The father in one of the most famous stories in the New Testament and the father in Northern Ireland whose daughter died, buried beneath rubble and holding her father’s hand, are challenging and harrowing examples of forgiveness leading to reconciliation.
The story of the ‘All-loving father’ in St. Luke (also known, quite misleadingly as the Prodigal son – misleading because it places the emphasis on the wrongdoing of the son rather than the abundant love of the father) tells the story of a son who takes his share of his father’s property, squandered all that he had in dissolute living and then found himself in great need. (Luke 15.11-32) He then comes to his senses and decides to return to his father, full of remorse, and offer himself as a hired hand. His father sees him coming at a distance, rushes and embraces his returning son. The son is forgiven and embraced by his father even before his father hears his words of repentance. Some of those hearing the story for the first time would have been outraged by the behaviour of the younger son and the way in which he was welcomed back: others would have been moved to repentance.
The story of the All-loving Father is so important in the understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that some time needs to be spent on it. For Luke, forgiveness of sins is central to his theology and synonymous with salvation, accordingly, the story lies at the heart of St. Luke’s understanding of Jesus Christ’s actions and identity. So too, the ‘embrace’ in Miroslav Volf’s remarkable book, Exclusion and Embrace, is that of the father towards his son. Some of the reflections on this passage are drawn from Volf’s book.
The father’s initial response to his returning son was to embrace and receive him unconditionally, even before the son had a chance to express his remorse. However, the son did then make his confession, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son,’ (15.21) after which (or maybe even during which) the father promptly re-instated him as his son:
But the father said to the slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (15.22-4)
The son needed to make a confession to complete the reconciliation between him and his father, but it was necessary more for the son’s sake than the father’s, who had already embraced his son. The father’s actions and the younger son’s waywardness are criticised by the elder brother who believes that he is being unfairly treated – and many readers’ sympathies go out to the elder brother. But what the elder brother fails to understand is that the father’s relationship to his sons is not shaped by what they do, but by who they are. For all that the younger brother had done, reprehensible as it may have been, he was still his father’s son. The younger son, though restored, was not reinstated into all his former privileges, he is not exactly the same son as he was before his departure, but now he is the ‘son-that-was-dead-and-is-alive-again.’ (Volf 1996, 163) For the father, the fact that he was his son was more significant in his relationship with him than what he had done. Of course, the moral activity of the younger son is not irrelevant, but it is not as important as the father’s relationship with his father. Luke’s Gospel is full of Jesus’ encounters, especially with those rejected by the ‘establishment’, which exemplify the important fact that relationship is prior to all else. It is the father’s forgiveness, fuelled by his love, which creates a climate for this to happen. In addition, the father’s forgiveness breaks through the narrow way in which contemporary culture would have viewed the incident and provides a new way. Volf sums this up:
Flexible order? Changing identities? The world of fixed rules and stable identities is the world of the older brother. The father destabilizes this world – and draws his older son’s anger upon himself. The father’s most basic commitment is not to rules and given identities but to his sons whose lives are too complex to be regulated by fixed rules and whose identities are too dynamic to be defined once for all. Yet he does not give up the rules and the order once for all. Guided by the indestructible love which makes space in the self for others in their alterity, which invites the others who have transgressed to return, which creates hospitable conditions for their confession, and rejoices over their presence, the father keeps re-configuring the order without destroying it so as to maintain it as an order of embrace rather than exclusion. (Volf 1996, 165)
One man whose attitude of forgiveness changed the order of conflict was Gordon Wilson. A man of deep Christian faith, in 1987 he was attending the Remembrance Day commemoration in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, with his daughter Marie, when a Provisional IRA bomb exploded burying Gordon and Marie beneath the rubble. Marie died along with ten others, but Gordon was pulled out from the rubble and survived. On that same evening, he described with great anguish on the BBC his last conversation with his daughter as they lay beneath the rubble:
She held my hand tightly and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her last words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again, I will pray for these men tonight and every night.
Gordon Wilson’s forgiveness of his daughter’s murderers undoubtedly prevented revenge attacks by Loyalist paramilitaries. On many occasions he met with Sinn Fein and even the Provisional IRA. His heart-felt words of forgiveness had an enormous impact and would have added a lot in the movement for reconciliation.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.