I have only been on national television once. I was invited to join a panel discussion focusing on the topic of forgiveness. We talk a lot about forgiveness in Prison Fellowship—particularly within Sycamore Tree when we invite learners to create symbolic acts of restitution in the final session of the course.
Although the concept of forgiveness is familiar to me, I felt like a bit of a fraud on that TV programme. Day to day, I have the privilege of working alongside the most amazing people who are victims of crime. They willingly share their stories during Sycamore Tree and have chosen to forgive unimaginable hurt. Like many people, I suffer from imposter syndrome and this subject was pushing all those buttons.
I had prepared well for the broadcast, thinking through what the Bible says about forgiveness in our lives. But then,
the interviewer turned to me and asked, ‘Would you forgive someone who had killed a close family member?’ There was a pause and then the only honest answer I could give was, ‘I hope so, but honestly… I just don’t know.’
Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf shares a similar story in his book Exclusion and Embrace. At the end of a lecture, fellow theologian Jürgan Moltmann asks him a pertinent question: ‘But can you embrace a Chetnik?’ Chetniks were notorious Serbian fighters who had devastated Croatia and so, for Volf, they were a tangible example of an enemy. After a while, he answered: ‘No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.’ His book is the outworking of this struggle.
In church, we can have the habit of speaking in absolute terms about what others should do based upon how we read the Bible. This is not new and is something we see explored in scripture.
In John 8, religious leaders are trying to get Jesus to condemn a woman caught in adultery. Their claim is based on their reading of the Law of Moses found in Deuteronomy. They would argue that they are acting biblically. But, in Jesus,
we have the fulfilment of the law. He outworks the heart of the law, which is not condemnation but restoration.
It has now been a few years since my fleeting moment on television. And my answer to that question is still that ‘I just don’t know.’ It confirms that I still need to be reminded of the grace and compassion of Christ; reminded of stories like the one in John 8; but also of the stories of people who are victims of crime. People who, instead of enacting condemnation and retribution, have embodied the heart of Christ, extended forgiveness and helped facilitate restoration.
Peter Holloway is the Chief Executive of Prison Fellowship England and Wales.
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