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A tale for Easter

Keith Parkins | 02.04.2004 15:40 | Analysis | Repression | Social Struggles

Forgiveness: Should Tony Blair shake hands?

If Osama bin Laden said sorry, should Tony Blair shake his hand? That was the question posed on a recent Any Questions broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Friday 26 March 2004, repeated Saturday 27 March 2004). The response of the panel was no. The concept of forgiveness, the need to break the cycle of violence, was entirely absent from the discussion.

If Osama bin Laden said sorry, should Tony Blair shake his hand? That was the question posed on a recent Any Questions broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Friday 26 March 2004, repeated Saturday 27 March 2004).

The unequivocal response of the panel was no. My response would have been yes, but with reservations.

The context for the question was that a few days before Tony Blair had gone to Libya and shook hands with Colonel Gaddafi.

If we look around the world we see atrocities attributed to bin Laden and his followers – 9/11 in New York and the recent bombings in Madrid where just under two hundred people were killed.

We have though to look at these bombings within their historical context.

It was the CIA, MI6 and the Pakistani SIS, with the help and finance of Saudi Arabia, who established bin Laden.

Apart from the number of dead, what shocked about the Madrid bombings was the lack of any warnings. The outgoing Spanish administration tried to pin it on ETA for crude political gain. Luckily the Spanish electorate are not dumb, and kicked them out. It was also seen as just punishment for launching a war based on lies, as the incoming socialist prime minister called it.

Why would ETA wish to kill hundreds of Spanish people? There is no electoral advantage. And that is what shocked, as much as the deaths themselves, no warnings. How could they? Were warnings given to the Iraqi people every time we bombed them during our illegal war? Are deaths in Iraq less important than deaths in Spain?

A few thousand people were killed when the planes flew into the twin towers in New Year. At least 500,000 children died in Iraq as a result of the sanctions following the first Gulf War. A price US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said was worth paying.

When does the cycle of violence end?

What struck me during the discussion was that it took place just two weeks before Easter. Jesus died on the cross in order that our sins may be forgiven.

The concept of forgiveness was entirely missing from the discussion.

When Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years, he could have called for vengeance, retribution against the Whites, he did not, he called for forgiveness. He called upon his old friend Desmond Tutu and asked him to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The rules were simple: the perpetrators had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and their victims were given the opportunity to forgive.

Many of the atrocities were truly horrific. A policeman called van de Broek told of how he and his fellow officers shot an 18-year-old youth, then burnt the body. Eight years later they went back, took the father, and forced his wife to watch as he was incinerated. She was in court to hear this confession and was asked by the judge what she wanted. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial, van de Broek agreed. She then added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing Amazing Grace as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn, he had fainted, overwhelmed. [see Rumor 88 'Love made van de Broek faint' in Rumors of Another World by Philip Yancey]

The weapons inspectors had not finished their work in Iraq, they wanted a few more weeks, but war determined the agenda. The Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin laden, if the US provided evidence of his involvement in 9/11, the US refused, war determined the agenda. And ultimately oil determined the agenda.

Blair shaking the hand of Gaddafi had nothing to do with forgiveness or reconciliation. Oil determined the agenda. Whilst the Blair visit was taking place, Western oil companies were negotiating future oil concessions in Libya.

Gordon Wilson's daughter Marie was killed in an IRA bombing. He held his dying daughter in his arms. Her last words were 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Wilson was badly injured in the blast. He could have called for vengeance, counter-attacks to even the score. He did not. Instead he said he forgave the bombers, went to talk to them and publicly embraced them. Speaking from his hospital bed he said 'I have lost my daughter but I bear no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back to life. I shall pray tonight, and every night, that God will forgive them.' Protestants were going to mount an attack, to even up the score, but they saw it would have been impossible in the climate created by Wilson. A rare moment of sanity in centuries of violence in Northern Ireland.

The last words Wilson heard from his dying daughter were of love. He mounted a personal crusade for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation. When he met the IRA commanders responsible for the bombing, he told them he forgave them and asked them to lay down their arms. Love was the bottom line. When he met the IRA he told them: 'You have lost loved ones just like me. Surely, enough is enough. Enough blood has been spilled.'

