Can you forgive the unforgivable?

For By Cariad Ingles

For some of the tragically unlucky few, even the notion of forgiving the person responsible for ruining their life, or taking the life of a loved one, is almost impossible to comprehend. It is arguably only a natural instinct to wish harm upon those who do us harm, to see karma reap its ugly revenge. But does it have to be this way? Do we really have the capacity within us to forgive and forget, no matter how barbaric the crime? I would like to think so.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, at the young age of just eighteen, Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a racially motivated gang in Eltham, south-east London, with his friend Duwayne Brooks also being attacked, simply because they were both black. The devastation caused to Lawrence’s family was quite obviously immeasurable, and the sense of injustice only adds to this trauma. Only two of the gang responsible, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were sentenced to life, while Jamie and Neil Acourt and Luke Knight have never been convicted.

After all this time however, Stephen’s father Neville Lawrence has made the difficult decision to forgive his son’s killers. As well as this, Neville says he would not be against potentially talking to them, too. When asked his reasons for this, he said “It has been a heavy load to carry around, and hatred is not a nice thing to have”. After his son’s murder, Neville Lawrence devoted his time to speaking to young people about the terrible consequences of carrying a weapon. Neville believes that “you can forgive somebody whether or not they want it”.

Howard Zehr, a professor of Restorative Justice at the Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia has facilitated the meeting of hundreds of perpetrators and their victims, believing that bringing criminals and victims together has the potential for benefits on both sides.

One memorable meeting was the encounter between a sexual abuser and his victim. She confronted him with the simple question “How could you do this to me? You stole my childhood”. The offender realised for the first time the severity of what he had done, and the incident was no longer the dominant force over this particular victim’s life.

As well as pushing the offender to see the impact of their actions on those affected, the meetings can also help to alleviate the victim’s sense of trauma, with victims of severe violence regularly reporting a high level of satisfaction, according to Zehr. “Victims are often stuck in their experience”, he says, “the meetings enable them to get answers and let go.”

Texan mother Linda White was left in a complete sense of devastation after the murder of her pregnant daughter, Cathy, in the November of 1986. After finding little comfort in victim support groups, believing them to be full of bitter family members with no desire to move on, White trained as a grief counsellor and taught in prisons, leading her to meet with her daughter’s killer, which proved a very cathartic experience for her. White says “If you let grief take over your life, it’s as if the offence continues over and over again. It turns you angry and bitter”.

No matter our respective religious affiliations, the ability to forgive is one that we all possess. In granting forgiveness to those who hurt us, even most severely, we needn’t see it as a betrayal, as giving in or giving up, we must see it as merely refusing to allow their horrific actions to hurt us any longer. It is making the powerful decision to choose compassion over hatred.

Against by Gem Marsh

Twenty-five years ago, Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack. For two decades his killers walked free, and many place fault on the police for the way they handled the matter. The case has now been closed as it is ‘unlikely to progress’, but there are still many questions left with the family never seeing full justice or closure.

The case has been at the forefront of many people’s minds after the documentary Stephen: ‘The Murder That Changed a Nation’ aired on the BBC, and it was revealed that Neville Lawrence, Stephens father, was willing to forgive his sons killers and maybe even meet with them.

I hold the utmost respect for Neville Lawrence and the battle he has fought to gain justice for his son, and the harsh realities that he had to face, but the murders Dobson and Norris do not deserve forgiveness. For twenty years they knew what they had done – they knew that there was a family mourning their child, that they had committed one of the worst crimes, and even when they were named as suspects, they walked away able to act guilt-free.

At no time have they shown remorse, guilt, or acknowledged what they had done was wrong. It is clear that they are not deserving of forgiveness as they have not shown that they even care about the terrible crime they committed.

In reflection, Neville Lawrence has said “It has been a heavy load to carry around, and hatred is not a nice thing to have”. If he feels forgiveness ‘’whether or not they want it’’ is the best thing for him to do, then no one can stop him from doing that. However there is a difference between letting go, as in this case hatred will change nothing and forgiving those who are not deserving. Forgiveness is a big step and a cathartic process in which both parties can reflect, learn and progress.

In this case, I understand that Lawrence would want to let go of the hatred and hurt, but I have to acknowledge that these killers do not feel remorse of care. In forgiveness they may come to a moment of clarity and repentance, but they may even get a kick out of it, a sense that they have won the battle. In our eyes this is obviously not the case, but to them they may feel as if the Lawrence’s have given in.

Forgiveness is often described as a process for the victim, and while this is true I believe that the offender should show some desire for forgiveness in order for the process to be effective. In many cases there is a realisation on both parts, and there is more understanding and a true learning process. Giving forgiveness to an offender who does not understand the gravity of what they did, who walked free for so long is not as effective and does not seem to be having a full effect. In gaining closure, victims and their families may be able to move on and let go of what had happened and walk away as ‘the bigger person’ but this does not mean giving out forgiveness to those who do not deserve it.

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