Making a choice: to forgive or not

  • April 27, 2007
TORONTO - To discover the meaning of forgiveness, film maker Johanna Lunn had to consider the nature of evil.

“In the course of making the film, I really had to ask myself, ‘What is evil?’ I’m forever, eternally an optimist and would maybe secretly like to believe that evil doesn’t exist,” Lunn told The Catholic Register before Forgiveness: Stories for Our Time was to premiere in Toronto’s annual Hot Docs Festival in late April. The film will be shown on CTV May 26.

{mosimage}Lunn’s film looks at murder through the eyes of four people left behind when those they loved most in the world were killed. The survivors include Lesley Parrott, a Toronto woman whose 11-year-old daughter Alison was brutally raped and murdered by an unrepentant sexual psychopath and repeat offender; Alan McBride, a Belfast man whose young wife was killed along with nine others by a pair of 19-year-old IRA bombers; Anne Marie Hagan, a Newfoundland woman who watched her schizophrenic neighbour kill her father with an axe when she was 19; and Julie Nicholson an Anglican priest in Bristol, England, who famously resigned her post as vicar when she found she couldn’t forgive the British jihadists who blew up a London Underground train July 7, 2005, killing her daughter with one of three bombs that claimed 52 commuters. All except Nicholson have forgiven or reconciled with the murderers who shattered their lives.

That Forgiveness is a story of our time is a point nailed home on front pages and cable news channels by Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University student Cho Seung-hui, whose shooting rampage claimed the lives of 33 students and professors (Cho’s included) April 16. Lunn believes the Virginia Tech community — families, friends, teachers and classmates of Cho’s victims and the university administration — will have to face the choice to forgive or not.

“The one question I don’t see anybody asking, or at least not yet, is how did we fail the young man who murdered these people,” she said. “Really, as a society, it comes down to this sense of responsibility, that we need to take care of each other.”

Through the deeply personal stories of her four subjects, Lunn discovers that forgiveness has much more than just personal significance. As in the case of the Virginia Tech killings, horrible events with no rational explanation don’t just happen to individuals.

For McBride, a young man raised in a Northern Ireland loyalist housing estate, casually throwing bottles and bricks at Catholics in regular riots that broke out in the 1980s, the choice to reconcile with the republican side of the eternal Irish divide has transformed the situation he grew up in.

“In the case of his journey with forgiveness, (McBride) not only has reconciled what happened to his wife but he actually, politically, is in favour of a united Ireland. Loyalists don’t have that attitude,” said Lunn.

As he learned of the pain suffered by both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland’s cycle of violence, McBride decided he could choose not to see the political future of his country through the lens of Protestant loyalists versus Catholic republicans, and concluded that a united Ireland in the European Union would work best politically and economically. He now works with youth in the housing estates, trying to transform his own choice into national reconciliation.

Whether it’s politics or mental health behind a murder, reconciliation remains both a collective and personal responsibility, according to Lunn. But nobody should pretend it’s easy to forgive. Nicholson’s story shows how difficult it can be.

“Julie is actually being remarkably brave and honest with her situation,” said Lunn. “And she has that double pressure of being a priest. Of course, no one would really be expecting her to carry on her duties as a parish priest after her daughter died, because it would be too difficult to do funerals and all of that. Also, for her, she recognized really that the heart of Eucharist and of service is forgiveness, and she can’t do that right now. I personally have tremendous faith that she will, but it’s going to take her a long time.”

Hagen took 10 years to forgive Ron Ryan, the neighbour who put an axe in her father’s back. But once she did it her life changed completely.

“It took her 10 years to work through her anger. It defined her completely. Wherever she was, driving around St. John’s, Nfld., she knew exactly where the Waterford Psychiatric Hospital was — whether it was behind her, in front of her, to the left of her, to the right. Every single day, that anger that she had completely shaped her life,” said Lunn.

Changing her life meant that Hagen had to choose to forgive, said Lunn.

“You have a choice. We often don’t think we have choices in our life, but actually you do have a choice,” she said. “Lesley Parrott speaks to this well. She really, immediately, wanted to have a legacy of love around her daughter. She didn’t want her daughter’s death to be responsible for feeding a cycle of hatred and anger and revenge. Not everybody has that kind of clarity right up front.”

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