Eric Lomax, author of the famous book, The Railway Man, died last night. It is a sad moment. His story was an inspiration to millions – and will inspire many more when the film of the book is released next year.
As his publisher has said, ‘the book stands as a testimony to the great capacity of the human spirit for forgiveness’.
I recall vividly the struggle I had to work out how to do justice to Lomax’s story of forgiveness in just a few paragraphs when writing ‘Healing Agony – Re-Imagining Forgiveness’. I was determined to include it, partly because it is so well-known but also because he wrote it in a very direct, modest and straightforward way. ‘Grace’ and ‘exceptional humility’ are the publisher’s words. And on this occasion they are appropriate.
Lomax was no hero of instant forgiveness. For forty years after his experience of torture at the hands of the Japanese, forgiveness was the last thing on his mind. And yet, through a series of apparently chance events, some of which first provoked further anger, he became a person through whom forgiveness could at last flow.
My own understanding of forgiveness owes a lot to The Railway Man. It helped me develop my understanding of what happens to people when they are tortured. He described his waterboarding as ‘ghastly’. That’s an understatement. Reading his words while also meeting regularly with someone who counsels victims of torture, I became convinced that here are some experiences which are rightly described as ‘shattering’. Torture is one. My pastoral experience has taught me that betrayal is often another. Shattering experiences are those which put forgiveness off the map.
I can remember often putting his book down just to think through what he was saying, to imagine the pain and tension, feel the conflict between hatred and an emerging empathy. It was in one such moment of reflection that I began to realise that forgiveness is typically not something a person does but something which emerges. And which often emerges very slowly.
Lomax was an unlikely forgiver and a reluctant one. And it for this reason that his is a story of genuine hope for any who have suffered shattering harm.
The day of his passing is a sad one, but also an occasion to remember with gratitude a man who brought light out of darkness.