Review of Stephen Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness (Continuum, 2012).
The second of the shortlist for the Michael Ramsey Prize is Stephen Cherry’s Healing Agony. This is a profound and hard won meditation on forgiveness. The origins of the book are in his accompanying of a mother whose child had been murdered. From this starting point, Cherry approaches a wide range of material on forgiveness. Some is theological, some political, some psychological. There are many stories of those who have faced the challenge of forgiveness. Quite deliberately, Cherry sets out to bridge the experiential and the theoretical. There are no simple and easy solutions on offer, as Cherry says ‘the truth about forgiveness is darker, more difficult and infinitely more agonizing than the myths about forgiveness which people, not least Christian people, prefer to promulgate’ (p. 179).
Through the hard stories of those who have endured the murder of children, torture, injustice, terrorist acts and more, Cherry is a sure footed guide to what is going on with forgiveness. He is clear that forgiveness is not a duty so much as it is a spirituality. The ‘duty to forgive’ that is too easily preached as part of Christian virtue, is one that can increase damage caused to victims. Part of this additional damage is because it places them in the ‘God-like’ position of choosing whether or not to absolve those who hurt them. Even Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer, Cherry argues, is not creating a direct instruction to Christians to forgive under all circumstances. Cherry suggests that the New Testament passages be understood as communicating not the ethics of forgiveness, but a spirituality of forgiveness. The context of the Lord’s Prayer helps to site forgiveness as one of the ‘ongoing aspects of a wholesome life’ (p. 58). Cherry argues that we need to have a ‘forgiving heart’, a ‘disposition’ to forgive that enters the spiritual struggle and healing agony of any forgiving where it is possible. This forgiving heart is shaped by the cross, with the agonies and struggles that implies. It is far more than a matter of ethical duty.
Cherry is wary of what he calls ‘forgiver syndrome’. This builds on the supposed duty to forgive and creates delusion. It can lead the sufferer to believe that any or all hurt they experience are the product of injustice. This then leads to the second level in which the sufferer asserts their own righteousness by forgiving. This claim to the moral high ground can be a third level of the syndrome. In part by considering objections to the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, Cherry rejects any understanding of forgiveness that make it about closure or about ending a problem. Rather he states that ‘Forgiveness is slow, deep, enigmatic, unpredictable and vulnerable’ (p. 152). Cheap grace (Bonhoeffer) in all its forms is to be rejected.
But Cherry is hopeful and positive about forgiveness. It is a creative response to suffering, and as such unpredictable and painful. Like all creative acts, it does not demand repetition to the point of cliché, but looks to inspire and open new spaces for thought and action. Cherry spends some time on the example of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed by an IRA bomb in Enniskillen in 1987. Cherry offers a careful reading of what Wilson said after the bombing, and takes seriously the understanding that Wilson’s words were an important factor in minimizing reprisal attacks after the bombing. ‘By avoiding the word “forgive” but by declaring that he had no ill will he was beginning to open up a new and fertile space for moral creativity which might begin to break the cycle of violence and open out to a new kind of future’ (p. 100). This creativity fits well with Cherry’s account of the spirituality of a forgiving heart.
Cherry is nothing if not honest about the cost of forgiveness. He speaks of the hard requirements of forgiveness on the empathy of the victim. To forgive, someone has to have empathy with the person who harmed them. Forgiveness requires a ‘distasteful empathy’ (p. 169). This is a concept that Cherry develops through an exploration of the writing of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a black South African woman who visited a white man who killed three black policemen. The challenge of empathy for someone she regarded as the embodiment of evil is not lightly undertaken. This ‘distasteful empathy’ brings the whole self into the process of forgiveness, so that forgiveness becomes nothing less than ‘the gift of myself as victim’ (p. 175). Cherry sees this as a mean of resurrection for the victim, but never without going through the agony of the cross.
This is an excellent book. It brings together a wealth of material and interrogates it carefully and honestly. Hope is woven through the book, but never naïve optimism. It deserves its place on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist, and is worthy of a wide audience. I recommend it highly!