Cover Image: Forgiveness


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Having recently escaped a very toxic relationship, I have been reading many books on forgiveness.  This was one of the harder ones to read as it was written from a deep theological and religious standpoint.  If readers take time, there is much to learn however.  The book delves into the difficulties around forgiveness and brings out a reality that is more true than the rainbows and sunshine pushed by many religious readers.  It separates the human forgiveness from the divine forgiveness.  While not an easy read, this was a very helpful book to my overall healing.
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Forgiveness is the necessary bridge over troubled waters. It is the glue for broken relationships. It is the essence of human relationships. Yet, when the pains inflicted defy the theories of forgiveness, that becomes a totally different thing. "Why forgive?" becomes "Why me?" For deep hurts, it might even lead to "Why Should I Forgive?" It has been said that it is hard for people to say that they are sorry. While that might be true for prideful people, it might even be more so for people who have been deeply hurt. There are many types of hurt. There are many different ways to respond to hurt. There are also many different reasons why people find it hard to forgive even when it is essential. Some think that forgiveness is just about forgetting all that has been done. Some take the theological angle that our forgiveness ought to reflect that of Christ. Unfortunately, that can be misguided in the sense that it forgets our humanness. Yes, we are called to be divine but we are also human, needing help from day to day. I suppose the end is clear we need to forgive just like Christ. It is the process that is the problem. This is where Potts's book is helpful. It presents a human side of how we can eventually forgive honestly and meaningfully. More importantly, we need Christ in order to fully forgive. 

When studying the Scriptures on forgiveness, scholars often parse and analyze the different words or wordings to derive some distinctiveness of all. The argument is that the ancient biblical languages carry a lot more nuances compared to our modern English which is relatively weaker in storing meaning. The author takes a different approach and prefers to take the word forgiveness as is, and in his own words, "for granted." His purpose is simply to articulate the meaning of forgiveness as commonly understood by the layperson. He also sees his approach as a form of "defense" for not conforming to the conventional ways of understanding forgiveness. This sets the stage for an "alternative account" that handles both the pain and the freedom of forgiveness with sensitivity. He points out a few "nots" about forgiveness. It is not about feelings, not reconciliation, not immediate, and definitely not about forgetting everything that has happened. This is simply a kind of forgiveness shrouded in mourning. It grieves about the need to resist any form of retaliation. It is about living with constant restraint. It is the understanding that even with forgiveness, reconciliation may not be full. The desire to start afresh might be there but the scars forever remain. By linking the acts of forgiveness to mourning, Potts recognizes both the need to forgive and also the honesty behind every forgiveness entails. It asks what it means to be human as we learn to forgive. 

Potts enlists the help of four contemporary writers to establish his thesis on forgiveness amid a moral dilemma. They are all selected because they deal with the grieving process of forgiveness, and the need to forgive while journeying through a deep valley of hurt. How do we live with the loss as we progress into the future? Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Buried Giant" raises difficult questions like how any act of forgetting might lead to a loss of personal identity if we suppress or forget any memory of the past.  He poses the issue of sin and justice. What if there is no good reason to forgive? What if there was nothing to forgive in the first place? The point is, while forgiveness is the morally right thing to do, is possible, especially with the perpetrator unrepentant? We can forgive someone from the head but when it comes to matters of the heart, it might be a totally different domain altogether. Forgiveness is thus a process of loss and love, of resisting the want to retaliate. It is a tricky passage of personal meandering through the forests of forgetting, forgiving, and freeing. 

Chapter Two deals with the role of forgetting and its relation to repentance. Using Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and an interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Potts asserts that a common memory of the hurt is a necessary part of human forgiveness. It is a complex interchange of the desire to forgive others for their offenses and also the need for forgiveness for one's iniquities. It wrestles with the morality to refuse to kill in the midst of injustice versus the morality to kill to uphold justice. Chapter Three begins the process of recovery from the valley. Extending the scope of forgiveness from personal to families in multiple generations, Potts reflects on Louise Erdrich's novel, "LaRose" about the themes of justice, vengeance, forgiveness, and atonement. In Chapter Four, Potts drives home his understanding of forgiveness as mourning with a reflection on Toni Morrison's "Beloved" to link memory not with forgetting nor retaliating, but with love. This jump is worth a good read. 

My Thoughts
From time to time, someone comes up with a fresh look at an old but necessary matter: Forgiveness. Many Christians take upon the noble task of forgiveness out of obedience to the teachings of Jesus. We pray it whenever we pray the Lord's Prayer. We hear sermons about why we need to forgive. We have many resources on how to go about forgiving. Yet, books about the emotional turmoil and the struggle to deal with the loss and hurt remain few and far between. The author writes from a personal struggle that honestly grapples with pain and injustice. This book is not an easy read, both from a literary as well as an emotional aspect. Academically, the author skillfully engages issues from an intellectual angle. From a literary perspective, he dialogues with the different novelists that deal with the humanness of forgiveness.  It is true that most human forgiveness is conditional, simply because we have been culturally conditioned, emotionally constricted, or spiritually inadequate to do what God could do. That is not to say that forgiveness is an impossible act. Wrong. Just as Potts points out, we need to forgive, but we also need to mourn the whole process of forgiveness. Even though this book reads like an academic treatise, it is supported by literary novels and highly perceptive storytelling.

I think about the victims who suffer through the current war going on in Ukraine. Can a Ukrainian forgive the Russians for destroying his home, killing his family, and ravaging his country? This single question will launch anyone into an array of theological struggles and emotional turmoil. What is the right thing to do? Perhaps, at the end of it all, while we try to forget the hurts inflicted on us, we remember the strength needed to forgive in spite of the pain. One of the best ways to remember is to tell stories of how others have dealt with this with boldness. We should not run away from the call to forgive, but we should never forgive for the sake of forgiving. We forgive for the sake of love, of restoring whatever remains, and of healing. Out of the ashes of pain, we can be comforted by the life and love of Jesus, who also rose from the ashes of pain to save us. 

This is not an easy book to read, academically or theologically speaking. However, that is nothing compared to what it takes to forgive emotionally and spiritually. This book cannot be read just once. For greater impact on understanding the nuances of forgiveness, read it at least twice, and also the four key novels mentioned. 

Matthew Ichihashi Potts is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He lives with his family in Cambridge, MA.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.

This book has been provided courtesy of Yale University Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
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