12/10/2011 11:47 BST | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 GMT

No Forgiveness Without Justice?

Justice, like forgiveness, is a loaded word, bandied about by just about everyone - used as much by advocates for penal reform as by those who call for the death penalty.

Justice, like forgiveness, is a loaded word, bandied about by just about everyone - used as much by advocates for penal reform as by those who call for the death penalty. The Forgiveness Project's 2011 annual lecture was bound therefore to cause robust discussion when Clare Short (Secretary of State for International Development in Tony Blair's government) posed the question whether there could ever be forgiveness without justice?

At London's Union Chapel on October 6th, Short argued it would be wrong to forgive an injustice for which there is no commitment to rectify the wrong. Citing human rights movements from the fight against slavery to the Arab Spring, she said "there can be no reconciliation unless those who dominate are willing to give up their power." Her argument supported the idea of a "just" anger that is "legitimate and creative and can only be appeased by ... creating a just settlement."

Talking of the scourge of child abuse she said, "sometimes when hurt, cruelty and humiliation cause people to behave in vicious and ugly ways...then we need not to forgive but to listen to what made them like that and to see what can be done to remove the cruelties that so damage their humanity." Quoting authors Kramer and Alstead she invited the audience to consider whether

"to forgive without requiring the other to change is not only self-destructive, but ensures a dysfunctional relationship will remain so by continually rewarding mistreatment."

This question, as to whether forgiving the harmer may give permission for the abusive behavior to continue, is fundamental to the forgiveness debate. Those who consider forgiveness as solely for the well-being of the victim would claim that if you wait for remorse from the perpetrator you may be waiting forever and that forgiveness therefore, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, is ultimately an act of self-interest. There is a lot of common sense in this, not least because forgiveness studies demonstrate again and again that people with a more forgiving attitude have better health outcomes.

But what is also true is that forgiveness should never be an obligation. Earlier this year comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, received widespread approval when he told the Radio Times:

"I think the 20th century saw such a level of atrocity that it has focused our minds very, very hard on the dangers of forgiving too easily ... because if forgiveness is easy it is as if the suffering doesn't really matter."

Before the lecture I received a handful of emails from people who promote the study and practise of forgiveness, hoping that The Forgiveness Project would make it clear to Clare Short how important forgiveness was with or without justice. "Forgiveness is for the forgiver" one announced. I explained that The Forgiveness Project did not take a position on whether forgiveness was or was not conditional upon justice, remorse, apology etc. because our aim was to create a place of inquiry, to open up the debate exploring the possibilities and limits of forgiveness, not to proselytise. All I know about forgiveness is that in my eight years of being immersed in this thorny subject, the deeper I dig the more questions I have.

People always come to events run by The Forgiveness Project expecting to hear only from people who have forgiven. Many were surprised therefore to hear Colin Parry, the first of our three story-tellers to share the stage with Clare Short declare that for him forgiveness was an abstract term with no substance because it was impossible to forgive if no one had come forward to claim responsibility for his son's death at the hands of the IRA. But Parry's actions, you might argue, have been nothing but forgiving in the sense that since his son died in the 1993 Warrington bomb, he has created something immensely positive through founding the Warrington Peace Centre. People expect Parry to forgive because his actions have never been about vengeance - but he very certainly does not.

Elizabeth Turner spoke of forgiveness in terms of reconciling - not with the perpetrator but with the capsizing grief that overwhelmed her when on September 11th 2001 her husband died in the World Trade Centre. Pregnant with their first child, forgiveness for Turner has been about

"finding an inner peace and... accepting that we are all human beings and that we are not separate even from those who have hurt us."

Bassam Aramin, the last of our three story-tellers, became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in Hebron. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organisation of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Justice has never been part of the deal for the Palestinians, and never less so than when Aramin's ten-year-old daughter Abir was gunned down and killed by an Israeli soldier. As he pointed out, Israelis are today attempting to prosecute Nazi criminals more than half a century after the Holocaust, but his daughter's case was closed after less than five years. His struggle for justice is as fierce as his resolve to prevent bitterness from creeping into his heart - something which he beautifully illustrated when he said,

"it may have taken one soldier to kill my daughter, but it took one hundred former Israeli soldiers to build a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered."

I still have ambivalent feelings about this word justice, all too aware of the uncomfortable relationship between the urge for justice and its close relative, revenge. In fact I'd like to take justice away from its narrow adversarial focus and concentrate instead on how it much more broadly refers to the obligation to be fair to all people. That's because I believe in Restorative Justice which doesn't ask how can we punish the person who did the harm but rather facilitates a dialogue by asking how can we restore the relationships that were broken.