We have been fortunate in having two examples of courage to think about recently. Felix Baumgartner’s descent from space was spectacular and caught the imagination of the world’s media. As someone who finds it difficult to climb a ladder, I have no hesitation in calling him a very brave man — but I have no wish to emulate his bravery. The arrival of Malala Yousafzai at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham reminds us of another kind of courage: the daily courage of a young girl determined to become educated and ready to risk the wrath of the Taliban. For me, education involved no risks at all, but I’m such a coward, I’m not sure I would have been able to live with a death threat for going to school.
Two different people, two different kinds of courage, both of them equally impossible for me and probably for many of my readers. There is a third kind of courage, and it’s worth thinking about. Forgiveness, given and received, is not the act of a weakling, an easy way out of a difficult situation. To accept forgiveness we need to acknowledge our responsibilty for wrongdoing. It wasn’t the woman who forced you to eat the apple, Adam, it was your own gluttony and desire to have something forbidden you. Equally, to forgive others, we have to admit that the wound dealt us is not the whole story: we have consciously to refuse to allow either ourselves or the other to be imprisoned by our shared history. Some of the stories of reconciliation and forgiveness following the Second World War are truly inspiring: the former prisoner of war and his Japanese captor shaking hands; the Holocaust survivor gently reminding his children that the lesson to be learned from the death camps is not what Germans did to Jews but what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
When we look at our own lives, we are often ashamed of the pockets of unforgiveness we find. Are we really so small? Do we need to cling to that old hatred? We all have different ways of coping with such challenges. If we apologize for everything, we don’t need to apologize for anything. If we don’t want to admit we’re wrong, we can cut the other person off. Even if it’s something as trivial as disagreeing with another’s opinion, we can just ignore them. Every blogger knows that when a reader is irritated or annoyed by an opinion expressed — or sometimes, the failure to express an opinion the reader would like to see — there is often a little huff, and the reader stops reading the blog. It’s payback time!
René Girard has written movingly of the dynamic of forgiveness, of the importance of not passing the poison on. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of the way in which God deals with sin and failure. The Cross was Jesus’ way of not passing the poison on — a supremely brave, as well as forgiving, act. That is the kind of courage we all need.