How does someone whose child has been murdered find a way to forgive? What if you lose a loved one in a senseless act of terrorism or the state murders them? How do you forgive your father for killing your mother? And why are high-profile people who forgive often criticised and abused – as if they are denying society its right to vengeance?
Marina Cantacuzino sought answers to these questions when she founded the Forgiveness Project as a charity in 2004. Through it, she shared stories of forgiveness from survivors and perpetrators of crimes. A few years later, she put on the F-Word exhibition, a series of images exploring forgiveness in the face of atrocity. She has now published a book, Forgiveness: An Exploration. What she has found is that there is no single answer to any of these questions.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone whose career has been based around forgiveness, Cantacuzino says some people will never forgive and that creating the expectation that this is what decent people do is unhelpful, even insulting. “Radical forgiveness – the idea that everything is forgivable and should be forgiven – I find really difficult,” she says. “It’s too prescriptive. It makes people feel bad if they can’t.”
In some cases, people will forgive certain elements of a tragedy, but not others. Cantacuzino remembers the mother of a victim of the 7/7 bombings in London, who forgave the bombers, but not the police: “I don’t know why.” Some people can forgive without seeing any sign of atonement from the wrongdoer, while for others this will always be what Terry Waite, who was held captive by terrorists in Beirut, has called “incomplete forgiveness”.
There is, however, one through-line that Cantacuzino will trace between one story and the next. She tells me about the father of a girl killed in Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. “For the first year after, the father’s life fell apart: his marriage, his other relationships. He drank. He used to go to the bomb site every day and look at it,” says Cantacuzino. “Then, after one year, he realised he had to do something differently, because what he was doing wasn’t working. His route out of it was to choose to forgive McVeigh. That is very common – it’s a choice, an intention to do it, to alleviate the pain.” People who are not living with tragedy can underestimate how much work it is to hate.
I meet Cantacuzino, 64, at her home in London, which has a calm, harmonious vibe. It is full of the soothing ornaments you see in marriage counsellors’ offices. When she started this work, in 2003, she was a jobbing journalist: “Women’s magazines: Hello! was my bread and butter, but very mixed. Some really gritty stuff – like articles about Chornobyl – as well.”
She always says the Iraq war provoked her interest in forgiveness, because she was so angry when the UK embarked on it. Attending the anti-war rally in London in February 2003, coordinated with protests across the world attended by millions, only stoked this fury – “going on that march, knowing they wouldn’t listen”. She saw the war as a doomed idea. “It felt so illogical – the harder you come down on people, the more they regroup and re-emerge in a more angry and resistant way,” she says of the reaction to the UK invasion.
But her fascination and tenacity must have had deeper roots, I suggest. She agrees, wryly, that this is what her friends say, particularly those who are psychotherapists. “I had nothing big to forgive in my past,” she says. “I grew up in London. My father was Romanian; he was an architect and my mother was a housewife. It was a very typical middle-class family. I suppose you’d call them cultured; they spent most of their money on the opera.”
There was tragedy, too. Her brother, to whom she was very close, had muscular dystrophy and died at 17. They had known since he was four that he would die young. “I think that left me feeling quite comfortable around stories of pain,” she says. One account of blame and forgiveness from that time stood out: “My aunt said how wonderful my father was not to blame my mother, how forgiving he was. Because it was a gene that’s passed on and she carried it. I remember feeling incensed about that.”
Cantacuzino emphasises how important it is not to be judgmental about forgiveness. She is careful to include people who haven’t forgiven, or who don’t believe in forgiving in this way. But equally important is the way she resists sentimental interpretations of other people’s motives and her own.
One of the first stories she collected was from the mother of a boy who had died in what later became the Alder Hey scandal, in which the organs of dead children were retained by Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool: “As she was telling me her story – and this had never happened to me before and hasn’t happened since – I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I wouldn’t call it sobbing – it wasn’t that loud – but it definitely wasn’t discreet. I apologised to her afterwards. And she was very sweet; she said actually it was so nice to see a journalist cares. Because she’d been asked about it by so many people and never felt any connection.”
In this instance, she turned her careful, forensic approach, which delves into the source of emotions and impulses, on to herself. “I think I was triggered, in a way, by a young boy who had died.”
When the F-Word exhibition was unveiled in 2007, churches were keen to host it, but Cantacuzino’s approach has always resisted spirituality, Christianity in particular, “which has an uneasy relationship with forgiveness. The evangelical right in America are people you do not see as forgiving or peace-loving at all … Some people don’t even like the word ‘forgiveness’; they find it too barnacled by piety and religion. Some people prefer ‘understanding’,” she says. “But I like it because it’s such a gritty word. People will attack you for using it, and therefore it’s a bit more interesting to me.”
She sees a problem with the way some religions see forgiveness as mandatory; a fundamental pillar is that you can’t carry hatred. But, for Cantacuzino, “everyone has a right to not forgive and not to be challenged on it”.
In fact, in many contexts – from restorative justice programmes in prisons, to families, to forgiveness ceremonies after civil wars – she has seen bridges collapse where forgiveness is expected or demanded. “I remember talking to an architect of the truth and reconciliation commission [after apartheid in South Africa] and he said: ‘At one time, we considered making forgiveness mandatory. And then we saw sense.’”
