Although our legal system attempts to dish out ‘justice’, we all know that simply serving a prison sentence does not in and of itself necessarily appease either the victim of a crime, or the victim’s family. Nor does it necessarily change the mindset of the person serving the sentence for the better.
‘The Forgiveness Project’ (TFP) was founded 14 years ago by the journalist Marina Cantacuzino who sought to tell the real stories of people whose response to being harmed was not a call for revenge, but to quest for restoration and healing.
TFP works to counter hate and fear, building a growing movement of people who have reconciled with pain and transformed their lives. Their experiences bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit and act as a powerful antidote to the increasingly prevalent narratives of hate, insularity and dehumanisation.
TFP began with an exhibition, ‘The F Word’ which was launched in London in 2004 and consisted of a series of images and personal narratives that explored forgiveness in the face of atrocity.
The exhibition has gone on to be displayed in over 550 venues worldwide. Drawing together voices from South Africa, America, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, England and further afield, the exhibition examines forgiveness as a healing process, a path out of victimhood and, ultimately, a journey of hope. The exhibition is available in various formats for hire, and is on display in several countries around the world.
Sharing these stories in schools, prisons, and communities around the world, The Forgiveness Project is working to build hope, empathy and understanding in order to create a less divided society.
For example, participants in the RESTORE prison programme report that is has empowered them to reclaim responsibility for their lives and actions. Further, the programme has proved effective in improving offending behaviour in its participants.
Interview with Marina Cantacuzino (MC), founder and Rachel Bird (RB), Director, conducted by Richard Matousek, Prospero World.
RM: Were there any particular experiences that led to your interest in forgiveness being so strong?
MC: There were two things that triggered my interest in ‘forgiveness.’ In 2003 I went on the march against the Iraq War. The rhetoric at the time spoken by our politicians and repeated in the media was full of anger and revenge and I felt very impotent. As a journalist I wanted to find people who had suffered atrocities, where something hard had come down on them, but who hadn’t sought revenge and who had broken out of the cycle of retaliation. I was interested in forgiveness because I didn’t fully understand it. I felt that if anything terrible were ever to happen to me then forgiveness might be the way forward because it really seemed to help people get through trauma. It seemed like a survival mechanism and I was very interested.
The second thing is that I remember being struck when I was watching the news: this man’s 3-year-old child was killed in a hospital blunder and during the inquest he saw that the doctor who had administered the lethal drug was visibly upset - - then he walked across the room to him and said ‘I want you to know I forgive you’ and gave him a hug. At that time it was so unusual for this kind of story to be covered - it impressed me. He’s also the only person I’ve contacted to ask to take part in the Forgiveness Project who has said ‘no’.
RM: What does forgiveness mean to you? Is it anything different to just letting go?
MC: I think it’s more than letting go; inevitably it grows out of being hurt or harmed.. Letting go just means not engaging and is different in that sense. Forgiveness is more than just not hating. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the other. It’s not just about forgiving the act but forgiving the fallibility of humanity. There’s a wonderful quote by Alexander Solzhenitsyn about how the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being and so who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.
Rachel Bird – Director of TFP.
RM: As the director of TFP is there an area where you’d especially like to expand?
RB: Since we’ve been in existence (around 14 years) we’ve collected enough stories to give us an idea about themes and an understanding of the process of forgiveness. One thing it’s important for us to state is that we don’t suggest that people should forgive. It’s much more about exploring this difficult and messy but potentially transformative process. We use the stories as a lens through which to explore human experience, and as stories of hope with which to humanise ‘the other’. We are all capable of good and evil. One of our storytellers, Kemal Pervanic who survived the Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia, said “That could have been any of us” and he refers not to the victims, but the perpetrators because his jailers in the camp were his neighbours and his classmates at school.
We look at different ways we can use our stories. We go to schools and communities; we have exhibitions touring round the world; we have speakers and public events and we have the RESTORE workshops which involve a deeper journey.
Where we’d like to work more is to pilot work to find out which other communities RESTORE could be effective in and we’re also interested in discovering the synergies between our different projects.
RM: How would you change the criminal justice system in this country to make it take the nuances of humanity into account more?
RB: The criminal justice system in the country needs more funding for a start. Prisoners aren’t getting the support they need and the system is in crisis. It’s an environment that neither prisoners or prison officers should be in. If change does happen in that environment it’s often in spite of, not because of the system. What would be great for our justice system is to start from a belief in the possibility of change – that a person is more than the worst thing they have ever done.
RM: What does justice mean to you?
RB: Justice should be accountable and fair. If you look at justice historically it’s seen as something to prevent the injured party taking revenge. But if you look at justice nowadays it seems very much like a vengeful system to many people, and that is not just and it can never bring back the person who has gone. I was talking to a bishop from Northern Ireland and what he said is that what people need to understand is that ultimately there is never enough justice - nothing can ever make things as they were.
Also, the model traditionally is that the state acted as prosecutor on behalf of the victim. And that means that the victim is often left not feeling like they had any partin the proceedings. The intimate nature of a crime needs to be better understood. Restorative justice (which isn’t necessarily linked to forgiveness) should be seen as a process by which people can be involved in transforming the situation, meet with their attacker and say ‘this is what you did to me’. You can hide from your head but you can’t hide from your heart. Justice should be about repairing harm and it needs to have the community at the heart of it, ensuring that the perpetrator takes responsibility for mending the harm. The prison-based criminal justice system doesn’t really offer that so I don’t think it can be considered a just system.
Marina’s Photograph by Katalin Karolyi © The Forgiveness Project
Rachel's Photograph: © The Forgiveness Project