Love Mercy: The Twelve Steps of Forgiveness

Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press, 112 pages

This is the second book of reflections on the prophet Micah’s famous enduring call to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Earlier, Samuel Wells, one of our wisest pastor theologians, wrote “Walk Humbly.” This volume responds to the questions raised by those reflections and raises questions of its own for those who take seriously the prophet’s calling rather than treat it as merely aspirational.

Wells draws deeply upon the best practitioners of conflict transformation and reconciliation including John Paul Lederach, Bryan Stevenson and Elaine Enns and theologians who have also probed radical forgiveness and nonviolence: Ched Myers, Stanley Hauerwas, Jacques Derrida, Desmond Tutu and others. The subtitle is “The Twelve Steps of Forgiveness,” because Wells takes utterly seriously the steps required before one can reach any possibility of true forgiveness. The first six steps he names as those common to persons and groups seeking to mend broken relationships. Building on these, Wells moves steadily into the theological depths of the Christian faith, revealing practices that are necessary for mercy and forgiveness to be real. The 12-step model makes explicit the theological dimensions of the process. Wells is clear that he wants to address the personal dimension without ignoring the social implications of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation. No other book has done this as well as this one with such brevity. Hence, while naming the pain that individuals suffer, he also wants to “recognize structural injustice and systemic inequality.” Hence, “personal antagonism is often a symptom of, and subsumed within, a whole swathe of wrongs across time and space.” There is a welcome level of truth-telling here, along with profound respect for the magnitude of wounds both inner and outer. There is also a radiant vision of the politics of Jesus that forms a community called forth to worship the living God.

Wells is a pastor in London, well acquainted with broken relationships and the myriad forms of racism, both subtle and brutally visible. He is also a theologian who tells apt stories that illuminate the steps of this process. For instance, his gives a particularly insightful account of Ian McEwan’s searing novel “Atonement” to describe how the step of penance has a crucial role in the journey toward forgiveness. Stories that come from Desmond Tutu and the work of truth and reconciliation are helpful because they make the point that these are real people who are taking very demanding steps filled with risk, courage and faith. The work of mercy, he reminds us, is repairing the breach. That means “learning to heal, building trust and releasing gifts. This is resurrection work; peace work.” Ultimately, repairing the breach and loving mercy is the work of Christ in us — as Wells declares, “Christ is our peace.” The stories of people who are doing the good work keep this from becoming sentimental or cliche.

Gather a group to study this with you. Set aside 12 Sundays for reflection. Preach a sermon based upon each step. Invite your community to walk in this way. What the world needs now is a people who love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with their God.