ForgivenessNet Home Page

Recent monthly e-letters

3dheader1.gif (9424 bytes)

e-letter for June 2002

email :     website :



The grace to change the subject

1 Outline

PutinBush.jpg (7209 bytes) The importance of last month's agreement between NATO and Russia to form the Nato-Russia Council is a wonderful illustration of letting go of the past by "changing the subject."

It encourages us to look further at the whole dimension of "changing the subject," which is a vital step we can take in all forms of forgiving, in personal relationships, in organisations or in politics.  We need to develop the skill and freedom to change the subject when meeting those who have hurt us or acted cruelly or wrongly.  The final section considers the grace and skill needed in (some) emotional relations to change the subject after cruel words or a horrible row.


Changing one's enemies

Nato-Russia and identifying evils


Leaders who turn conversation around

good and bad forms of manipulation


Going back to the old subject

a brilliant further step - learning from the past


Changing the subject in damaged relationships

we may not yet be empowered to do this

2  Changing one's enemies

The historian Arnold Toynbee taught that international problems are not often solved directly, so much as dissipated and resolved by the development of a new crisis or problem which becomes paramount. Changing the questions can move things forward dramatically.

At a ground-breaking summit in Italy, speaking on 27 May the Nato Secretary General, Lord Robertson, said:

"It is impossible to overstate the importance of this meeting ... We are a living contradiction of the forces which divided and weakened a continent for two generations.  The catalyst of September 11 has driven East and West together.  (It) brought death to thousands of people, in one act of terrible criminal violence. But it also brought a message to the leaders of the democratic world: 'Find solutions and find them together.' "

The new enemy - international terrorism - has caused all major states to review their sense of enmity and alliance.  And at the same time, for purely economic reasons Moscow had to reduce its nuclear arsenal. Now it has persuaded Washington to do the same.

President Bush warned that after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, the world faced a new type of danger. "We must make clear that by working together against this threat we multiply our effectiveness," he said.

And President Putin said that Russia and Nato had more to unite them than to divide them.

"I remember, more than half a century ago, humankind paying tens of millions of lives for the short-sightedness of politicians in the face of a common threat. Now we have a task which is comparable in historical scope," he said.

We don't often think about our enemies, either domestic or international.  We busy ourselves with what is to hand, and only when attacked do we widen our area of concern.  The controversial but brilliant US bishop Jack Spong has contributed some significant thinking to this issue.  When considering why religious scriptures remember some stories and words and not others, he observes:

"Another question that must be asked of a biblical passage is:  Who is the enemy?  What is the threat?  Why the hostility?  When the Biblical narrative tells a murderous tale in which the prophets of Yahweh destroy the prophets of Baal, what is the issue and the underlying motive? ... When the author of 1 Timothy says, "I forbid women to speak in church," from where does the anger spring?  One never prohibits what no one has ever thought of doing."  (Living in sin? p 113)

Becoming explicit, detailed and articulate about understanding the 'enemies' we stand against allows us to adjust the way we talk and communicate with people, and very often to see that the real enemy is not some other people but the 'thing' (the history, ideology, need or whatever) which drives or animates them.  (See the ForgivenessNet article Taking sides against evil.) 

We can grow greatly through talking about and seeking clarity on the evils we each face.  Beethoven had an embroidered Hindu motto in Sanskrit on his desk, “an evil shared is an evil halved”.

3  Leaders who turn conversation around

I have often been struck by the ability that some leaders I've met have to change the subject when in conversation or debate.  Of course, being in a position of control means you can do that more easily than people who usually have to fight to make any impact, and control becomes a habit and mannerism very quickly. 

People who are not used to leading may give words like 'manipulate' a negative value.   Yet controlling and manipulating are neutral values in themselves.   The significant difference for us here is between leaders who change the subject in order to manipulate a meeting or other people to their own needs and ends, and leaders who manipulate or 'work' a conversation away from grudges and entrenched issues, and towards fresh issues where everyone can create and invent.

When we change the subject,  we need turn our speech and attitude towards concerns which allow the people we are with, as well as ourselves, to feel equal.  Concerns which affirm our common humanity and interests, allow each person freedom to contribute their perspectives, and if possible encourage good humour and kindness.