As Gandhi once observed, if everyone sought 'an eye for an eye', eventually the whole world would go blind. The slate is never wiped clean. The wronged want justice, the wrongdoer feels guilty. In an attempt to wipe the slate clean, the wronged and the wrongdoer swap roles and the cycle repeats.

The following question on Any Questions raised the same point: Is Israel safer following the assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas?

No it is not. The gates of Hell have been opened.

The score sheet is far more Palestinians killed than Israelis, but the Palestinians are evening up the score. It is this that is worrying Israel. But we can never even up the score. The hard line action by Israel, in the name of war on terrorism, has dramatically escalated the number of suicide bombings. What has worried ordinary Israelis even more than the level of killings, is that they are now taking place in the Israeli heartlands, not just in the occupied territories.

Forgiveness is an unnatural act, it is far easier to seek vengeance or at the very least seek justice. But where is it to end? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? Are the Jews to seek the death of 6 million Germans before the slate can be seen as wiped clean? An endless cycle that repeats itself through the centuries and down through generations.

The wronged and the wrongdoer are chained together, only grace can break the chains. Forgiveness is unconditional, it is not conditional on remorse, or expressions of regret, it may be undeserved, but only forgiveness can break the chains.

The cycle of ungrace can only be broken if we take the initiative and unconditionally forgive. We have to make the first move and defy what seems a natural law of retribution and fairness.

Forgiveness is not the same as a pardon, we may still seek just punishment for a wrong committed.

In post-Apartheid South Africa, there was an understandable desire for justice, retribution, instead the path of forgiveness and reconciliation was chosen.

We only have to look around the world to see what the alternative could have have been in South Africa if grace had not prevailed. Two examples should suffice:

Nato bombed Serbia so the rest of the world knew Nato meant business. The result was, as predicted, ethnic cleansing of the Albanian Muslim population. Nato had no further interest in Kosovo and Muslim fundamentalism was on the rise as Kosovo degenerated into abject poverty, not helped by the fact that the CIA had shipped in al-Qaeda to help the Muslims. At best an armed truce. No attempts at reconciliation or forgiveness. No surprise then that a few years later the Muslims carry out further atrocities against the minority Serbs, burning down houses and churches. [see Noam Chomsky A New Generation Draws the Line or The New Military Humanism or Hegemony or Survival]

In Jewish occupied Palestine, where the Palestinians are the Niggers of the US Deep South of the 1950s, no attempt, apart from a few peace groups, at reconciliation. The extra-judicial execution of the spiritual leader of Hamas, will have the all too predictable result of escalating the violence and bloodshed. [see Noam Chomsky Fateful Triangle]

What is so different about recent atrocities is that the poor are attacking the rich, the weak the strong, the Third World the West. Or as John Pilger so eloquently put it: 'No front pages in the west mourn victims of the enduring bloodbath in occupied Palestine, the equivalent of the Madrid horror week after week, month after month'. An evening of the score after decades, if not centuries of the strong exploiting the weak.

We can respond, as we did with the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, but as the Madrid bombings have demonstrated, it is yet another turn of the cycle of violence.

Ten years after the end of World War II, two peacemakers visited a group of Polish Christians and asked them if they were willing to meet with a group of West German Christians who sought forgiveness for what happened during WWII. They thought about it and replied no: 'What you are asking is impossible. Each stone of Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood! We cannot forgive.' Before they parted company, the peacemakers asked that as a group they recite the Lord's Prayer together. When they reached the words 'forgive us our sins as we forgive ...', the Pole who had so vehemently denounced the Germans interrupted to say: 'I must say yes to you. I could no more pray the Our Father, I could no longer call myself a Christian, if I refuse to forgive. Humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us His strength!'

Eighteen months later, the two groups met in Vienna. They established a friendship that continues to this day.

