As a journalist I meet all kinds of people. I usually want to make people look their best. Sometimes it’s harder, because some people don’t help themselves. They’ve already decided all journalists are sour people who want to focus on the worst aspects of life. There are people who make it clear that they don’t want to talk to me in case I write about them, and then take umbrage when I do what they want and ignore them. Usually these are people who have nothing interesting to say anyway.
And then there are people who have such an amazing story to tell that meeting them has changed my view of the world.
Ray Rossiter is one of those people. I first met Ray when I called him about an exhibition that the Imperial War Museum North was hosting about the experiences of prisoners of the Japanese during World War II. Lots of men were interviewed for that exhibition. They all had fascinating tales to tell, but there was something about Ray that stuck with me. It was in the small things. For example, some men understandably said that they could never eat rice again after their experience. Ray said: “I love rice, it kept me alive.”
When I spoke to Ray he asked if I was going to visit him. Given the time constraints of my news desk I couldn’t. Then he told me that his wife had dementia and he was the sole carer. I realised that he probably wasn’t getting out of the house much at all, so I said that while I couldn’t visit him in work time, I would go to see him. I suppose I went to his house the first time because I felt sorry for him and his situation, but as time went on Ray was to touch my heart in a way that I could never have expected.
As a journalist I was used to people calling me to ask me to fight their corner, seek justice for a wrong done to them, even if it was simply to expose it. I’d hear people describe anything from a cross word between friends to the most heinous of crimes as unforgiveable. Yet, here was a man who had suffered unimaginable wrongs and he carried no bitterness. As Christians we talk about forgiveness all the time, but it can feel quite abstract. When we actually witness it lived out, as Ray is doing, it is life-changing.
When Ray talks about the war he says: ‘I felt that God was there all the time, his love shining through the actions of men, one for another. He was there in every kindness, every act of compassion – it is how we survived. It was often said: “It’s every man for himself in here,” but in reality nothing was further from the truth. We depended so much on one another for encouragement, morale-boosting and in numerous instances for our very survival.’
The friendships Ray forged in those adverse times were ones which were to last a lifetime. The men he knew then, men who could be cheerful under the most appalling circumstances, were not men who could let bitterness eat into their souls and he didn’t like to see hatred consuming them in this way. It was a big ask, Ray more than anyone knew that, but he wanted to encourage them, for their own sake, to forgive.
‘Even years later it was a taboo subject among our fellows and it wasn’t an easy thing to get across because it’s hard to comprehend just how much there was to forgive,’ he says. ‘We came out of captivity breathing fire and vengeance against the whole Japanese race – all of us believed at that time that it would be impossible ever to forgive them. Yet while every instinct may be screaming at us to hate them for what they did, we have to stifle this natural impulse. We can’t go on hating forever. The happiest people are those who can find it in their hearts to forgive.
“Peace within a person is where it all starts, because the actions of nations are merely the actions of men writ large.”
We can speculate forever about why things happen or why some people do terrible things, but we rarely find the answers we seek. Jesus showed us another way and people like Ray are showing it is possible.
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Thankfully, he’s not alone. Since meeting Ray I’ve met many people who have made forgiveness in a reality in their life. All of them share a desire to make the world a better place, one in which these huge wrongs might never happen in the first place.
It’s a vision that is shared by the Restorative Justice Council, which give victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, and holds offenders to account for what they have done, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.
It was through the Restorative Justice Process that Joanne Nodding was able to meet and forgive the man who raped her. She says: ‘Did I hate him? For a while afterwards you could probably say that I did, but you can’t go on living with hate in your heart forever. Well, I can’t anyway. I’m not a person who feels hatred. That feeling isn’t me, or it’s not the me I recognise, and it’s not the me I want to be. Besides, hating him is not going to change what happened.
‘I could sit here, thinking, “God, why has this person done this to me?” Or I could say, “God help me to forgive and help him to have a better life”. Everyone can change and everyone deserves a chance to change. As I see it, I could either hate him for the rest of my life or I could forgive him’.
I can’t begin to understand what Ray and Joanne went through, but the goodness they reflect through their capacity for forgiveness makes me want to live a better life. They’ve made me think about how many opportunities I have each day to either forgive or not, to let go of pain or to let it weigh heavy in my heart.
Do I need to focus on a throwaway remark from a stranger so that it spoils the rest of my day? Can I be more loving, grateful and less critical? Can I focus on the good in people? What I’ve learned is that life can be messy, but we are all given choices every day. In choosing to forgive we are choosing a life of love and gratitude.
Against the Odds: True Stories of Healing and Forgiveness by Carmel Thomason is published by the Bible Reading Fellowship.
Carmel Thomason is a Manchester based writer. She has written Every Moment Counts: A Life of Mary Butterwick (DLT); collaborated with the Archbishop of York, writing the stories for John Sentamu’s Faith Stories; and has contributed to The Way, The Truth and The Life series published by the Teacher’s Enterprise in Education.