Failures of Forgiveness: What We Get Wrong and How to Do Better

Myisha Cherry argues that it is more fruitful to view forgiveness as a journey, not a single decision, writes Paul Dornan.

Myisha Cherry
Princeton University Press, 240 pages | Published September 19, 2023

Failures of Forgiveness is an accessible, thoughtful book that offers a useful corrective to an overly narrow definition of forgiveness, in which forgiveness is seen as a swift, automatic response to a wrong by the victim of that wrong. The author maintains that the traditional Christian understanding of forgiveness, as reflected in Jesus’ words from the cross and his instruction to his disciples to forgive 77 times is simply too restrictive. Cherry argues that it is more fruitful to view forgiveness as a journey, not a single decision. In fact, instantaneous forgiveness can be hurtful and dangerous if it forecloses mutual engagement of victim and perpetrator, ignores the multitude of factors affecting a victim’s response and pressures victims to capitulate before they have even begun that journey. The objective of forgiveness is “radical repair,” not what we might call cheap reconciliation.

Cherry provocatively challenges the emphasis we place on victims, noting that there are often multiple perpetrators or victims, as well as onlookers, who are invested (or not) in the relationship. Moreover, concentrating attention solely on the victim’s response demands too much of the one hurt, excluding the one who caused that hurt. Expecting the victim to speedily forgive while other actors, including the perpetrator, simply await that decision overburdens the one who has been slighted. Cherry cites the bond hearing after Dylann Roof murdered nine congregants of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina — just 48 hours after the slaughter, families of the victims offered Roof forgiveness.

As other observers have noted, despite the centrality of forgiveness in Christian doctrine, there are few Biblical references to interpersonal forgiveness — and even those examples, like Esau’s forgiveness of Jacob or Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, stray far from the complete and instant forgiveness strand of Christian piety. They are more a process than a decision.

The author traces the distinctive patterns that forgiveness may take in various domains — the public arena, business, families and even in cancel culture. The breadth of her reach displays the intricacies of even the vocabulary of forgiveness, including terms like mercy, grace, reparations and penance.

As far-reaching and thorough as the author’s conclusions, her work might have been even stronger if she had given more attention to the long-standing practices surrounding forgiveness within a community, for example, a monastery, a congregation or even a legislative body — practices that promote an ethic of both forgiveness and repair when conflict emerges. Likewise, Cherry’s discussion of the Reconciliation Commission in South Africa seemed to set too high a standard for a deeply divided polity facing systemic repair after five decades of profound and pervasive oppression of a majority by a powerful minority. The process and the result were greatly flawed, as was fully admitted by all the parties involved, yet urgency demanded premature reconciliation. Public forgiveness, it seems, is by its very nature, “imperfect forgiveness.”

Cherry is a thoughtful, secular philosopher who writes in an accessible, straightforward way, benefiting church leaders and pastors interested in moving deeper into the complexities, even the mysteries, of forgiveness.  Whether for individual reading or small group study, her book should propel subtle reflection and rich, deep conversation.

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