Forgiveness and Community Building - The April Diversity Lecture

Helen Pearson (Pictures - Victor Hulbert)

In October 1984, Patrick Magee planted the IRA bomb that killed Jo Berry's father, the British politician Sir Antony Berry. That event created a relationship between Jo Berry and Patrick Magee which could have led to a lifelong hatred. Instead, the two have been on a journey together which has led them to sharing over 300 platforms around the world and promoting the idea that forgiving bridges between perpetrators and victims can be built.

At the April Diversity lecture held at Newbold College of Higher Education on Tuesday 2 April, Jo Berry shared the story of her journey from being a young pacifist who, before the night of her father's murder had 'felt like a free spirit'. These days she has a global career facilitating and teaching peace-making, reconciliation and restorative justice. Her talk and Q&A session were peppered with references to various acts of terror and atrocity – not just in Ireland but in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, in Norway with Anders Behring Breivik, in the UK with the murder of Jo Cox and most recently in New Zealand. All these conflicts left behind human lives full of pain quickly ignored as media attention quickly moves on to the next drama.

Jo began her journey of reconciliation entirely alone with only curiosity about 'why the IRA used violence' and 'trusting that somehow, life would give me experiences.' And it did. First, she met an Irish taxi-driver whose brother had been killed by 'her side' ‒ a British soldier. The conversation gave her the belief that people who should have been enemies could communicate. She began to believe 'I can build a bridge across the divide…the conversation made me feel I had done something.'

Subsequently she travelled to Northern Ireland meeting others from 'victim' families on both sides and constantly trying to understand terrorists – what do they think or feel as they murder others? Slowly the idea of meeting her father's murderer grew in her mind and eventually the invitation was sent and rejected – three times. Eventually, 16 years after the bombing, came the chance to meet Patrick Magee. Jo was busy when the offer came and her very human response was, 'I'm not sure I'm in the mood!'

But she went. A report like this cannot do justice to Jo's story of the meeting with her father's murderer – of the questions and thoughts that went through her mind. To hear that, people must join the hundreds of other people who have watched the talk for themselves on the Facebook page of Newbold College of Higher Education.

There they will hear the description of a high interpersonal drama as two strangers navigated the distances and barriers between them and came to recognise a measure of mutual humanity.

This was not a story minimising or cheapening the challenges of such a relationship. Both participants had stepped on to what Jo describes as an emotional roller coaster. Patrick evidently went to a library to find a book about 'what you do when you meet the daughter of someone you have killed?' There are still times when Pat wants to go back and justify what he did and Jo still finds it hard to listen to him do that. But they talk about it again. The progress of the relationship, the effects on Jo's children – all have been explored on the journey. Eventually Jo asked herself, 'If I had experienced everything Patrick has experienced, would I have made the same decision?' Her answer? 'Every time I suspend judgement, open my heart and become present to the other person, I see that would I make the same choice and there is nothing to forgive.' As she travels to Rwanda and other places the coming to a recognition of common humanity in both sides of a reconciliation process has become a recurrent experience.

Jo made no claims that she is now incapable of getting angry and hurting people. "It is hard. I still get angry and want to blame someone else," she said. It's about recognising anger and changing our response.

What about the place of feelings in forgiveness? Feeling anger at the injustice done to her and her family was a total part of Jo's journey. "All feelings are understandable," she says, "what matters is what we do with them…Some people have to do a lot of emotional work…it can be really hard." She should know!

So has Jo Berry experienced forgiveness? She claims she is still learning. In fact, she has doubts about the use of the word 'forgiveness' which suggests a power imbalance between the 'forgiver' and the 'forgiven'. Her concern is for the development of a community which moves from having power over others to sharing and working together. She works for a community where all needs are met and people give up being what she calls 'righteous'. "When people are righteous, they think they are right and blame others," she says. In the world that Jo Berry dreams of, whether we are believers or not, everyone can find their own way to give up blaming and punishing people and learn to see people in their full humanity.

In conclusion, Jo came back to the real world, the world of Brexit disagreements, the world of knife crime where kids she has met at London schools say they feel less safe. "What we need are safe places around the country where people listen and offer dignity and respect to each other. What we need is "a policy of cups of tea with the other," she said.

In the Q&A, Jo covered ideas about forgiveness on a personal and national scale, about not letting people walk all over us, about the effect on her health of her work, the difficulties of owning and taking responsibility for our own feelings and on prejudice that seems to be passed on from one generation to another. She responded to one question with one of her most memorable quotations:

"Revenge is like drinking poison and hoping someone else will die!" After the story she had told and the fortnight with the Forgiveness Project at Newbold Church and College, our hope is that Newbold people will be drinking tea together not poison!