[I have lived within sight and sound of both Hillsborough and Anfield; was sent forward for ordination by Sheffield Diocese and received by Liverpool Diocese, ordained in Liverpool Cathedral.]
Today the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, has published its Report. Today is a significant moment for the families of the 96 who died, for the cities of Liverpool and Sheffield, and for the whole nation. Things have been brought into the light, which have been hidden for twenty-three years.
Jesus said, “If you hold on to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31, 32)
Today we have a greater access to significant relevant information concerning the Hillsborough Disaster. Today we are able to point to deliberate attempts to cover information with misinformation, long suspected but until now not established. Today we can identify failure on the part of individuals and organisations, and shared degrees of culpability. Today we know something, which we need to know in order to experience freedom. But none of this is, in itself, the truth that will set us free.
If we are to experience freedom, we need to see ourselves in the eyes of our enemies; we need to forgive them; we need to love them. We need to discover that – though justice must be done – mercy must triumph over judgement.
Liverpool supporters have been vindicated. They were not responsible for what happened, and, indeed, they worked to alleviate suffering and were vilified for it. They were not responsible for what happened, but they could have been: not because Scousers are scum who can’t be trusted, but because the impulse to exonerate ourselves by shifting the blame for our short-falling – whether the short-falling is wilful or unintended, doing what we ought not to do or failing to do what we ought to have done – is a universal human impulse as old as conscious thought. I do it, and often – and I hate myself for it. We fall short of our responsibility towards our neighbour; hide, driven by shame; and create a web of lies to cover our tracks.
When we look at the list of individuals and organisations that are rightfully indicted by this Report, we need the honesty to say, It could have been me in their shoes. In this regard – as is invariably the case in tragedy that causes outrage – the families of those who died have shown a dignity that has not been shared by everyone who has called for justice for the 96, by those who have called for vengeance that goes beyond justice...and so violates the very possibility of justice, by ruling witness statements calling for mercy to be inadmissible evidence.
For while there are legal consequences (such as prison sentences) and public consequences (such as the redesigning of football stadia and the rethinking of policing), as well as psychological consequences (such as having people’s deaths on your hands), that need to be borne, we also need to forgive. Unless we can forgive, we remain pinned under the weight of a barrier that crushes the life out of us. Yes, this is easier said than done – but done it must be.
Today is an opportunity to move through justice (as yet, incomplete) towards reconciliation (as yet, a long way off). Perhaps we can learn lessons from South Africa in this regard. Only when we can love our enemies – when, from the heart, we can wish them no evil, only good; when we bless them, asking God to bring life out of the ashes of their lives, rather than curse them, asking God to cut their potential and their future short – can we live freely: free from the shame of our own short-comings, and the fear that they too will be publically exposed; free from the hatred that posses as pre-emptive defensive strike; free from the pain of our scars, which we will always bear but which we do not have to bear raw. Only then will the memory of the 96 be able to rest in peace; only then will the people of Liverpool, and Sheffield, and wider, be able to rest in peace.
When Jesus told his disciples that they must love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), and forgive those who were in their debt by renouncing any claim to what they could not repay anyway (Matthew 6:12), he knew these three things: that they absolutely needed to, for the alternative is too costly to live with; that it is possible; and that they wouldn’t be able to do so alone. Jesus gave, and continues to give, himself so that we are not left alone, so that we don’t have to fall back on our finite resources. In the words over the gate at Anfield, and on the replica gate in the Memorial Garden in Hillsborough Park, You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Jesus revealed a kingdom-of-heaven principle to his disciples, one they struggled to understand: that the way to multiply what you have is to give it up – for only when we reach the end of our resources can we receive from God his unlimited resources. It works like this: choose to forgive who you are only just able to forgive, choose to love who you are only just able to love, and if you are open God will increase your capacity to forgive and to love those you cannot, at this moment in time, imagine being able to forgive and to love. If you want to know where you are in that process, listen to the imaginary conversation in your head with the key players. The process is costly, and laborious, and messy, and through it heaven breaks into our world as untouchable outcasts are embraced within community, to the mutual restoration of both.
Today is a momentous day. But it is not the End. It is, if we will receive it, a new Beginning. Lord, have mercy on us all.