One of the many strengths of Aaron Sorkin's writing for The West Wing is that he seeks to show leaders acting on that kind of distinction.  For example, in the episode In this White House (Series 2:3) we follow Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a glamorous and extremely intelligent Republican analyst.  Having come to the attention of the (Democratic) West Wing staff, she is offered a job with them, despite being in the opposition party.  President Bartlet's view, after watching her outsmart one of his main advisors, is "Why don't we have her working for us?"

It seems she won't take it.  She then goes to meet her cynical friends, who are eager to hear her dish the dirt about being inside the White House. A friend says to her, "I hate these people. Did you see anyone there who isn't worthless?"

Ainsley replies very firmly:

"Don't say that. Say they're smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they'd like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders.

"But don't call them worthless. The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good. Their commitment is true. They are righteous and they are patriots. [Silent pause.]  And I'm their lawyer."

4  Going back to the old subject

However, we can take this further.  Forgiving is an even more profound action than the statesmanship and/or realism which allows us to redefine our enmity and co-operate with those we used to condemn.  What we term 'passive forgiving'  involves letting animosity go as part of inner healing.  But active forgiving, of the kind we see illustrated from Jesus to Nelson Mandela, has a stronger sense. 

In the stronger or fuller sense of forgiving, what we do has to involve some kind of actual giving; not only an inner change but even more an outward action with a degree of risk or vulnerability … in the hope of deepening a relationship.

The Nato-Russia council is being formed out of common necessity.  Leaders are acting with some freedom and grace, yet also on behalf of basic survival needs.  When we act in forgiveness, we are also able to retain the freedom to go back to the old issues later on, and re-examine and heal them.

I was one of many who were greatly saddened by the death of South African cricketer Hansie Cronje in a plane crash recently.  Cronje has been banned from first-class cricket for life for taking  money to 'influence' a match.  He was vilified by spokespersons for 'Christian' morality throughout the country and in the cricketing world, who lacked the knowledge or imagination to see how fundamental to Christianity a dynamic form of forgiving is.

The BBC received a lot of tributes to him.  For example, Cameron Pitchford of Zimbabwe wrote:

"What Hansie did is no worse than what a lot of other players who are still playing have done. The only reason he has been crucified is because people perceived him as such a sportsman, and basically the last person in the sport who would do such a thing. The cricket world got a shock and had to make an example of him. I think all should be forgiven and he should be allowed back into the game. If he is kept out youngsters will not learn from his mistakes, as he will be forgotten."

This last point is particularly valuable.  If we genuinely have the inner freedom and strength to change the subject in order to be forgiving and approach a new reconciliation, then we should also have the freedom to later "change the subject" again, to review what went wrong and learn from our mistakes - on both sides.

(ForgivenessNet includes a profound example of this from one US church, summarised in Discipline without destruction.)

5  Changing the subject in damaged relationships

Many people who have been hurt or wronged by others become anxious at the prospect - real or imagined - of meeting them again.  Even after a sudden row, where hurtful things are said, it seems impossible to shift the emotional landscape.

We should note again that in many situations, emotional healing from bitterness, hatred and anger is necessary, but reconciliation is impossible or inadvisable. A person who was abused by a now deceased parent, for instance, cannot hope for a new kind of relationship.  And many abused persons will not have the personal power to "change the subject" with the person who used power to damage them them.  One marriage partner may find themselves unable to develop new common ground with the partner who restricted them for so long.

But if and when we have developed in power and confidence, one of the most fruitful things to aim for in such a meeting is the freedom to change the subject - to look amidst the words and emotions coloured by past hurts for issues and hopes which all parties seem likely to find creative and energising.  This is a good way to move forward after a family row, or with former work colleagues.

We need to take care that we are pursuing creative issues for everyone, not merely bringing other people under our own influence.  We can't be fully forgiving if we are not ourselves willing to be forgiven and 'improved' in the process.

Andrew Knock

ForgivenessNet Home Page

Recent monthly e-letters