Forgiveness is the key to bringing peace in Northern Ireland

London, UK - In a week that has seen both a landmark deal on the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland and the outbreak of violence between Christians and Muslims in the Nigerian city of Jos, a renowned author on forgiveness said that “forgiveness far from being just a personal or religious matter can affect the life of nations.”

Michael Henderson was speaking at the latest of a rolling series of launches of his new book No Enemy to Conquer, at the London centre of Initiatives of Change yesterday. Subtitled Forgiveness in an unforgiving world, his new book is published by Baylor University Press, run by the largest Baptist university in the USA. The author of 11 books, his previous titles include The Forgiveness Factor (1996) and Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate (2002). An earlier book, All her paths are peace (1994) about women pioneers of peacemaking, also addresses forgiveness issues.

Peace initiatives in Ireland and Nigeria are of special significance to Henderson who has dedicated a chapter to each country in his new book.

He told the story of his Anglo-Irish ancestors, part of the Protestant minority “lording it over” the Catholic majority. At the time of Irish Independence in 1922, Henderson’s grandfather was told to “leave Ireland at the end of the week or be shot”. And this is why Henderson himself is English. A family home west of Dublin was subsequently set on fire.

Henderson spoke of his mother’s bitterness at being “chucked out of her country”. But it was when she met the Irish Catholic Senator Eleanor Butler at a conference in the centre of reconciliation in Caux, Switzerland, that her feelings began to change. She felt compelled to apologise to Senator Butler for the “indifference we had shown to Catholics over many years”. The two women went on to become great friends and worked together on many peace initiatives. Senator Butler went on to become founder and first president of the Glencree Reconciliation Centre and Henderson’s mother herself joined the Catholic Church. Although both are long since dead, Henderson said that his mother and Senator Butler would be delighted at the progress Northern Ireland has made.

Henderson also spoke of his two Nigerian friends, Muhammad Ashafa, a Muslim imam and James Wuye, a Christian pastor in Kaduna, not far from Jos in Plateau State. Both men are engaged in peace efforts in Jos. He explained how they had fought and tried to kill each other in the nineties during an uprising in Kaduna. A Muslim extremist sliced off James’s hand as he was protecting his church and Christian extremists killed Muhammad’s uncle, thinking he was Muhammad.

The two religious leaders were eventually brought together at a conference in the hope that they might bring forgiveness and healing to both communities. Henderson revealed that although the channels of dialogue were opened, real friendship, however, was slower to come. When they began travelling together, even sharing a room, Pastor James was sometimes tempted to carry a pillow to suffocate the imam when he was sleeping, in retaliation for the loss of his hand. It took years to overcome the hatred. They now run the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna and a powerful film, The Imam and the Pastor, details their story.

In the aftermath of this week’s violence in Jos, Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye made a united front to call for calm when they were interviewed together yesterday on Al Jazeera TV, as well as for five minutes on the BBC World Service radio news today.

Henderson said that the situation in Jos showed that “one cannot relax and think the work is done. Healing has to be continually fostered”.

He told many of the inspiring stories of forgiveness that he has encountered in people of all faiths and cultures and spoke of the many people who had influenced his writing on forgiveness. He cited the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who said: “Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by it. It represents our ability to change course, reframe the narrative of the past, and create an unexpected set of possibilities for the future.”

Henderson, whose new book has been described as “forgiveness with teeth”, is determined to overcome the image problem that forgiveness sometimes has: “people can think it is something soft, that it means foregoing justice, or letting people get away with murder, or forgetting an evil. I want to show that forgiveness is not that. Of course we need justice. People have to face the consequences of their acts. But forgiveness brings in a new dimension.”