Thought for the Day,  Saturday 13 August, 2011

In all the cacophony of indignation and analysis that followed this week’s riots, one voice stood out for me. Tariq Jahan’s son was killed when a car drove into a group of young Asians who were guarding the local shops in their part of Birmingham. As he described finding his injured son, giving him CPR and holding him as he died, Mr Jahan’s voice combined intense feeling with tremendous calm and dignity.
You couldn’t doubt his sincerity when he said that he harboured no hatred or anger, and his cautionary words to others in Birmingham may have pre-empted a spiral of communal violence: ‘I lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home.’

Tariq Jahan takes his place beside others whose capacity to forgive has caught the popular imagination. As well as leaders like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, there have been ordinary people like the mother of the murdered teenager Anthony Walker and Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed in the Enniskillen bombing and declared, ‘I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge’.

The moral strength of these individuals may seem like a miracle, but I don’t think it’s an accident. Their capacity to withstand difficult emotions is something that develops with much effort over many years, and some kind of moral code or philosophy usually underpins it. Such qualities don’t just spring up. We develop them through a daily practice of letting things go of anger and performing ‘countless little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love’.

Buddhist practice also teaches me that forgiveness demands curiosity about my responses and motivations. ‘He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me,’ the Buddha said. ‘For those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.’ Anger and resentment are corrosive and cloud our judgment, and letting those emotions go means seeing the people who have hurt us as human beings. Then perhaps we can listen to them, however misguided they may seem.

At a moment like this when so many people have been hurt by the riots, justice has paramount importance. But Tariq Jahan’s response reminds us that justice needs to be tempered by forgiveness. To heal our society, we need to understand what has happened and that will demand qualities such as empathy and forbearance. The Buddha continued, ‘hatred cannot be overcome by hatred, but only by love.’ The cycle of violence begins in the hearts and minds of human beings and it can only be ended there.