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The final form of love

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How are your New Year’s resolutions going? One that probably didn’t make the list was: forgive more. But maybe it should have. I recently met a couple, Danny and Leila Abdallah, who have a compelling story to illustrate that, while challenging, forgiveness offers unexpected rewards. I interviewed them for a podcast and can’t stop thinking about them.

Two years ago this week, this couple’s lives were irrevocably altered. Three of their six children, Antony, aged 13, Angelina 12, and Sienna, 8 along with their cousin Veronique Sakr, 11, were walking along a street in Oatlands in Sydney’s West on their way to buy an ice cream when a drunk and speeding driver lost control of his ute and ploughed into the group. All four children died at the scene. Battle hardened police officers were brought undone by what they witnessed at what’s become known as the Oatlands tragedy.

These days it’s not unusual to be exposed to such unthinkable news stories (although this was a particularly harrowing one). What made this event really stand out was what happened next. In the days immediately following the incident, the Abdallahs offered a very public gesture of forgiveness and said they refused to hate the man responsible for their heartbreak.

A grieving mother reflexively offering forgiveness to the man who had so recklessly caused her loss made us all lean forward in our chairs. Guardian columnist Paul Daley wrote: ‘Wherever that love and forgiveness came from, millions of people … are pondering the beautiful, provocative mystery of it all.’

Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us. Revenge is much more instinctive. In her book Wild Justice, Susan Jacoby argues that revenge stems from ‘a need to restore ‘something missing’ — a sense of physical and emotional integrity that is shattered by violence.’ For Jacoby, revenge is natural and self-satisfying, and needs to be acknowledged as the legitimate response of the victim.

 

'Danny says they were determined that their surviving three children would not feel that the day they lost their siblings was the day they lost their parents too.'

 

Revenge and unforgiveness might be natural but are they desirable? Martin Luther King Jr felt the answer to breaking a cycle of destruction lay not in seeking revenge but in love and, importantly, forgiveness. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf helpfully explains that forgiveness is not about condoning, excusing, or forgetting wrongs committed against us. It is rarely a single act and more often a process. But it does involve finding ways to overcome attitudes of resentment and anger. Volf argues that forgiveness is a release from its enslaving opposite.

‘The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving,’ writes Lewis Smedes.

This is what Danny and Leila Abdallah want others to know. They truly believe that enacting forgiveness, even for something as momentous as they experienced, is a life-giving act. And having met them, they really do embody a compelling case. ‘Forgiveness has allowed us to heal and grow together as a family,’ says Leila. ‘[It] has given us the freedom from anger and resentment and bitterness.’

Danny believes it was forgiveness that gave them a platform on which to rebuild their lives. ‘What it gave us was the best possible place we could be in order to get out of this valley of grief,’ he said. ‘The longer it [goes on], the more you understand the power of forgiveness. You know, when you have an unforgiving heart, you’re actually harming yourself more than the person you’re not forgiving.’   

For Leila, forgiveness has brought her to a healthy place. ‘If you’re holding grudges and you can’t forgive, it takes away your joy, your happiness, your ability to heal, and if you have a family around look at your kids, if you can’t forgive it’s going to be passed on to your kids.’ Recognising the potential to descend into an understandable fog of grief and despair, Danny says they were determined that their surviving three children would not feel that the day they lost their siblings was the day they lost their parents too.

Out of their tragedy, as remembrance of the children and to encourage others who have similarly suffered, Danny and Leila Abdallah created i4give week.

Danny and Leila say that their long-held Maronite Catholic faith is the source and inspiration for their ability to forgive. They follow the one who radically called his followers to ‘love their enemies’ and famously prayed forgiveness for the people torturing him to death. They have experienced what they interpret as divine help in their quest, and it’s hard to ignore their mysteriously serene demeanour even as they talk about their ordeal. ‘Our strength comes from God,’ says Leila.

But the Abdallahs insist that forgiveness is a gift that applies to people of any faith or none. It’s simply good for us, and this month, as they promote ‘i4give’ in honour of the four children lost in Oatlands, they hope others will be inspired to talk to  families and friends about the power of forgiveness and its universal application. ‘What would it look like if I forgave my wife, or my brother or friend? How would I feel? How would it impact my family? These are questions we want to leave with people this year,’ says Danny. ‘It’s time to search your heart, find someone to forgive and [also] to ask for forgiveness,’ adds Leila.   

Described as the ‘final form of love’ by Reinhold Niebuhr, forgiveness remains the most powerful antidote to bitterness, destructive patterns of pay-back and recrimination, and paralysing resentment. It is a vital element of much-needed change in the lives of both individuals and communities. And if Danny and Leila Abdallah can do it, maybe we all should give it a try.

