From The Baptist Times 5.10.12
During 2011 the church and I read together the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book, Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility. Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness By Stephen Cherry Continuum ISBN: 1441119388 234 pages Reviewer: Andy GoodliffThis was Stephen Cherry’s first book. I found Barefoot Disciple a stimulating and challenging read, so I was looking forward to reading this new book from Cherry on forgiveness. In recent years there have been some excellent studies on forgiveness – notably L. Gregory Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness, Anthony Bash’ Forgiveness and Christian Ethics and also Just Forgiveness and also a chapter in Paul Fiddes’ Participating in God – and yet Healing Agony is a welcome addition.
Despite having written a PhD on forgiveness, Cherry does not offer us an academic treatise, instead, like Barefoot Disciple, he provides a series of reflections that arise from stories. Every chapter begins with a real-life narrative of forgiveness – including some of the most well-known of recent times – and then offers us a practical analysis. Cherry’s major theme, as the book’s title suggests, is that while forgiveness is healing, it is also often agonising and difficult.
He makes clear that forgiveness is a response to where we have been hurt. Hurt can be trivial, serious, significant or shattering and our ability to forgive will relate to how we have been hurt. He explores the New Testament teaching on forgiveness, recognising that they encourage a duty to forgive, but that this is not primarily a matter of ethics or authority, but nurturing an ongoing spirituality – a forgiving heart. He tackles both forgiveness after torture and forgiveness after murder. Cherry engages with criticisms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, recognising that while the process was far from perfect, it was a response to the end of apartheid that encouraged forgiveness. The danger he suggests is we create a TRC myth and see it is a universal way of dealing with violence, which can put undue pressure on people to forgive.
The final chapter, acknowledging that there are no simple answers to what forgiveness means or how one is able to forgive, looks to explore how we might accompany someone who has been hurt and not content to respond with hatred, bitterness or vengeance. Cherry offers three clusters of gifts needed and puts them under the headings of gold, myrrh and frankincense. Gold, he says is the priceless gift of empathy, of being first and foremost someone who patiently listens, who is open and willing to engage with the one hurt. Myrrh is connected with death and the companion of someone who has experienced deep hurt, is seeking to help the victim come to a place of acceptance of deep loss, which may entail an absorption of the evil inflicted. Cherry says here a ‘sense of timing’ is vital – the road is often a long one. Alongside that is the need to perhaps act as gatekeeper, to hold off others (sometimes even a person’s friends) who ultimately will be unhelpful to the one hurt, however well-meaning they might be. Finally frankincense looks to the companion to speak of the presence of God and all that entails, from the reassurance that God is not absent or uninvolved to the truth that the victim is not God.
There is much more to be said about these three gifts, and the whole book, than this brief review will allow. Let me end by saying this is a very good and helpful book, that avoids reducing forgiveness to a ten-step programme, while at the same time, does want to offer ways that forgiveness might be practiced or more importantly how we might accompany those who are open to the possibility of forgiveness.
Andy Goodliff is minister at Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea
Powerful exploration of “forgiving heart”
How can we access the energy and wisdom needed for a generous and healing journey called forgiveness? One of the most profound challenges a human being can ever face is how to forgive in the aftermath of injury, hurt or violation. Stephen Cherry’s masterful book explores the theology of forgiveness. While God’s forgiveness is revealed to be a simpler matter than is sometimes imagined, forgiveness between human beings is shown to be far more difficult, enigmatic and open-ended. The early ‘heart wilderness’ chapter is particularly brilliant. Cherry successfully manages to explore this complex subject in a way that is both accessible and thought-provoking. He reflects upon stories of forgiveness being realised and resisted in a way that gives his readers confidence that there may indeed be help for the devastated.
The drive of this book is found in earthy and real pastoral experience;- developing a forgiving heart, even when forgiveness may seem unimaginable. Cherry courageously does not encourage any set path, does not “boost” the forgiveness option as the only one to take, nor cheap grace, but offers a map through the barren territory which strugglers find themselves in. In doing this I believe that this book offers all who care about the hurting something that is quite rare in the realm of theological study; a resource of real hope. A go-to location,…. Top class!
The role of forgiveness in healing
This is not a book of platitudes. Stephen Cherry gives a profound and unflinching examination of forgiveness that affirms its healing but does justice to its agony. Focussing on the forgiveness of life-shattering evil, he begins by recounting his consoling the mother of a murder victim that it was too soon to think of forgiveness. This idea becomes a running theme, accompanied by lively case studies, that forgiveness is something that takes time.
The title of his first chapter “ You Can’t Just Flip Your Feelings” exemplifies this. Drawing upon his expertise as a Theologian and Psychologist, Cherry objects to “Forgiveness Boosterism” that tries to push victims into cheap and instant forgiveness. People need time to heal and space in which they can express their pain: those who wish to help them must be prepared to listen to it. He argues that resentment needs under certain circumstances to be accepted, it is right to resent being victimised. The case of Eric Lomax, who was allowed this space to express his pain at being tortured in a Japanese POW camp, before eventually forgiving the interpreter there, is offered as a vivid example of this.
Cherry makes a compelling case from scripture, particularly Paul in Colossians and Ephesians, for the need to cultivate a forgiving heart, a spiritual disposition to forgive. This can be a slow and agonising process and, unlike God’s forgiveness, it does not absolve the wrongdoer. Rather than a formulaic and mechanical process as all too often understood, forgiveness is a creative, risky business that requires trust and empathy from the forgiver to the offender.
This requires a certain context, for instance Cherry points out that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee was only possible after Apartheid, when the oppression had ended and the victims could take stock. Nevertheless forgiveness is possible.
Cherry ends with the suggestion that the gifts of Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense, respectively symbolising humble empathy towards the victim, a forgiving heart that extends empathy towards the victimiser and finally the presence of God, makes forgiveness real. This is a scholarly book that is intensely practical and readable, it cuts through the immense and insensitive cant spoken on this issue and is of huge value to anyone who is involved in Christian Ministry, is a Christian or simply has the slightest interest in the Christian way of life. I urge you to read it.
The Church of England Newspaper