Since I have a few minutes, I would like to note that the current “Face to Face” column in the Guardian has the considerable merit of being realistic. I hope that, as intended, it might add depth to our petitions, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and “Lead us not into temptation.” The author is John Penny, a retired Church of England vicar:
When the IRA bombed two pubs in Birmingham some years ago, I was the vicar of a parish three miles from the city centre. Like the events of July 7 last year, the atrocity was the occasion of heroic virtue. People surprised themselves by their capacity for courage and selfless love.
But there also emerged a terrible vindictiveness. While this was an understandable expression of anger, it indicated a disturbing loss of the civilising self-control we take for granted. A brutal attack took place on the six men being held in the city’s prison. Hitherto law-abiding citizens made threats of extreme violence against the Irish community.
But what distressed me most was a doctor who had treated a number of the casualties. The man, a compassionate and committed Christian, told me, “If they bring back hanging for those thugs, I’ll volunteer to pull the lever!” I was shocked, not just by his statement, but also by the certainty that I shared his unforgiving desire for revenge. On that day, I came to know what William Golding’s Lord of the Flies tells us about humanity; that the veneer of civilisation is thin and extremely vulnerable. Given the right circumstances this veneer can be stripped away in a moment.
…It is good and productive when we are open about our mistakes and confess our misdemeanours. But we need to understand that confession is the beginning of progress, not the end. We are all “recovering sinners”. Finding the will to amend my life does not mean that I will automatically “sin no more”. I will always need self-awareness of, and protection from, the worst that is in me. Reform and regeneration are the work of a lifetime.
For centuries we have prayed both “Forgive us our sins”, and “Lead us not into temptation”. This should have opened our eyes to the potential for evil from which we also pray to be delivered. Mercifully the consequences of human fallibility can often be reversed, forgiveness being offered and received. But it is salutary to remember the occasions when this is impossible. Had the Birmingham pub bombings taken place before capital punishment was abolished, innocent people would have been hanged, and the deaths of six men would have been on our conscience for ever.