The power of forgiveness

Stephen Oake’s father prays for his son’s killer. Can the rest of us show such charity?

A policeman murdered. A family grieving. And then the shock of the remarkable as his father spoke. A former policeman, an ex-chief constable, he said as his son’s body lay barely cold, stabbed by someone described unforgivingly in the media as ‘a fugitive asylum seeker’: ‘I am praying hard for the fellow who stabbed Steve. I am trying hard to forgive him as I am sure Steve would… I don’t want any recriminations against him at all.’

When did you last hear such sentiments? After 9/11? After Lockerbie? After the last suicide bomb in Israel? After the Bulger case? Robin Oake shows us a glimpse of a world where the balance between reconciliation and retribution is held in the hands of justice and weighed in favour of our humanity.
What he will be able to do, as others who have taken this route before have shown, is to find a future for his late son, for his family and for the rest of us that few seem able to do. Not, to take three different examples, Ariel Sharon or George Bush or even, following her devastatingly personal tragedy, Denise Bulger. A stranger to peace since the murder of her child, she has remained suspended in a bubble of inertia and revenge, sustained by the press, looking to the murderers Venables and Thompson for a latter-day Myra Hindley to ignite regular bursts of ritual outrage. One wonders and hopes about the future of the parents of Sarah Payne, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and Milly Dowler.

Why are some parents apparently unable to move beyond a cry for vengeance while others such as Robin Oake and his wife join an inspiring list of parents who have sought peace rather than revenge in the shadow of the worst wound anyone can inflict on a mother and father?

In 1987 Gordon Wilson, barely hours after he had held the hand of his dying daughter following the IRA bomb in Enniskillen, simply said: ‘I miss my daughter and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will, I bear no grudge.’

Three years ago I met and interviewed Linda and Peter Biehl, an American couple whose daughter Amy had been killed in a toi-toi, a political riot, in the township of Guguletu on the outskirts of Cape Town in August 1993. Four young men were convicted of her murder and sentenced to 18 years.

Then through Desmond Tutu’s great experiment, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), they applied for and were granted amnesty. Two of them are now trusted employees of the Amy Biehl Foundation established by her parents in their daughter’s memory.

I have sat at a table with Peter and Linda, and Peni and Easi, the two young men. I have heard Linda say, quite sanely: ‘Amy lives on in these two.’ And every time I tell anyone that story people say the same thing: that they could never do it.

Yet to the Biehls it seemed the obvious, not the exceptional, thing to do. They don’t want ‘closure’, they want Amy’s spirit to live. They want a future. They want her life to be celebrated, they do not want to stagger to the end of their days crippled by an open wound.

South Africa gave them a moment in history. Peter always said that they had the benefit of the African tradition of Ubuntu, on which the TRC was founded, in which as they say ‘one person’s humanity is fundamentally bound up with another’s’. Or as we might put it, there is, after all, such a thing as society.

When terror or violence strikes we are challenged to recognise each other’s humanity. In the words of Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, explaining why she was against the death penalty, we do it best when we understand that ‘a person is not just the worst thing they ever did’. That is the meaning of compassion.

Robin Oake called his son’s murderer the ‘fellow’. Not ‘monster’ or ‘beast’, but ‘fellow’. Another human being, like the son he killed. He recognised the potential for humanity in the midst of shattering personal terror. His whole body and soul appeared to be committed to ‘trying to forgive’. To remember, to judge and then forgive is a way for the world to touch on reconciliation, in domestic crime or in international conflict. The end of apartheid in South Africa gave a context for that process.

Could the current war against terror not be the moment to understand rather than take refuge in vengeance? Forgiveness does not preclude punishment, but it should be its natural corollary. The man who killed Stephen Oake should be punished. But like those who applied for amnesty at the TRC, he could then offer to Stephen Oake’s family the truth, an explanation and his most heartfelt remorse.

Rightly punished, then his vicious act would not become an excuse for the rest of us to wallow in vengeance. Stephen’s father isn’t indulging in hatred. In a remarkable act of goodness, he talks the language of fellowship. Would that Ariel Sharon and George ‘we’ll hunt down those folks’ Bush could find such humanity in themselves.

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