State-sponsored violence is particularly difficult to forgive or atone for, because it is so asymmetrical; in the end, the perpetrators of injustice against Indigenous Australians or in the Catholic-run residential schools for Native Americans in Canada felt nothing, while the impact of those cruelties echoed down generations. Cantacuzino talks about one scholar who thinks forgiveness shouldn’t be used in a political context at all, because the watchword there should be justice. “Can forgiveness break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and hatred, the stories that are passed down from teachers to pupils, parents to children? When it becomes a matter of groups and administrations – especially if there’s been no justice, or acknowledgment, or apology – it becomes highly problematic.”
Yet she has a lot of time for large gestures of atonement, such as Australia’s Sorry Day (or the National Day of Healing), which began in 1998, to acknowledge the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians; it led to a government apology by the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in 2008. “It didn’t ultimately make a huge amount of difference, because reparations, which were promised [to Indigenous people], were never paid. But it meant that every Australian now knew this had happened. And this was the truth. And it became a matter of history, not a matter of discussion.”
Financial reparations always seem unequal to meaningful crimes, such as slavery, but if there is a deep hurt or harm on a huge scale, “someone needs to be shirtless. Shame is part of the dialogue. In other words, atonement needs to cost something real, because forgiveness costs something real. You might be holding hostility or hatred as a way of honouring the hostility your parents or ancestors felt, and that’s a lot to let go.”
Parents of murdered children sometimes describe forgiveness as a loss – that while they were set on revenge, it kept their child at the centre of their thoughts, and giving it up almost meant letting go of the lost. “What forgiveness is able to do is to make peace with this thing, which releases you and frees you. That is a fact. Whether you want to be released is a whole other thing,” Cantacuzino says, before giving the counterpoint: “Many people speak about forgiveness as a way of honouring the child, because that child was such a peace-loving young person.”
It is a much more controversial idea than it sounds on paper, which is powerfully distilled in the book by the life of Eva Mozes Kor, a Romania-born American who survived Auschwitz as a child. She survived, with her twin sister, Miriam, the notorious – and surely unforgivable – twin studies by Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted hideous, inhumane medical experiments, many of them fatal, to satisfy his curiosity.
After many years of silence about her experience, Kor gave a lecture in 1993 with a Nazi doctor, Hans Munch, after which she sent him a forgiveness letter. She wrote later: “I knew it would be a meaningful gift, but it became a gift to myself as well, because in the writing I realised I was not a hopeless, powerless victim any more.”
“There aren’t many people whom I’d describe as ‘forgiveness activists’, but Eva Kor was one,” Cantacuzino says. Even though Kor said she was forgiving solely on her own behalf, she was an incredibly polarising figure, as much reviled as a traitor as hailed as a peacemaker, until her death in 2019.
This is because many people argue there are depths of human behaviour that should never be forgiven and forms of forgiveness that lead only to a cycle of abuse, where the perpetrator feels no remorse and doesn’t acknowledge the crime. “The research into domestic violence is classic ‘forgiveness is part of the abuse’: ‘I forgive you. Let’s carry on.’ But Desmond Tutu used to say: ‘You can forgive and release, or forgive and renew’ – in other words, don’t hold the bitterness, but you can’t forgive and carry on as before.”
Yet even while these stories of incomprehensible kindness are inspiring, you can’t help but notice the accelerating accretion of atrocities that necessitated them. From mass shootings in the US to the massacre by Anders Breivik of 77 people in 2011 in Norway, violence driven by ideology has marked the 21st century. Because of this, Cantacuzino warns against even casual dehumanisation in the way we talk about politicians with whom we disagree.
I am not sure I buy this. Policing the language in political discourse can mask real cruelties and palpable harm. “I totally understand what you’re saying, but I try not to be like you,” Cantacuzino says. “Calling the police ‘pigs’, for instance: what do you think about that?” Well, it is complicated. I remember when they first discovered kettling, a sort of mass-arrest during protests, where people were trapped in Trafalgar Square for six hours. It wasn’t an unviolent act. I didn’t think “pigs” was disproportionate.
“I remember going up to Oxford Street once, and I was someone who threw paint at the police,” Cantacuzino offers. I figured she was talking about the 70s. “No, no, quite recently. During the Occupy movement.”
“Hang on, I was just calling them pigs. You were throwing paint at them.”
Actually, when she pauses to consider it, she remembers that she didn’t throw paint, but she didn’t mind it being thrown – and took a photo of a police officer, which she still has on her phone. “I look at it, this young man just standing there with paint all over himself, and it doesn’t make me feel great. He’s a human being.”
Her next project, which she doesn’t want to discuss in detail until it is done, is about shame and the emotions – hatred, vengeance, forgiveness – that start and end wars. They always feel so baggy and amorphous, but they have a pleasing, almost mechanistic symmetry in the way she describes them.
She is like an engineer who won’t let up until she understands not only how bridges are built, but also how they stay up.
Forgiveness: An Exploration by Marina Cantacuzino is published by Simon & Schuster ( £14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy atguardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism