I have a couple of acquaintances, friends really, for whom I think I may have found the perfect Christmas present. It is a new book by Sophie Hannah called How to Hold a Grudge. It just seems absolutely on the money for my friends, who really struggle to know how to hold a grudge properly, or who hold them and then let the grudges overtake them with bitterness. Apparently, according to Ms. Hannah, grudge-holding can be “wholly positive.” She feels that “any office is a breeding ground for grudges, as well as extended family get-togethers” and that “grudges against other kids’ mums are the best!”
Her logic is less weird than you suppose, because what she actually does (if her piece in the Times is to be believed) is to classify and describe her grudges (she has a 1-10 scale) and thus in doing so, rob them of the power to fester. The aim “isn’t to wreak revenge like Liam Neeson in Taken (“I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you”) but rather to be able to to dodge any future slights deftly.” Eventually, it seems, she finds her way to a partial understanding of forgiveness and restitution, when she says that “we need to recognise that people will hold grudges against us and, if these are justifiable, we must attempt to make amends.”
Interesting piece, because it speaks, as Hannah says, to every part of human experience: what do we do when we are hurt? I have long been an advocate of deliberately refusing to take offence, but there are obviously emotional and physical consequences to all sorts of actions, and when the scale is big, such as the genocide which underpins most of the emotional power of Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising, then we have a serious problem that holding a grudge can easily morph into racial or ethnic prejudice. I recall meeting and listening to a Uighur Christian refugee who was struggling not to see ALL Han Chinese as guilty of the suffering that he and his fellow Christians had experienced. He came perilously close to a racist view, howbeit understandable. He had to deal with the internal conflict caused by external and collective pain. If he didn’t cope with it, chances are he would spend the rest of his life struggling to forgive all the Chinese he met (and there are a lot of them). But that forgiveness in such circumstances is possible, you need look no further than Corrie ten Boom.
So I welcome Sophie Hannah’s book, because far from truly legitimising the bearing of grudges, it helps people acknowledge their negative power and gives some help in how to manage them and remove some of their emotional sting. It is not the biblical answer, but in the absence of that as a reference, it may help some people. The title is probably unfortunate, but should help with the marketing.
But how different, how completely different, from Jesus’ approach: love your enemies, pray for those that persecute you, forgive as many times as it takes. In a couple of recent really challenging posts, Jon Kuhrt has reminded us of the need for grace and truth in our dealings with those in need or who are damaged and might hurt us. This proviso is critical, but it does nothing to alter the power of Jesus words: forgive as many times as it takes. This is not to say that it is easy, or that our emotions find it easy to alter as they keep up with our desire to be faithful, but I, and many others I know, have found how it is possible to turn those we held grudges against into fast friends.
Partly this is possible by taking a view of our own lives in which our emotions and feelings are not granted permission by our minds and will to dominate and rule. This might seem terribly philosophical, but actually it is just an extension of some very ancient thinking in which we exert the God-given faculties of our determined will and our renewed mind, in place of our hopelessly subconscious emotions in a time of crisis. This is the beginning of virtue and the Psalms are full of it, calling to mind the goodness of God in the midst of defeat, disappointment and betrayal. It is what Paul urges us to do at the start of Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Allowing our mind the opportunity for renewal, through soaking in praise, reading the scriptures, praying for others (especially those we find most tricky) is critical. God needs our cooperation so that the Holy Spirit can renew and transform our minds.
For all the helpful things that postmodernism has brought, one of the least useful to the human psyche is the restoration of a ruling authority to the emotions. The idea that because “I feel such a way I am justified in behaving in such and such a way”: this has gained prevalence since the failure of duty in the 20th century (nothing like two cruel world wars to hack at the notion of duty!) and as a result we have become more selfish, and more concerned to act in accordance with our own emotions. This makes the renewal of the mind harder to assert and pursue, but I still maintain that the mind and our thinking consciousness need, together, to assert what we know to be good and true and lovely over the instinctual reactions that come from the reptilian brain and amygdala and which find expression in our feelings.
Forgiveness is, 9 times out of 10, precisely this: the assertion of what we know to be our best, our communal best, our collaborative best, over against the emotional instinct we all have to hit out, lash out or flee in resentment. It does not come easy, but is, like all the best virtues, come with repeated practice. This is probably why Jesus said – I tell you, (don’t forgive) seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). He was aware more than most that we needed the practice.
In a paper by Johannes van der Walt and co-authors from South Africa and the Netherlands, it is argued that we now are likely to require our children and young people to have a clear understanding of the why and how of actually giving and receiving forgiveness. I am not aware of any evidence from school-aged children that explores how they learn to forgive or whether there is a disconnect between what they are encouraged to say and what they actually feel. The work we have done with the Restorative Foundation goes some way to putting forgiveness at the heart of school practice, even if only implicitly. The RF is not an expressly Christian organisation and thus cannot be expected to have a theology of forgiveness to guide and sustain that part of their work. Where forgiveness appeared in the restorative practice at Christ the Sower depended on us allowing the teaching from Matthew 18 to take root explicitly in displays and in staff training.
Van der Walt et al (2018) argue that forgiveness education could be placed in Citizenship education, such is its importance in our large diverse communities:
The need for asking and giving forgiveness has in recent years become even more essential in view of the growth of multicultural and diverse societies and also in view of the information and technology revolution that is bringing people – both individuals and groups – in closer contact with one another than ever before, thus escalating the potential for violence and conflict. (p103)
They argue that the role of forgiveness education could fit well into the framework for Citizenship Education proposed by James Banks in 2008. Both Banks and those that follow his lead are insistent on the explicit teaching of skills to manage and improve relationships within society and an explicit understanding of democratic principles, values and procedures on the part of the citizen.
To forgive an infringement does not come naturally, however, because of the in-born self-centredness of human beings; it has to be taught and inculcated, and this is where forgiveness education becomes prominent….schools must also prepare students to be engaged and responsible members of society, capable of relating to people from different parts of the world and dealing with issues that affect all of us such as injustices inflicted upon individuals and groups that result in pain and damage to them. These issues are of a justice nature in which forgiveness education becomes relevant. (p104-105)
The South African national curriculum document defines a number of areas in its preamble. “Without ever explicitly referring to forgiveness and forgiveness education as such, the curriculum provides ample opportunity for this subject to be taught” (p107). In Holland, the issues around the Dutch East India Company’s involvement in the slave trade and the national role in enabling the slaughter of 8000 Serbian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 mean that social justice issues, along with the attendant need for forgiveness and justice, require that forgiveness education is found a space in that curriculum too.
The paper explores biblical models of forgiveness and in doing so touches eventually upon the healing power of forgiveness. Taking its cue from the work of Robert Enright (Enright 2003; Enright et al 2014) the authors demonstrate a biblical root for forgiveness education by quoting a non-biblical source:
Forgiving is an act of mercy toward an offender, someone who does not necessarily deserve our mercy. It is a gift to our offender for the purpose of changing the relationship between ourselves and those who have hurt us….as a member of the human community. That person is worthy of the respect due to every being who shares our common humanity.
Forgiveness education, argue Van der Walt et al, required four steps:
- Forgiveness education can be located in a particular national context (tricky for us Brits, as we never take the blame for anything, but useful for South Africans and inhabitants of Northern Ireland, who have a distinct context). Black History Month comes to mind…
- Beyond the context, forgiveness education and the practice of forgiveness needs to become part of a school ethos and identity.
- A practical forgiveness pedagogy needs to be erected and taught. In schools using restorative practice, this could easily be incorporated.
- A training module for educators and the children they teach could be inserted within the teaching schedule. They advocate a directly Christian approach for Christian schools, but if not, recommend the approach taken by Jennings et al (2016) in their paper “The transgressor’s response to denied forgiveness.
What surprised me in this paper by its absence, was the impact of forgiveness education on the mental health of young people. Perhaps it is not as “up there” as a live issue in South Africa and the Netherlands as it is in the UK, but the self-healing aspects of forgiveness as a route to mental health and the healing of the conscience would surely make it into a paper written in the UK.
Whether Sophie Hannah fancies writing such a paper, I do not know, but I am grateful to her for raising such an important topic, and whilst I disagree with her approach, it is not hard to see that the long-understood, biblically-informed Judaeo-Christian teaching on the restoration of broken relationships sneaks past even those determined to hold a grudge, and write about it.
However, in her Times article she makes one excellent point that is rarely alluded to in the Van der Walt paper – the need to “make amends.” This is critical, because restitution is a thoroughly biblical aspect of fixing relationships, and lies at the heart of the “grace and truth” approach of Jon Kuhrt. Saying sorry is easy stuff, and actually so is forgiving sometimes, but fixing the damage, restoring the loss, paying back the theft, taking back the words, “putting the toothpaste back in the tube” – these are harder for all of us, and without a full encompassment of full and heart-felt forgiveness, are likely to cause us to limp along for a while, if we have not made appropriate restitution.