As a youth, in 1944, the famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal was asked to hear the confession and forgive a dying SS officer. The man's crimes were truly horrific. Retreating from Russia, thirty of the officer's comrades were killed in a booby-trap. As punishment they rounded up three hundred Jews, imprisoned them in a three-story house, then set fire to the house, anyone who tried to escape was used for target practice. Wiesenthal walked away from the dying officer and refused to forgive: 'At last I made up my mind, and without a word, I left the room.' This refusal to forgive was to haunt Wiesenthal for the rest of his life. Wiesenthal lost eighty-nine of his Jewish relatives in the Holocaust, was forced to watch as the Nazis killed his grandmother in the stairway of her home, saw his mother forced onto a a freight train destined for the death camps, Wiesenthal himself attempted suicide when he was captured. [see Simon Wiesenthal The Sunflower]

Helmut Thielicke was a German who lived through the horrors of Nazism:

'This business of forgiving is by no means a simple thing ... We say, “Very well, if the other fellow is sorry and begs my pardon, I will forgive him, then I'll give in.” We make forgiveness a law of reciprocity. And this never works. For then both of us say to ourselves, “The other fellow has to make the first move.” And then I watch like a hawk to see whether the other person will flash a signal to me with his eyes or whether I can detect some small hint between the lines of his letter which shows that he is sorry. I am always on the point of forgiving ... but I never forgive. I am far too just.'

Someone has to take the initiative, otherwise the cycle of violence continues.

Maybe better than most Laurens van der Post (see The Prisoner and the Bomb) who survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on Java understood the need of forgiveness:

'The only hope for the future lay in an all-embracing attitude of forgiveness of the peoples who had been our enemies. Forgiveness, my prison experience had taught me, was not merely religious sentimentality; it was as fundamental a law of the human spirit as the law of gravity. If one broke the law of gravity one broke one's neck; if one broke this law of forgiveness one inflicted a mortal wound on one's spirit and once again became a member of the chain-gang of mere cause and effect from which life has laboured so long and painfully to escape.'

Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning.

If Osama bin Laden was truly sorry for the atrocities committed by his followers, then we have no alternative than to forgive and move forward, that is if we wish to break the cycle of violence. But it works both ways, the West has to say sorry for the violence it has perpetrated on the poor, and to renounce that violence.

Together we all have to move forward to a better world.

The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.


Johann Christoph Arnold, Why Forgive?, Plough, 2000

Blair hails new Libyan relations, BBC News on-line, 25 March 2004

Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq: The Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction

Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, Pluto Press, 1999

Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, Pluto Press, 1999

Noam Chomsky, Rogue States, Pluto Press, 2000

Noam Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line, Verso, 2001

Noam Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001

Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, Old and New, Pluto Press, 2002

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003

Commuters describe Madrid blast chaos, BBC New on-line, 11 March 2004

John K Cooley, Unholy Wars, Pluto Press, 2000

Firms 'to sign deals with Libya', BBC News on-line, 28 March 2004

Alan Johnston, Palestinians remember Hamas chief, BBC News on-line, 27 March 2004

Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Andrew Marr, Blair's momentous week, BBC News on-line, 26 March, 2004

Elizabeth O'Connor, Cry Pain, Cry Hope, Word Books, 1987

Oil giant Shell signs Libya deal, BBC News on-line, 25 March 2004

Keith Parkins, Middle East Panorama, Indymedia Colombia, 8 December 2003

Keith Parkins, The Evil Empire, to be published

John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, 2002

John Pilger, Terror in Palestine, New Statesman, 22 March 2004

Barbara Plett, Yassin killing brings call for Islamic unity, BBC News on-line, 24 March 2004

Laurens van der Post, The Prisoner and the Bomb, William Morrow and Company, 1971

Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, I B Tauris, 2000

James Shaw, Jerusalem braced for attacks, BBC News on-line, 23 March, 2004

Tamsin Smith, Kosovo residents still on edge, BBC News on-line, 23 March 2004

Spain PM firm on Iraq withdrawal, BBC News on-line, 17 March 2004

Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father, Harper & Row, 1962

Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness

Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream A Vision of Hope for Our Time, Rider, 2004

UK plc eyes Libya, BBC News on-line, 25 March 2004

Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, Schocken, 1976

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, Fortress, 1992

World media condemn killing, BBC News on-line, 23 March 2004

Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan, 1997

Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World, Zondervan, 2003


Keith Parkins
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