveness Project. Last year, saw a series of outstanding events to celebrate a decade of its work culminating in the publication of a book – The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age. It is a remarkable text that manages in a slim volume to capture the significance and unique approach of The Forgiveness Project and, in doing so, captures why its work matters more than ever.
Central to the book and to the work of The Forgiveness Project are stories. Those stories offer an unmediated insight into this demanding, elusive, inspiring and troubling thing we call ‘forgiveness’. It provides space, without judgement or commentary, for people to reflect on and to share what forgiveness means for them.
It is these narratives that form the basis of the book, although Marina Cantacuzino’s introductory essay – “As Mysterious as Love” – is an outstandingly thoughtful, and thought-provoking, exploration of forgiveness and her own personal and professional relationship with it. The book also carries two rich and insightful forewords from Desmond Tutu and Alexander McCall Smith. Yet, it is the forty individual stories that follow the introduction and forewords that form the essence of this unique work.
Some of those who come to The Forgiveness Project are well-known people whose capacity for compassion and empathy towards those who have caused devastation has prompted fascinated media attention across the world. Others are less familiar names but their stories are equally urgent and compelling. There is neither formula nor any sentimentality to be found. Anyone seeking sentimental salve will be disappointed. Nor do tropes of heroism or survival occur often. What is offered instead is much harder and ultimately more rewarding. These are accounts that are authentic, sometimes painful, often surprising and always affecting.
It is not merely the content of these stories that is noteworthy. The form reflects the discomforting and urgent nature of the tales told. All the individual contributions are short, few extend beyond five pages and the language is direct, plain and unflinching. There is force in the form. It propels the narrative, unadorned and untamed, searing each account in our memories and unsettling our own perceptions of forgiveness. The stories are presented with little in the way of preamble and often begin at points of loss, crisis and despair. The ways in which each of these accounts breaches the reader’s consciousness reflects the nature of the experiences described. These stories, like the events they relate, arrive unbidden and unexpectedly, without warning or invitation. They interrupt and disrupt. The language is spare, sometimes even brutal, and simple belying their daunting legacies. These are collisions with strangers that can change the direction of a life, or at the least, the beliefs one holds about a life.
These stories reveal that the force of forgiveness is often experienced viscerally. Its charge is both negative and positive. Within the book, there are no homilies or sermons about its normative value or otherwise. It is simply there: unfiltered and demanding our attention. Whether it is resisted, embraced, explored or ignored, its force cannot be avoided. A number of contributors note that it may be easier to define forgiveness by what it is not and, in so doing, they challenge much of the received wisdom about what constitutes forgiveness and why it matters. Others are less interested in definitions and the boundaries of the concept. All those who have contributed to the book attend to meaning in all its infinite variety. These are fluid explorations for alongside the meditations on forgiveness, are reflections on what it means to have hope, to be loyal, to restore dignity and ultimately to be human. That these ideas emerge from the rubble of lives shattered by loss, cruelty and destruction is not only intensely moving, but serves as testament to Marina Cantacuzino’s transformative work both in creating this book and leading The Forgiveness Project.
Prof. Deborah Bowman
Editor, Medical Humanities
St George’s, University of London