Thinking Anew – The power of forgiveness
The whale swallowing Jonah. Miniature from the Jewish Bible of Joseph Assarfati, Hebrew manuscript from Cervera, 1299, Spain. DeAgostini/Getty Images
During victim-impact statements, there was huge anger and bitterness directed toward Tarrant but one woman, Janna Ezat, whose son Hussein Al-Umari was murdered in the attack, told Tarrant she forgave him. She said: “I decided to forgive you because I don’t have hate. I don’t have revenge. In our Muslim faith we can forgive . . . Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice to forgive you.” It was the only time Tarrant showed any emotion; the soft words, not the angry words got to him.
Many will admire what Janna Ezat did but not everyone. That certainly was the experience of Gordon Wilson who forgave those who killed 12 people, including his only daughter, in the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen. Many of the injured and bereaved felt unable to forgive and who could blame them?
The Book of Jonah, which provides an alternative reading for tomorrow’s liturgy, is possibly not taken too seriously by some because of the strange story about a man being swallowed by a large fish. Legend aside, this book raises the important subject of how we should treat our enemies. It tells of how the prophet Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh to condemn its corrupt ways but he resists and escapes by sea only to get caught by a severe storm and ends up in “the belly of the fish”. We are told he is rescued on condition that he goes to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria which had eliminated the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. It was a truly barbaric regime that inflicted indescribable horrors on captive peoples, in ways that one would not enjoy reading about over a weekend brunch. This is the regime Jonah is told to confront, which he eventually does. Then comes a strange twist to the story. God withholds punishment because the people of Nineveh repent and goes further by expressing concern for their welfare: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Jonah’s furious response reflects the thinking of those who are not in the forgiving business, but he is overruled.
Jonah’s geographical context is today’s Iraq and Syria, the killing grounds of al-Qaeda, and Isis, groups that have inflicted death and destruction across the world. It is hard to imagine any of their victims wanting to forgive them even if they changed their ways. They belong to a long list of people in history, the likes of Hitler and Stalin, few would ever want to forgive.
Janna Ezat and Gordon Wilson, however ,take us deeper. Speaking out of her Muslim faith, she forgave a man who showed no remorse for killing her son. Wilson, a Christian, did the same when his daughter was killed. He met militant republicans and pleaded for peace but to no avail. He still forgave them. We marvel at such generosity of spirit but as tomorrow’s gospel reading reminds us, their generosity is consistent with the mind of the God “whose nature is always to have mercy”.
In the parable of the landowner, labourers are hired throughout the day and when work is done some have worked longer than others, yet all are paid the same. When those who worked longest object, they are told: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong . . . Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”
Our flawed and selfish human instincts do not limit or control God’s generosity. We do not get to decide who is in or who is out.