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Open for Debate

Forgiveness: A Consoling and Troubling Virtue

30 July 2018

On the evening of April 22nd 1993 Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack. The nineteen year old had been waiting for a bus in Eltham, South East London with his friend, Duwayne Brooks, when he was struck down and stabbed by a group of white youths. The attackers inflicted grave injuries on Lawrence, severing arteries and piercing his lung. Brooks and Lawrence attempted to get away, while the attackers fled the scene. Due to the extent of Lawrence’s injuries, he was unable to escape. He collapsed and bled to death.There had been a number of racially motivated homicides in the area in the two years prior to Stephen’s murder. Within days of the attack, suspects were identified by members of the public but these were not taken seriously, despite the convergence in the youths named. It took over two weeks for any arrests to be made but the charges were dropped on July 29th 1993 with the CPS citing insufficient evidence. In April 1994 Lawrence’s family began a private prosecution against all five suspects. In July 1997 an inquiry was ordered by Jack Straw, who was Home Secretary at the time. This was headed up in 1998 by Sir William Macpherson in what became known as the ‘Macpherson Report’. The report found that the Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) handling of the murder was incompetent and institutionally racist; police had failed to follow up obvious leads and took too long to make arrests.

Initially, and as revealed in the  BBC documentary aired earlier this year, Stephen’s father, Neville called for the death penalty ‘for something like this’. However, in the twenty five years since the murder, Lawrence says he forgives his son’s killers. Only two of a gang of up to six men are serving life sentences for the murder. Gary Dobson and David Norris were sentenced on 3rd January 2012 when new forensic evidence came to light to link them to the murder scene.

Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence, has not forgiven the gang for the murder; ‘you can only forgive somebody when they have shown remorse and accepted what they have done – and they haven’t.’ [1] Some people would argue that insisting on repentance as a condition of forgiveness binds victims to the event and gives power over to the perpetrators. Others would say that to forgive in the absence of repentance minimises the severity of this racially-motivated murder.

Forgiveness is a topic that understandably elicits strong feelings, particularly in grievous cases like this one. For many, forgiveness is an unthinkable betrayal of justice that, if granted, undermines our moral code, making society far worse off. To forgive sometimes seems to condone, explain or excuse the most brutal acts humans are capable of committing, without knowing whether perpetrators are truly sorry for their actions – and without any certainty that they would not repeat the same acts if they had the opportunity.

There are many people, however, for whom forgiveness brings release.  It is seen as part of a healing process that enables them to move on with their lives and let go of entirely understandable feelings of anger and – in some cases- the desire for revenge. It was reported earlier this year that Neville Lawrence had decided to forgive his son’s killers because ‘it was a heavy load to carry around.’[2]

As individuals – and as a society – we are extremely conflicted about the virtue of forgiveness which is simultaneously consoling and troubling. Our ambivalence may stem from our own experience of having forgiven someone who didn’t appreciate how very hard it was for us – an uneasy feeling that we gave something costly away too easily. We might have been socialised to forgive because of our faith commitments or upbringing, but experience something terrible in our lives which far outstrips our capacity to put the ideal of forgiveness into practice. Though forgiveness may bring release for individuals, its effects reach into communities which can lead to tensions between forgiveness at individual and group levels. This is especially pertinent in the Stephen Lawrence murder because the McPherson Report’s finding that the MPS was institutionally racist meant that something needed to be done to address the injustice and change the community for the better. This need could have been overshadowed had forgiveness been forthcoming sooner.

The timing of forgiveness is significant. However, while forgiveness may be part of a healing process for some people, it may not feature in everyone’s healing journey. Indeed, in some cases its advocacy, particularly too early on, could inhibit healing. I recently read a thought-provoking chapter by Christiane Sanderson, a counsellor, who questions those who assert that forgiveness somehow releases healing. Sanderson points out that it is the validation and processing of feelings of anger, betrayal, rage and resentment that leads to healing, rather than forgiveness in and of itself. She is surely right too that some degree of healing seems to be a precondition for forgiveness to be entertained in the first place.[3]

In the wake of particularly heinous wrongdoing there are a number of ways in which anger, betrayal and rage might be addressed and managed – forgiveness is not the only, ‘royal’ road to healing. In some cases, people might be moved to feel compassion for perpetrators without feeling that forgiveness is an appropriate response to such brutality. Sanderson’s piece is important in scaling back some of the claims that have been made recently, which seem to have equated forgiveness with healing. As she writes, ‘There is no conclusive evidence that forgiveness is necessary for healing. Some survivors find it extremely helpful, while others do not.’

Doreen Lawrence’s and her ex-husband Neville’s responses to Stephen’s murder highlight the complexities involved in forgiveness, the tension between forgiveness and justice, and the potential conflicts between our individual decisions to forgive and their possible effects on the community.


Dr Liz Gulliford is a Senior Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. She co-edited ‘Forgiveness in Context: Theology and Psychology in Creative Dialogue’ (T&T Clark, 2004) and contributed to the forthcoming volume ‘Forgiveness in Practice’ (Jessica Kingsley, in press). She is also author of ‘Can I Tell You about Forgiveness? (Jessica Kingsley, July 2018) a children’s book that explores what forgiveness means and when it might and might not be appropriate



[1] Doreen Lawrence




[3] Sanderson (forthcoming) in Hance, S. (Ed). Forgiveness in Practice, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers (21 Sept. 2018).


Picture from Pixabay CC0 Creative Commons