On Now : In Tune
Tom Harrold, Milos Milivojevic, Tom Poster, Natalie Clein

Essays on Forgiveness

Tuesday 25 February 2014, 17:45

Graeme Kay Graeme Kay Producer, R3 Multiplatform


Producer David Coomes introduces this week's broadcasts in The Essay.

The Essay this week is given over to reflections on Forgiveness, a word we often use swiftly and glibly, without fully understanding its meaning and consequences. Five essayists approach Forgiveness: what it is, what it isn't (or shouldn't be), and how to do it.

Do we appreciate how hard it is truly to forgive? And do we confuse it sometimes with forgetting? In fact, is it possible at all? Do we mistakenly think of it as a magic wand, giving us a warm, cosy glow inside, helping us to evade or cope with the consequences of the wrong?  Do we too easily forgive retrospectively or vicariously? Where is there a place for justice to be done and to be seen to be done?

The series kicked off last night with journalist and writer, Madeleine Bunting. 'Nothing is a more familiar part of our moral furniture,' she says.  As a child growing up a Catholic, she recited The Lord's Prayer and its plea to be forgiven 'as we forgive others'. In later life, she has discovered that forgiving is hard, very hard, a choice rather than an emotion, and 'emerging as one of the dominant themes which has shaped the struggles of (her) own emotional landscape.' You can listen to Madeleine's broadcast here.

Tonight's essayist is writer Mark Vernon, a former priest in the Church of England, who argues that Forgiveness is one step too far, is impossible for human beings to do properly, and whose apparent public examples like Nelson Mandela reveal in their own lives not so much a situation-changing forgiveness, but 'pragmatic reconciliation'.

Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger (Wednesday) speaks as a Jew. She has never understood retrospective or vicarious forgiveness for one simple reason, often exemplified in Jewish history. Only the victims have the right to forgive, nobody else. She has never understood, either, friends who tell her it is time after all these decades to forgive the Nazis their atrocities. Really? Those 'atrocities' damaged or destroyed people's lives, and who are we to forgive? Presumptuous, to say the least. 'The whole point of forgiveness is that one seeks it from those very people one has wronged.'

The historian Dr David Starkey believes forgiveness to be more than a moral injunction; it is also one of the corner-stones of what we can still call - just - Western Christian civilisation.  But for how long? 'And is this corner-stone, like most of the rest of the fabric itself, already eroded beyond repair?' Arguing that it is, with constant references to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which has arrived early, he fears: 'Forgiveness is a product of tough and testing times. Our times, on the other hand, are neither tough nor testing but feather-bed soft and somnolently secure.'

Concluding the series is the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts, who advocates that Forgiveness goes alongside Justice, it doesn't replace it. 'Forgiveness, in the traditional elegy, was undergirded by justice'. Once, of course, people believed that if justice evaded them in this life it would be done in the next. But if, as most of us believe, there is no next life...




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