I have been asked how I come to be writing books about forgiveness.
The short answer is that for more than fifty years I have been closely involved in Initiatives of Change (IofC). This is a worldwide work for reconciliation formerly known as Moral Re-Armament or MRA and before that The Oxford Group. In 1996 I wrote a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of IofC’s conference centre in Caux, Switzerland, which has three times been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The book traced the work of Caux through the laying of foundations for Franco-German reconciliation to efforts to help introduce democratic foundations in the countries of the former Soviet Union, from the dialogue of decolonialization in Africa to the healing of hatreds after the killing fields of Cambodia.
Looking through the manuscript’s contents for a possible title, it was clear that the common factor in many of the stories of individuals and of nations was forgiveness, and so the book was called The Forgiveness Factor. As a result, out of the blue a publisher in Oregon where I was then living asked me if I would write a book about forgiveness. And I soon found myself learning more about it and writing articles and further books and even speaking on the subject.
A longer answer is that many years ago I began to get an inkling from my mother’s experience of the wider ramifications of personal apology and forgiveness. My Anglo-Irish family had lived for hundreds of years in Ireland. But in 1922 at the time of Irish independence my grandfather was told by ultra-nationalists to leave the country by the end of the week or be shot. Our old family home was burned to the ground. We were all that was unpopular at the time: not only Protestants but from a landowning family that for generations had served in the Royal Irish Constabulary and in the British Army.
Many years later my mother finally faced how deeply hurt she felt about being forced out of Ireland. As a family in 1947 we attended a conference at the Caux center. The center had been opened the year before by Swiss who felt that, as their country had been spared the ravages of the war, they should provide a place where the hurts and hates of that war could be healed. One day an Irish Catholic Senator, Eleanor Butler, spoke. She was a member of the Council of Europe and spoke of unity. Everything in my mother rebelled against her. Who is this woman talking about unity in Europe and she chucked me out my country? But in the spirit of that place she felt moved to apologize to Senator Butler for the indifference our family had shown to Catholics over many years. She did so and the two became friends and worked together, becoming part of that great army of women who kept the peace hopes alive.
Soon after that visit to Caux, Senator Butler said, “I come from a nation of good haters. We enjoy feuds and we love fighting, almost for the fun of it. But in these last months I have had to do something I very much dislike. I have had to make some honest apologies for viewpoints which have divided instead of united me to other nations and other parts of my own nation. In every case new unity was born between myself and those from whom I had been separated.” She went on to be one of the founders of the Glencree Reconciliation Centre.
At the launching of one of my books on forgiveness a rather pompous young man from an important American think tank came breezing up to me and said, ‘Is your approach journalistic or analytical?’ Not thinking quickly enough to suggest that journalists could also be analytical, I said, ‘Journalistic.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘then you’ll tell stories.’ He was right. I don’t come to the subject from academic study but simply from hands-on experience around the world. It is a privilege to tell the stories of amazing people from different faiths and races.
Sixty years on, Mountain House, Caux, where our family found unity and a sense of purpose, continues its work for healing and reconciliation. You can read more about it at www.caux.ch