Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a radical claim when he says that Jesus was never so Jewish as when he uttered his famous words from the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” He said this at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 2008 and he has repeated this message for participants in the International Forgiveness Conference which will take place tomorrow and Thursday (12th and 13th July, 2017), for which he pre-recorded an interview during his last visit.
There is a perception that Christianity is a more forgiving religion than Judaism. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that all religions give forgiveness a prominent place in their values but that they approach the issue from different perspectives. Whereas Christianity sees Jesus as both the role-model for and the personification of forgiveness, Judaism puts more emphasis on asking for Divine forgiveness and in our imitation of the Divine in trying to become more forgiving towards others.
In addition to thirty minutes from Rabbi Sacks, the first day of the conference will feature the physical presence of two overseas guests who are towering figures in their religious traditions. Cardinal Tagle from the Philippines is considered a serious candidate for the papacy in the future. He is greatly admired for his wisdom and leadership. His country is wracked by internal conflict and he needs to counsel his huge following on the importance of forgiveness in light of their daily challenges. Adamou Njoya is a former government minister in Cameroon. As a Muslim leader in a country which has suffered much violence due to interreligious conflict, he has been a peace-maker who teaches forgiveness as a way forward.
In the Quran, Islam instructs its followers to “pardon them and overlook”. Easier said than done! A sacred text that Jews and Christians share is in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19, where we are commanded not to hold a grudge in our hearts. The commandment is adjacent to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. We need to ask how there can be such commandments. How can there be commandments telling us how we should feel? Can we be commanded to love? Can we control our emotional responses to those things that hurt us? Can we be commanded to let go of our pain?
Professor Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and convener of the conference, believes that his new scientific approach to forgiveness is only now catching up to the Biblical wisdom. Learning not to hold a grudge is not just a way of preventing revenge; it is a way of healing the victim. Professor Enright’s work at the University of Wisconsin Madison has demonstrated that forgiving is healthy for the individual and beneficial to society. A person who develops the capacity to forgive finds that many aspects of their life improve.
He is bringing his message of Forgiveness Education to Jerusalem after working in areas of conflict in many parts of the world. Some of the international guests at the conference have been implementing the principles he espouses and changing the communities in which they live. Kathryn Haugh and Andrew Frizzell will be describing their work at Springfield Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There, they are enabling Catholic and Protestant children and their families to build a future together despite their violent past. In the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, in the Galilee, forgiveness education is also playing an important role in changing attitudes. Teachers will come to Jerusalem to share their work with us.
The second day of the conference will be devoted to education and will finish with a panel from Women Wage, who are committed to re-educating themselves with the slogan “No blame, no shame.”
On the first day, we will also hear from local religious leaders who are proponents of forgiveness. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and Bishop William Shomali are well-known for their commitment to peace and dialogue. They will be joined by Dr Mahmoud al-Habbash, who has been Minister for Religious Affairs for the Palestinian Authority. Not previously known to be an advocate of forgiveness education, his very participation in this conference alongside Israelis is an important symbol that with forgiveness, we can indeed find a way forward together.
Dr al-Habbash has been a vocal supporter of “anti-normalisation.” This conference might be the launch of an “anti-normalisation” movement of a different type: grudges and hatred, with the desire for revenge, which are currently the norms, need to be replaced by forgiveness. What a difference it would make if we could, as Rabbi Sacks says, learn to live WITH the past but not IN the past – learn to say “please forgive me” and to forgive even those who have not asked.
The Jerusalem International Forgiveness Conference takes place at Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, July 12th and 13th.