 

 

Simon Smart is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the host of Life & Faith podcast. I4give week culminates in i4give Sunday on 7 February. 

Topic tags: Simon Smart, Forgiveness, i4give Week, Oaklands tragedy, Danny and Leila Abdallah

 

 

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Who was it said: "Forgiveness is the best evidence of the divine, and the work of God within us"? Thank you for this fine reminder, Simon. What an inspiration the Abdallah family is in this time of ordeal and personal tragedy.


John RD | 05 February 2022  

The Abdallah family suffered a loss of such significance that words are difficult and don’t seem appropriate. I’ve read before about their beautiful, heartfelt forgiveness and know that their faith has led them to a place where their family are able to let go of bitterness and revenge. Miroslav Volf has strongly articulated the complexity of forgiveness. It is not a matter of forgetting or condoning. It is a process and not an easy one. Having a day where we can reflect on forgiveness can only be beneficial.


Pam | 05 February 2022  

Perhaps the forgiveness the Abdallahs display comes from a greater love than that for their fellow men. Forgiveness might well be a life giving act born of love by there are both human and divine life giving acts far greater - life generated by the love for each other and by the love of our creator. In a photo of Mrs Abdallah in today's newspaper both she and her husband as well as their surviving children appear very happy. Mrs Abdullah is expecting another child soon by the looks of the photo. With great love comes acceptance and with acceptance comes the capacity for forgiveness.


john frawley | 07 February 2022  

Is 'forgiveness' really 'the best evidence of the divine, the work of God within us', as John RD suggests? Was 'faith', as Pam suggests, 'that which has led them' to forgive? By including this article in the 'Religion' section of ES, are the editors suggesting that only the 'faithful' have the capacity to forgive? We're told in the article that the Abdallahs insist that forgiveness is a gift that applies to people of any faith or none, that 'it's good for us'. (Thanks, Pam, for the pointer toward Miroslav Volf's work; I'm following that up)


Ginger Meggs | 07 February 2022  
Show Responses

The Abdallahs are of Christian faith. But, Christian faith is also consistent with correct secular logic because both correct religious and secular logic come from the same source. If all an atheist can do is forgive because jettisoning the tumour of a psychological stress before it turns into a psychological cancer is a wise thing to do for her psychological health and social functioning, that’s only a mercy for a non-believer because God designed the human so that jettisoning the tumour of a psychological stress before it turns into a spiritual cancer is the wise thing to do for the spiritual health and functioning not only of that human but for her peers in her local People of God.

The Abdallahs, by their disposition, are also building up their Church.


roy chen yee | 08 February 2022  

Who said, Roy, that all an atheist can do is to forgive for her/his own benefit? Do you actually know what it's like to forgive?


Ginger Meggs | 08 February 2022  

Human beings are tricky creatures to analyse or self-analyse, especially when humans who are atheists who think they are autonomously self-propelling vehicles are actually being propelled by a divine grace which they say does not exist.

Scientific method (the only method of analysis that atheists have) does not work for questions like yours because scientific method can only deduce from inductions drawn from within the operating laws of the material world. They can prove there is a material world – anyone using observation can do that – but they cannot prove that there is no spiritual world. So, it does not matter how other-regarding and similar to theistic self-giving their reasons might be, they cannot prove those reasons come only out of a secular cosmos.

On the other hand, a theist is on firm ground when s/he says that an atheist who is philanthropically disregarding the evolutionary imperative to survive is being saved from irrationality by grace.


roy chen yee | 09 February 2022  

An excellent article, which possibly quoted too many opinionati, including theologians, rather than concentrating more fully on that wonderful Christian family the Abdallahs. There is a time for Karl Barth (my favourite) and his like, but this is not the time. It is interesting, when Irish-Australian Catholicism of the Mannix-Pell variety seems to be going down like the Titanic (interestingly Belfast built) under its generally shoddy and seemingly clueless leadership, that these exemplars of human decency are Eastern Rite Catholics. Latin Rite Catholicism in the Anglophone world is in terrible shape. It is interesting that those who have given it some spiritual oomph are often from the East, like Tony De Mello or Eastern Rite, like the Abdallahs. Both have spirituality. I am afraid the Latin Rite here has lost that. Too many talkathons, focus groups and synods, which sadly go nowhere. The Church of the West seems to have lost its living, breathing, spiritual heart. The Church of the East has never done that. You can even meet and talk to Eastern Rite bishops and clergy after Mass. .


Edward Fido | 08 February 2022  

It has been said Edward Fido that the two greatest drawbacks to Catholicism have been Italy and Ireland - the Latin and the Mannix styles.


john frawley | 09 February 2022  

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